Hey, Answerman! - Region Lockdown

by Brian Hanson,

Weekly Greetings, everybody! Welcome to another edition of Hey, Answerman!

We've got some questions and answers, but I can tell you what we WON'T have: any surprise, insult-laden appearances by "Digimon Otis." Ah, well. Perhaps it was foolish of me to assume that my love for Otis would transfer to everyone; if there's one thing I adore more than anything, it's the silliness of Otis. Better to have tried than not, I suppose. Plus, it led to this tweet.

But enough about Otis! You actual, non-satirical people sent me some questions, and I am honor-bound to answer them.


Here's a topic that's been on my mind: one of the strongest tests of a work's quality and worth is how well it plays over time, be it years or decades. It is one of the best ways to separate the common trash we get every year from the gems with true value. Of course, profitable companies understand this as well since successful franchises prop up the bottom line better in the long run than a product that only does well once.

I thought of this in terms of popular television series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Archer, Game of Thrones and so forth on cable and premium channels. They have unique qualities that set them apart from similar shows like good writing, acting and distinct visionary styles. Those are elements that many shows every year have, and some get renewed because of it. However, what is far more difficult is sustaining those qualities in the long run, one season after the next.

I think of how word of mouth travels one year to another, hearing again and again about the same shows, the repetition building curiosity. On the other hand, repetition is the killer of good programs, feeling like the same scenarios keep repeating themselves. So when a series stays in the conversation past its third season, it has real traction because the work itself is challenged each year to not just repeat itself and gains a cultural foothold because even those who do not see it (I haven't seen Game of Thrones, but many people I talk to watch it) keep learning about it.

That brings me to anime. It is not surprising to wonder what the next big thing will be, but anime faces a particular challenge. The big shows that continue on year after year, like One Piece and Naruto, are ratings dependent to the point where they have to air new episodes each week, nonstop. On the opposite end, many anime series live or die on selling expensive DVDs to only a couple thousand obsessive fans, and most of those, even when really popular like Oreimo or Fullmetal Alchemist run for less than three years on television.

My question, at last, comes down to this: is there a way to find a middle ground between the extremes of One Piece and Oreimo where a series can air one or two cours (12-24 episodes) annually for five years or more? My own ideas turn to Gen Urobuchi and the Rebuild of Evangelion movies. Though riskier, original series don't have to worry about overtaking the unfinished source material, leading to the television show either going its own direction, taking a hiatus or adding filler. Urobuchi seems to be pushing for Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass to continue for more than one year. The same might also be true for Gargantia. Also, Evangelion 3.0 adds enough new elements to the story for it to continue passed a fourth movie.

One of my favorite quotes about television, and forgive me for not remembering who said it, is: "Television is the only industry that eats its own young."

Ideally, from any series' inception, the goal is to make the show last as long as possible, without growing stale or tired, in order to tell its story or develop its characters until the producers in charge of it are the ones who get to make the decision to end it. Of course, that's a rare, almost impossible thing to achieve. Whether or not it's an adaption of a different source material, or an original production, that's the plan.

Personally, I don't think there should be any sort of "middle ground," because I don't think of something like Oreimo as an "Extreme." 12 episodes a year is "extreme"? Extremely... what? Extremely low? You mentioned Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad - those shows usually only air 10 episodes a season. Yeah, yeah, they're hour-long programs, but still. Calculating the amount of labor involved between 10 episodes of an hour-long live-action series, and a 22-minute animated series, and the amount of time you need to invest in both is about the same. Granted, there's enough source material for Game of Thrones to easily cover for another 10 episodes per season, but that would require an insane amount of resources, to say nothing of the corner-cutting the producers would have to take to crunch another 10 hour-long episodes out per year on a strenuous TV production deadline. Just in case it hasn't sank in yet, folks: each 22-minute episode of your average TV anime takes anywhere from 6 to 10 months to complete. The lead time is enormous.

