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Suspicious Behavior

by Justin Sevakis,

It's been a couple of years since I've moved, and I can't say I've missed the stress, the piles of change-of-address forms, or the packing up of everything I own. But one thing has made moving a million times easier than it used to be: a couple years ago I threw away all of my DVD and Blu-ray cases (except for the special ones, of course). I put all of the inserts in a filing box, and all of the discs in several padded flight cases that hold 600 discs each.

I can't tell you how much time and energy this has saved me. More important, if there's ever an emergency I can easily grab my precious cargo and run it into the car in mere seconds.

These are my priorities. You can sure tell I don't have kids, can't you?

Ben asks:

Most anime fans have heard about how international distributors will often receive lousy masters from Japan and that can usually lead to bad looking releases or long delays for series in attempts to get good masters. For example, Funimation claimed on ANNcast a while ago that masters issues were the reason for the long delay of Last Exile. What's stopping anime distributors from just ripping the Japanese blu-ray's and using those as masters?

There are sometimes (usually, in fact) stipulations in the contract that prevent the publisher from using materials that weren't provided to them by the licensor. This would prevent them from doing things like scanning artbooks, possibly using artwork that wasn't approved or even owned by the rights holder.

While publishers are often frustrated by getting unexpectedly poor quality masters from Japanese licensors, I think situations like that can usually (but not always) be explained to something other than malice. In many cases, the licensor is a different company than, say, the home video distributor in Japan that just remastered the show in HD, and the licensor may not even know that new masters exist, or immediately know how to get them. Sometimes that Japanese publisher wants money to let other companies use the expensive remaster they just created. Other times, tapes are given to a post-production company for duplication, and the low-paid technician working the equipment neglects to check that the decks are set up properly, and boom: suddenly your gorgeous 1080p master is now interlaced, and nobody will know 'till it gets to America and someone pops in the tape.

As for ripping the Japanese Blu-ray, it happens on occasion, and either the licensor says "go for it," or certain people keep quiet and decide it'd be a lot easier to beg for forgiveness than ask permission. However, quality can suffer: it's generally not a good idea to recompress already-compressed video if you can help it. Blu-ray is good enough quality that you can usually get away with it, though, and unless you're putting exactly the same number of episodes on each disc as the Japanese did (and who does that?) you are stuck recompressing the video.

Troy asks:

I've recently discovered that in 2011 Funimation chief Gen Fukunaga formed a new company called EchoLight Studios to "promote and produce films with a faith-based message". That seems worrying because I have trouble seeing how a company focused on "faith based films" can peacefully coexist under the same roof as a company that releases shows like Hellsing, Evangelion, and Panty & Stocking. The story gets even more troubling though. As of August of last year, Gen Fukunaga hired Rick Santorum to be CEO of EchoLight. Yes, THAT Rick Santorum.

How thick is the wall between Funimation and EchoLight? I'd be very uncomfortable buying another Funimation product if I felt it could possibly go toward Rick Santorum's paycheck or advance a conservative agenda. Funimation was my favorite US anime company until I discovered this info. Does this have anything to do with why Funimation was looking for a new owner not long ago?

It's true, EchoLight Studios is a new company with the expressed purpose of trying to produce and market movies for a Christian audience. Gen Fukunaga is indeed one of the founders, and served as CEO until THAT Rick Santorum assumed the position last summer. This did happen only a few months after Fukunaga and other private investors bought Funimation back from Navarre, and the company was renamed Group 1200 to diversify the use of their distribution network. Putting all your eggs into one fickle basket of an industry is probably a bad idea, after all. It wouldn't surprise me if this move was made with Echolight in mind.

As a business, it's an interesting venture. Santorum gave a surprisingly candid interview about the venture last fall on the excellent showbiz insider public radio show The Business, where he described the challenges in serving a large market that doesn't go to the movies very often, and trying to make films for them on smaller budgets that don't look cheap and made-for-cable. Christian audiences have been considered an underserved market by Hollywood ever since they turned out in droves to see Passion of the Christ, and the studios have been trying to get them more interested in movies ever since. Many studios even have dedicated church outreach people in their marketing teams. (Warner Bros. somewhat infamously sent a bunch of pastors free sermon outlines entitled "Jesus: The Original Man of Steel." You cannot make this stuff up.)

