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Answerman FAQ - I Want To Work In The Anime Industry!

by Justin Sevakis,

I guess everyone was too busy having picnics and going to the beach last weekend to write in obsessive questions about the anime business, because I only got a handful -- not enough to cherry pick the best ones for a regular column. I'm still new to this gig, but I'm told that happens from time to time.

So, rather than let this opportunity go to waste, I'm going to tackle a big question that I get all the time, both in person at conventions and via the Answerman in-box.

Fun as it was to write this, we really do need you to send in some good, meaty questions. Thank ya.

A lot of people ask:
I'm going into college, and would love to work in the anime business. I'm not one of those kids that thinks I'm going to get to create an anime or anything like that, I just really love the stuff and think it would be a really cool job to work with it for a living. Can you help point me in the right direction?

I'll admit, when I was going into college, getting a job at one of the anime publishers was definitely one of the things on my list of life goals. I then proceeded to get really really lucky (the story goes that I met John O'Donnell, the president of Central Park Media, on a plane, and he knew my work from ANN and hired me on the spot). That's not exactly a career path I can recommend to people.

Actually, the better question is, DO I recommend working in the anime business at all? For most people, probably not. Like a lot of the entertainment industry, people perceive working in the anime business to be, well, glamorous. Whenever someone posits that thought to an actual guy working in the industry, they usually start laughing uncontrollably. The truth is, the anime business is hard, and pays very poorly, even compared to other entertainment jobs.

This isn't a new thing. As long as I've been a part of the business, anime publishers have always been understaffed, with its people regularly working 60+ hour weeks for no overtime. They typically hire fairly young and inexperienced people, teach them the ropes, and work them hard. Raises are few and far between. I knew a DVD producer that was, at one time, making only $15,000 a year back during the early 2000s anime bubble. (That's an extreme case. Anime pays badly, but almost everybody at least makes a living wage.) Offices are stark, no-frills affairs. ADV was, for years, run out of a strip mall office space. One designer at another company had to bring in her own computer in order to do her work effectively. Central Park Media famously had some staff sitting on ancient and filthy plastic lawn chairs.

The work can be extremely frustrating, especially to people that really care about anime and its presentation. New ideas and ambitious projects are seldom approved -- usually due to licensor restrictions or budgetary and manpower limitations. Anything that requires approval by an anime's licensor (and therefore, its production committee) can take weeks or months to get an answer on, if you get one at all. You have to do your best, even on shows you ABSOLUTELY HATE. Get small things wrong, be it on a DVD or in marketing materials, and the fans will inundate you and make SURE you know you screwed up.

But there is one thing that keeps us "lifers" coming back again and again: we DO get to work with anime for a living. And that's really freaking cool. And the people that have "made it" are often quite aware and grateful that they have gained admission to a very tiny club of an industry -- no more than 200 people or so, at most. There are not many chances to get in, and many people don't last more than a few months.

So, if all that was not enough to deter you from wanting a career in the entertainment ghetto known as anime, here are the things you need to know:

  • Being an otaku is not a skill. In fact, it's not even a job requirement.
  • Depending on each company's hiring philosophy (which is usually informed by how recently they hired an otaku, only to have him leak something online or do something else completely unprofessional), they may want people knowledgable about anime, or they may not. Already being familiar with the quirks of the anime world helps in the short term, but those things are easy to pick up. Being a hardcore anime nerd, however, lends itself to problems, such as caring too much about people on web forums, having personal opinions that are so extreme that they drown out any business logic, and mistaking your opinion ("I love this sports anime!") for fact ("It's the most popular thing in the world right now!")

    At any rate, it might help, it might hurt, but fanboy-ism is something to keep in check. Nobody will hire you because of it, and it's as likely to cause problems as it is to help you.

  • Have a skill.
  • If anime companies don't care about how big a fan you are, what DO they care about? That you have some skill that helps them. Got an accounting background? If they're looking to fill an accountant position, that's what they're going to look for. Good with video encoding and know some professional software? When they're looking for producers and video engineers, that's what they'll be looking for. A background in marketing and advertising, graphic design, sales, contract law... These are all things that anime companies need. And like any company, they're looking to hire the best they can get for what salary they can afford.

    It's impossible to predict what field, exactly, any given company will be hiring for at any given time, let alone a few years down the road. Don't try. Find a field you like, that interests you, that you have a natural aptitude for. If nothing jumps out at you right away, try everything. You never know what you might end up being good at. Even if the road doesn't ultimately lead to an anime company, it's far more important that you find something you like doing -- that's far more important a factor to liking whatever job you end up landing.

  • Be a cool person.
  • The sad fact is, most business -- particularly ones in competitive fields like entertainment -- don't really need to look very far to find new people. Most jobs don't even get posted to websites. Instead, companies ask employees for recommendations, and friends try to get friends hired. While that seems unfair, it actually has a number of benefits for the company: having an established relationship means whoever they find is more likely to be trustworthy, and are who they say they are. It doesn't always work out, but when faced with adding someone to a small business (which can seem like a family at times), existing relationships mean a whole lot.

    Having an existing relationship with someone at an any company you want to work for, particularly if it's a small one, is one hell of a foot in the door. Unfortunately it's hard to recommend that someone "just make friends" -- anime industry people get a lot of annoying people that sidle up to them and cling on like wet toilet paper. The real talent, the people who are prominent in the anime community, that have valuable conversations with industry types in person or on social media, are the ones that get paid attention to, that get taken seriously. That has to happen naturally. So I guess the real message here is, don't be afraid to interact with industry people. Be active, be friendly and respectful, and don't be annoying. They can usually tell the good apples pretty quickly.

  • Live in the right city.
  • It might seem like a good idea to apply for a job at Funimation in Dallas even though you live in Virginia, promising that you can move there if you get the job. It's not. No human resources person believes you'll move, or even if you do, they certainly don't want to be responsible for you completely up-ending your life if things don't work out. If you don't live close enough to actually show up to the office every day, you are simply not going to be considered. Very few jobs, anime or otherwise, can involve telecommuting, and those that do are usually reserved for people who are already known quantities.

    This sounds like common sense, but you would be shocked by how many out-of-town applicants anime companies get.

  • Give up. Or don't.
  • The anime industry (and the manga industry) is very, very small. More people work in a medium sized shopping mall than work in the ENTIRE business. And a LOT of people think they want to work in it. Not everybody will get a chance. And of those that do, not everybody will find it acceptable.

    I've had good times and bad times, periods of burn-out and hopelessness, but overall I love being in the anime business. In 15 years I can't deny that it's given me a lot of opportunities and perks. Some of my friends haven't been so lucky. I've seen people spend a decade of their lives making or selling DVDs for low wages, only to one day find themselves out of work and with few options. Others quit or get laid off and find themselves suddenly way more successful once they got out. They look back and go, "what the hell was I doing there for so long?"

    I can't begrudge anybody who wants to work in this weird, challenging, sometimes thankless business. It has been very good to me, and it's been good to a few other people as well. So I hope this helps someone land the job of their dreams, someday. Just keep your expectations in check, be smart, and don't be a jerk, and you'll be all right.

    And that's all for this week! 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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