In other words, plotting out a series that would last for five years - or more - would require a tremendous amount of both money and courage on behalf of whatever network and Production Committee would be foolhardy enough to bankroll it. What if the first season is a dud? Tough shit, because they've got another 4 years' worth of work that they've already paid for. If we average the cost of an anime episode at around 140,000 dollars, and they're doing 12 episodes per season, that means that they've spent, and lost, $6,720,000 before the second season even starts. That is, if it truly is a commitment to that 5-year plan, and not the sort of thing they can cancel at some point.

I was recently re-reading a book on the "unofficial" history of The Simpsons, and the way the show was originally pitched to the network was something that would never happen today. James L. Brooks smartly identified that because of the long lead-time for producing an animated series, he demanded a full 13-episode order from Fox. No pilot. "It's a series, or nothing." No network in the world would ever accept anything like that these days. The only reason the show was bought was because the Fox movie studio was renegotiating James L. Brooks' movie contract; the movie studio was eager to keep their star producer happy, so they entered a clause in his contract that forced Fox broadcasting to bankroll 13 episodes of The Simpsons. That's the sort of clout that simply doesn't happen anymore.

Personally, I don't see anything necessarily "wrong" with the way shows are divvied up into seasons. Is television still a barbaric bloodsport of confused, frightened producers and directors who are afraid of risks and rely too heavily on well-established formulas? Absolutely, but that's not the fault of the simple way these shows are aired and distributed. It's a separate issue. Chopping up TV productions into "seasons" is simply the most common and cost-effective way to present episodic entertainment to a large audience over a span of time. The disparity that people see between the content of long-suffering, unending toils like One Piece versus shorter, concentrated bits of genius like Madoka Magica are all in the writing and the execution. Thinking that there is, somehow, some flaw in the method of presenting and financing these shows in the first place isn't the problem.

Besides, you can have both terrific long-running shows and terrific one-season projects. Paranoia Agent lasted 13 episodes, Monster lasted for 74. It's all in the execution, people.

Greetings from Brazil!

I'm thinking of perhaps opening my own anime and manga specialty store in my area, but only carrying officially licensed products. I'm mainly looking to import merchandise, like DVDs and books and toys, from japan and the US. This is just a thought right now, but are there any clues you might be able to give me to give this a try?

Thank you!

Oh, boy - listen, if you're going to me for advice on how to properly run a business, you've got quite a long way to go, m'friend. Godspeed.

Your main problem, as I see it, is that you're not really going to be able to acquire stuff like DVDs directly from the publisher. Simply because, as the little warning logos on the back of the DVDs always state, "For use in the USA and Canada only." THAT means, you've got to find an exporter or wholesaler. Which will be relatively easy to find for the sorts of titles that line every Best Buy in the US, but if you're after some of the premier titles put out by NIS America or Aniplex USA, chances are you'd have to purchase the DVDs from Amazon, just like anyone else.

When it comes to importing stuff from Japan - outside of, once again, simply doing it yourself like any other fan - most supply chains, as I understand, only produce very limited quantities of things, the print runs are very small, there is of course the language barrier issue, and if you're shipping a large quantity of something outside of the country, that means you have to deal with customs. Oy.

The bigger problem there comes in the form of... MARKUP! I have no idea where in Brazil you're planning on putting this store, but I hope for your sake you can find a spot that has enough dedicated consumers with disposable income to make this venture profitable, because you're going to get screwed over on the exchange rates and shipping and all that stuff, otherwise. Opening up any sort of specialty retail store is a particularly "unwise" investment, in the traditional sense, as online stores (i.e., Amazon) and digital distribution, and of course, piracy, have all taken the legs out of mom n' pop retailers the world over. But hey, y'know, if you've got the money, the stomach, and the time to do the due diligence to make this all work, then more power to you, buddy.

Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Dear Answerman,

So as we all know, Japanese publishers and producers fear reverse importation of anime from their Japanese consumers since anime in the US are much cheaper than the Japanese releases. Because of this, a lot of restrictions get placed on American licensors on how they can handle their releases. Usually it affects how long after the Japanese release they could release it or when it's ok for them to release a Blu-Ray copy (or whether they could release a Blu Ray at all). A lot of times, it could be straining on us in the North American market since it means we usually have to wait longer for certain releases (In one of the worst case scenarios, the P4 anime's Bluray release was restricted to a dub only release). However, when you go on Right Stuf, certain titles (notably from AoA) specifically note how shipping that certain release to Japan is restricted. Also, not too long ago, the game P4A was region locked so it wouldn't work on Japanese PS3s.

This got me to wondering, if Japanese Publishers are so worried about reverse importation, why don't they just region lock and/or have shipping restrictions on most/all North American anime releases? I'd imagine it put less strain on both us and the Japanese companies. Unless, of course, there is more to this than I realize.

I wouldn't say there's "more to it," necessarily, but you are making a false assumption: wherein "region locks" in videogames are in any way similar to "region locks" on DVDs and Blu Ray discs.

Nearly all video game systems have some form of "region locking" in place. The PS3 is, technically, "region free" (hence, I was able to create a Japanese PSN account and download CAPCOM vs SNK 2!), but, should the developer and publisher wish it so, they can code a form of region encoding onto the disc or the program itself. That is *NOT* something you can do with a Blu Ray disc. The United States and Japan share the same Blu Ray region code, and barring some sort of future reshuffling of the region coding, which would do nothing but confuse both consumers and publishers, that's the way it stays.

Licensors in Japan of course can dictate certain things in order to "stem the tide" of reverse importation - like, making it impossible to turn off English Subtitles when you select the Japanese audio, or delaying the US Blu Ray release until a certain period of time after the Japanese release, or in the case of Aniplex USA, simply making the Western release around the same price. That last one seems like the only "foolproof" way to make sure Japanese fans don't import American discs.

While I'm sure both American and Japanese anime publishers wouldn't mind some sort of restriction on importing American discs back to Japan, that's the sort of thing that would be impossible to enforce in any logistical way. It would also be easily thwarted; just get someone in the US to buy the discs and ship 'em over. Y'know, the sort of things that US anime fans were doing decades before, when acquiring decent materials for fansubs and the like required a clever bit of knowhow and insider help.

It's the sort of thing where there doesn't seem to be any ideal solution, as it stands right now. Without some major overhaul in the Blu Ray format, which is always a risky proposition, there's no simple way to keep those Japanese fans from wanting our cheaper versions. Unless you're Aniplex and you make them cost the same. Then, everybody wins! Or, uh, the opposite of that. Like the tagline for Alien vs. Predator.

Okay, it's that time again - wherein I lay to rest my answers for the week, and turn my bullhorn over to my prodigious readerbase! This week, I wanted to gauge your personal and/or professional interest in the newest kid on the streaming/crowdfunding block, Anime Sols:

First up is Alex, who was also a character is Tatsunoko vs CAPCOM. Just sayin'.

Hey Brian,

I was always curious about some of the Tatsunoko characters and shows after playing Tatsunoko Vs. CAPCOM. All the characters were so frigging weird, I knew I had to check it out. The cool thing is, now I can! It's both a little weird and pretty cool that anime fandom now exists in so many different varieties that there's a service that's only devoted to giving older content to people.

The sad thing is I guess that, it turns out, I'm not all that entertained by most of their titles, although I still haven't watched all of them, since they only stream them on certain days of the week. But I got to see Tekkaman and New Yatterman, which were... weird and interesting, I'll give them that. I don't really know how well their crowdfunding will all pan out in the end, especially since they want more than 10 grand per show, but I do wish them the best.

Plus as a fan of magical girl shows, I do say that it's awesome that of all the old titles they've got available, Creamy Mami is the one with the most support so far. Super cool! I hope that at least THAT show gets the funding it needs to succeed.

