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Digital Deficits

by Justin Sevakis,

It's time once again to answer your questions! After last week's reboot, I got a ton of great questions from you guys. Keep 'em coming!

Joe asks:

Has the rise of digital distribution over recent years affected the industry at all? I notice that buying digital is almost always cheaper, i.e. a 12 episode series at $2 an episode would cost $24 versus $30-50+ for a DVD/BD, and that seems like a pretty fair-sized price gap. If a lot of people are going digital-only, that would mean less people buying DVDs/BDs, and the companies would lose that $6-26 per show. It would seem that digital isn't a good thing for the companies, but is it?

Sure it is. While $30-60 for a DVD or Blu-ray is definitely a lot more than the $24-39 for a single season of paid downloads, the revenue works entirely differently. For every $60 you spend on a DVD, at least 50% of that is usually going to the retailer (in North America, at least). So the publisher is only getting $30, and from that, they also have to pay for manufacturing, warehousing and fulfillment, authoring, and a host of other costs. All of that has to be made back before the release becomes profitable. And then, if any product is returned, refunding that product costs money out of pocket.

Compare that to the cost of a digital download. All that has to be done to release digitally is to prepare and upload a video file, some artwork, and some metadata. That's it. Most of that can be done in-house with a small team, or outsourced to a low cost video specialist. There's no up-front authoring or manufacturing cost, no shipping, no warehousing, and no returns. And for what little work it takes, the percentage of the revenue they get is greater: iTunes set the bar at 70%, and most other companies (Amazon, for example) have followed their lead.

So DVD/BD certainly have the POTENTIAL to be bigger moneymakers, but without selling a significant number of discs, they can also lose a lot of money as well. The models are so completely different that they're hard to compare directly. But with the cost to bring a digital download to market being so much lower, and their share of the profits being greater, in the macro, it really looks like it all evens out. And not every digital sale is replacing a physical disc sale, either.

Oliver asks:

Why are there so many dubs for certain anime? Why create an all-new dub if the company already bought the rights to the full feature? Lupin III: Mystery of Mamo has a whopping FOUR dubs. Earlier this year, Discotek Media was somehow able to release it on DVD with all of them included. Do they suddenly own the rights to all four dubs? Why do certain home releases of anime (rare as they are) contain multiple dubs, while the majority only include the "newest" dub?

There are a ton of reasons why new dubs get created when ones already exist. The biggest, most obvious reason, is that either the licensor or the new publisher simply didn't like the old dub! "Not liking" is a little vague -- sometimes the old dub sounds pretty poor technically. Some dubs made in the UK were made by speeding the film up to 25 frames per second, and slowing them down to their proper speed of 24p made them sound weird. Maybe the original creator didn't like a particular casting choice. Or maybe they changed the music without permission.

Legal issues can rear their ugly heads as well. Many early dubs were contractually owned by the company that produced them, rather than the Japanese rights holder, so if that company still exists, re-using their dubs without permission can be legally dicey. Trademark issues that nobody worried about years ago might be something the licensor or publisher is particularly worried about today. Or, in some cases, the company releasing the show may have forgotten that the earlier dub even exists! Even if they do, they might have no idea where to get the master tape, or how to track it down.

Preserving dubs is a lot of work, and often a technical challenge. Old master tapes are often in terrible shape, and it's not uncommon to have to digitize an old dub off of a VHS tape. The dub then has to be resynchronized with the master, and adjusted for all sorts of terrible things that happened in the analog era. It's not for the feint of heart. Japan only recently got good at making sure they get all of the English materials that are created for their shows, and sometimes they still drop the ball on keeping track of things. This is something that the industry is getting better at, though, however slowly.

Lillian asks:

Since you have experience in subtitling, I was wondering why licensing companies don't just use the work of fansubs when doing subtitles.

Legally, whether they could use them or not is a murky enough question to scare them away from using their translations. While copyright law gives the copyright holders legal claim to derivative work, the fansubbing team could then turn around and sue them for not paying for their professional services. There have been a few cases of companies working with fansubbers and buying their existing scripts (mostly for online), but also many licensors are so uncomfortable with fansubs that they'd rather just leave that whole world alone and start from scratch.

I cut out part of your question, where you specifically said, "I don't mean use their translations, I meant their fonts and typesetting of signs and stuff." In addition to the same legal and political problems I mentioned above, fansubber fonts and typesetting are very unique to the formats used by the fansub world (i.e. Aegisub subtitles and MKV files), and can't easily be preserved in other formats. Most of the time, in dealing with the insane technical limitations of DVD and Blu-ray subtitles, fansub style typesetting is way more trouble than it's worth. Karaoke and animation effects are complete non-starters (unless you permanently mar the video, and who wants that?), and certain colors pretty much only look good on a computer monitor. Some fonts never looked good to begin with. Professionals have to worry that their subtitles look good on even the cheapest of old TVs.

Also, only a very small number of fansub enthusiasts really care THAT MUCH about these things -- most fans either don't care that much; some prefer a more "no-frills" experience. The pros that work on this stuff certainly fall into the latter category -- they're on a deadline, and the LAST thing they need gumming up the works is worrying about whether a font choice matches a show. Or worse, one of their online partners rejecting their video because something got screwed up with a positioning tag, making one of the titles run off the screen.

Really, mimicking fansubs seems rather pointless in the end. Their influence was certainly felt in the fans' desire to have Every Little Thing translated and positioned in an aesthetically pleasing way, but aside from that, it's mostly just fanciness for fancy's sake. People who do this for a living just don't have time for that.

And that's it! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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