by Justin Sevakis,
I'm typing this on Halloween, a holiday that always makes me feel like a bit of a stick in the mud. I've never cared for dressing up, I'm not much of a party guy, and trying to eat healthy makes the prospect of all that high fructose corn syrup a lot less appealing.
Except this year, sitting here on my computer getting work done, I'm keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook, watching my friends' half-hearted attempts at doing something all end in lounging around at home, having a drink or two, and going to bed early because it's Thursday. THIS IS WHAT YOUR THIRTIES LOOK LIKE, PEOPLE. IT IS NOT JUST ME.
So I'm 31 years old. I began watching anime in the mid 90s, when the only anime on TV was Sailor Moon and the wonderful yet bizarre Samurai Pizza Cats and having the internet meant being on AOL, Prodigy or CompuServe (feeling old...). I stopped following anime in high school for no other reason than I really just had other interests. Over the last year I've gotten back in to anime thanks to exposure through Netflix and Hulu, I've even recently signed up for Crunchyroll and bought a few DVDs, so yes anime distributors, those methods DO work for bringing in fans!
Needed to get that background out of the way, because I have literally missed FIFTEEN years of the anime industry. I could probably ask a million questions, but the one thing I'm really curious about is this. In the mid 90s, what seemed to be really big at the time was anime feature films. It seemed anyone I met who was into anime was big into things like Akira, Ghost in the Shell or Ninja Scroll. These days the focus is much more on TV series and almost never on feature films (with the giant exception being Miyazaki).
My question is, why is that? When did the focus switch to series? Is there still a thriving animated film industry in Japan and just no market for it here?
We still have the occasional big movie here and there. The Evangelion movies are a big deal whenever they roll out, as are anything by Mamoru Hosoda (his tear-jerker Wolf Children is rolling into theaters here shortly) and most Ghibli movies. However, the majority of anime features being made these days are made with a family audience in mind. Those are pretty hard sells to American fans, who tend towards anime that's a little more risqué, but Japanese film financiers are basically all intent on chasing the giant sums of money that the Studio Ghibli movies bring in.
No, what really went away wasn't the movie market but the OAV market. OAVs from the 80s and 90s were very hard to distinguish from movies, because many were feature length, and many got a small theatrical release despite being "made for video." A large amount of the content we were getting in those early days were from boom years, where anime producers were trying to fill the shelves of countless mom & pop video rental stores across Japan. They were often really oversexed and violent because selling directly to home video meant that you didn't have to worry about TV censors, or sponsors.
But as the financial crisis of the 90s hit Japan (and kept hitting it ever since), video rental shops over there have lost prominence (though, unlike the US, they still exist, albeit mostly as national chains), so the energy that went into making OAVs has long shifted into late-night TV series. The aim with those is to use the late-night airings as advertising, so hardcore fans buy them on DVD and Blu-ray, which is a market that has strengthened over time.
So basically you're seeing what happens with any industry over a span of 20 years: consumer patterns shifting, and the industry bending to meet them where they're at. For what it's worth, we're still getting some pretty good stuff under this new business model (and boy oh boy are we getting some absolute crap!).
This past week the topic of "unlicensable" shows was touched on. One glaring exception left out seemed to be the Gundam franchise. The Gundam franchise seems to in the unique position of being too big for anyone. While never gaining much traction beyond Wing in the west, it is possibly the biggest franchise ever in Asia. This seems to have always put it out of reach for whatever reason. Lately Bandai seem to have cut out the middleman entirely and are putting English dubs on region free Unicorn BDs, subbing and posting Gundam Build Fighters on Gundam.Info same day as air, and releasing english Gunpla promotional material and hosting Gunpla World Cups at American conventions. Nothing is officially released in the west, but they certainly are creating everything with the western fan in mind. So my question is, is this something you think will remain unique to Gundam or with the apparent success do you think this is a viable future for the business? I would hate to see the Western industry squeezed out entirely.
I didn't include Gundam in my list of unlicensable shows last week because I was trying to just list shows that were stuck in some sort of legal hell. Gundam isn't stuck. If someone with deep pockets (and a business plan I can't fathom) wanted to buy the whole franchise for several million dollars, re-dub it all and give it a faithful Stateside release, I'm pretty sure Sunrise would return his or her calls. But I think we all know why that's not going to happen: because that would be financial suicide.
But Gundam is really important to Sunrise, and they definitely want to at least keep the franchise on the radar among American fans to some extent. So, they're experimenting with the things you mentioned, the bilingual Blu-rays, the streaming, the convention presence. I don't think they have a specific plan per se, or are currently chasing after any specific opportunity at the moment (if they were, they sure as hell aren't going to tell me). But by keeping American fans thinking about Gundam, and by raising awareness among newer fans, they make their property more potentially valuable here. It's much easier to go to a large media company, point at an anime convention crowd, and say, "look, these people all know Gundam! The franchise has untapped potential here!"
Will it work? If their goal is to have it be mainstream in America, probably not. The "classic" Gundam series are all too old (and mostly, too weird) to ever hold most Americans' attention. There may be potential in some of the newer series, but that remains to be seen. Whatever the case, nobody should attempt to market the franchise to young mainstream anime fans with the original Gundam 0079 series ever again.
With US televised Anime (despite Nu!Toonami having some modest success) all but gone and physical media sales declining, while digital streaming ramps up, what is the future of dubbing in Anime? My thought is that dubs have generally been created to sell media to casual consumers who don't want to read subtitles, but over the past ten or so years the anime market has become increasingly niche. Now for some shows, ones that get a lot of casual western exposure like say Attack on Titan, dubbing still makes sense, even trying to get it on TV. But I kind of fear that in the future western distributors will opt not to dub most of their shows due to lack of interest. I'm weary because while I can watch stuff dubbed or subbed, I really like it when distributors put the time and effort into making a quality dub that can engage me in English. And generally I think dubs have gotten consistently really good over the past 10 years. I'm just worried I'm in the minority here.
I think your question is interesting, because what you're worrying about has mostly already come to pass. It used to be that EVERYTHING that got released here was dubbed. Now, it's about half, and for a few years there, before Sentai started dubbing most of their shows, it was even less.
There are still a lot of ways dubbing can open doors for a show that subtitles never could. Netflix, Xbox Live and iTunes far prefer dubbed content, and outright refuse to take most subtitled anime. Dubbed content is also generally more popular on Hulu. Those services combined can really bring in a lot of revenue for anime, so having a dubbed version is a huge benefit there.
But is it enough to make back the expense of dubbing? Hard to say. Dubbing itself has gotten much cheaper over the years (a typical episode costs between $6,000 and $8,000 these days, or even less if it's done in-house). It's a gamble, so anime publishers in the States will generally only bother if they think it will make a substantial difference.
For example, The Right Stuf released the Dirty Pair TV series sub-only. Even with a dub, there is no way more than a couple thousand fans will buy it—it's a niche release that targets a very specific group of fans that are happy to get it at all. But if you somehow got a new series of Ikki Tousen, which has made a butt-load of money on Xbox Live because 12-year-olds can secretly use their parents' money to see boobs? You'd damn well better make an English version, post haste!
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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