Up next is Doug, who is surprisingly vocal despite being legitimately breathless:

The idea of a site that streams of some of the most influential classics for free, and offers the opportunity to crowdfund officially-licensed DVD sets sounds way too good to be true. After taking Anime Sols for a spin, I was speechless! On top of everything that was promised, the site has videos with surprisingly good A/V quality for streams of cartoons from the '70s, and translations that are worthy of an award.

I've been a Tatsunoko fan for years, so finally being able to watch the original Tekkaman and both versions of Yatterman in English feels like reaching the end of a long journey. If I can find more time, I plan on branching out to some of the other shows on the site (Ninja Robots is the one I'm eyeing most right now). I plan on donating to get the Tatsunoko shows released on DVD as soon as I can finally get a new job. Hell, if it comes down to the wire, I might even throw some money Creamy Mami's way. It's not exactly my thing, but it's been the closest to reaching its goal since the start, and dammit, I wanna see SOMETHING succeed!

I wish everyone involved with Anime Sols nothing but the best. They really deserve it.

Last up is Francis, who will be quizzed on his Tobikage fandom after class, because it astounds me that such a thing exists:

Salutations Answerman!

Geez, I can't believe it. I live in a world now where I can legally stream Tobikage for free. I'd never thought I'd see the day. And that day has come. I was a big fan of the show when it was chopped up to make Ninja Robots. This is something out of my craziest fan fantasies!

So, I am beyond happy that I can finally watch this show again in Japanese. I'll always owe Anime Sols a debt just for that. So much of a debt that I, of course, donated some cash to get the show on DVD. But speaking of that... why are the pledges currently so abysmally low?? What's the big deal?

Digital Manga was asking for 20 large to translate a couple Tezuka manga in English, and by the end of their campaign, they doubled that. So, why is Anime Sols doing so poorly instead? Is it because it's its own thing and not Kickstarter? Is it because of the titles themselves? I get that nobody probably wants anything to do with Blue Blink, but the new Black Jack TV is up there! And New Yatterman is just damn weird enough to get some attention, probably. Plus, it's relatively new, and well animated. I'm a bit surprised it hasn't been licensed already, frankly.

So I guess that's all I can say so far. They're offering up some old-school titles that might not be everybody's cup of tea, but Tobikage is awesome, so everybody else should donate so I can get it on DVD. Damnit.

Thanks for the Anime Sols input, friends! And speaking of Sol, the sun, because this is an awkward segway, that leads to NEXT WEEK'S TOPIC!

Now you've got this week's question, and it's time to get answerin'.

For those of you new to Hey, Answerfans!, I'll explain the concept.

Believe it or not, I'm genuinely curious what you think.

That's right; as much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do love to listen to what other people have to say on a subject. I'm finding that over the last few years, the attitudes, reasoning and logic that today's anime fans use eludes, confuses or astounds me; I have so many questions for you, and I'm dying to hear what you have to say in response.

Welcome to Hey, Answerfans!

Basically, we're turning the tables. Each week I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to email me your answer. Be as honest as you can. I'm looking for good answers; not answers I agree with or approve of, but good, thoughtful answers
. People feel passionately about these subjects and I'd like to see that in the responses I get. I'll post the best answers I get, and maybe some of the crappy ones. Sometimes there may only be one or two good ones; sometimes five or more. It all depends on what I get in my inbox! Got it? Pretty simple, right? Start writing those answers and email them to answerman [at] animenewsnetwork dot com.

We do have a few simple ground rules to start with.

Things To Do:

* Be coherent.
* Be thoughtful.
* Be passionate.
* Write as much or as little as you feel you need to to get your point across in the best possible way.

Things Not To Do:

* Respond when the question doesn't apply to you. For instance, if your email response starts with "Well, I don't do whatever you're asking about in the question... " then I'm going to stop reading right there and hit delete.

* Be unnecessarily rude or use a lot of foul language.
* Go off-topic.

It's always a blast to write this thing week by week, so of course please contribute to its ongoing success by emailing me a question or two, or possibly an Answerfans answer, to my inbox! Which is answerman(at!)animenewsnetwork.com! Good night, everybody!

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