It's hard to know how well the new company is doing, but there have been a number of public embarrassments so far. Santorum's first production, The Christmas Candle, was released in November, and was both a critical and financial flop, grossing only $2.2 Million on a budget of $7 Million (and scoring 18% on Rotten Tomatoes). Other setbacks include the ousting of co-founder and president Bobby Downes and chief global strategist Christopher Morrow last fall, which was followed by the company suing both of them after the production of a new film turned into a "full-scale chest-thumping match" between Downes and Santorum. After the two were fired, the company alleges they engaged in a smear campaign to get partners to cut funding to the company, and for a weekend, hijacked the company's Facebook page.

While all of this has almost certainly distracted Fukunaga from the anime business, Funimation is a bigger, established company with dedicated people working on licensing and marketing and production and everything else, so even without Fukunaga at the helm full-time things seem to be putting along rather well. I mean, between Space Dandy, Attack on Titan, the re-release of Akira, and several other big properties, you could say the company has maintained its dominant position over the big, mainstreamable hits, even if Sentai Filmworks is putting out more product. You don't really need your CEO's input when you've done your job for years and all you need to do is stay the course.

Inside Funimation, I have no doubt the two companies are occasionally sharing resources. Even if two companies are separate on paper, when they have the same people running them, there tends to be a lot of co-mingling of work. I do wonder if there might've been some culture clashes, especially given that many Funimation employees are (awesome) freaks and nerds who eschew traditional values. (I mean, you kind of HAVE to be to work on stuff like RIN - Daughters of Mnemosyne, or OniAi, right?) But all that's behind closed doors, so who knows.

I don't think buying Funimation product is really going to have any effect on Echolight. Santorum is likely being paid mostly in Echolight stock, and it's unlikely that Funimation is investing money into them. I don't care for Santorum's politics, but so long as Funimation's activities remain unaffected, I see no reason why their new sibling companies should affect your perception of them.

Oliver asks:

Now that Hayao Miyazaki's supposed final film The Wind Rises has finally been confirmed for the Oscars, the question is on everyone's mind. Can it really win the award for Best Animated Picture? In your opinion, does it even have a chance? As we all know, Spirited Away was the first anime to win that award. But this time, the competition is tougher with Disney actually having a film of theirs nominated. Would they put Frozen (which I haven't seen) as higher priority than The Wind Rises, or will the Academy be more sympathetic since this is Miyazaki's last film?

Honestly, it's a VERY dark horse. The Oscars do like honoring the old guys who are bowing out, but Frozen is not just competition, it's a cultural phenomenon. Disney doesn't even have to do any campaigning (though they will), they have a virtual lock on that award. It would be one thing if the competition was The Croods, or even just Despicable Me 2, which was the second highest grossing movie of 2013. If those were the only other nominees THEN The Wind Rises would have a chance.

But not against Frozen. Frozen is arguably Walt Disney Studios' biggest hit since The Lion King. Its theme song "Let It Go" is not only up for Best Original Song, but is the first song from a musical to crack the Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 in literally decades, and it's in there TWICE -- once in its end credits reprise version by Demi Lovato, and then in its original version by Idina Menzel (who voiced Queen elsa in the film). The soundtrack album also hit #1 on the album charts, unheard-of for a recent musical or movie soundtrack. As of January 19th the film has grossed over 3/4 of a billion dollars worldwide so far and still going strong, yet has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But if that isn't proof that Frozen has entered the cultural zeitgeist, this certainly is: the deluxe soundtrack album includes a karaoke version of the song, and cover versions have been blowing up on YouTube, including several that have gone viral. A sing-along version of the film is being re-released to theaters in a few weeks. Parental groups are lauding Disney for finally casting aside the old fashioned damsel-in-distress saved-by-Prince-Charming clichés and featuring strong female characters who make their own choices. Several prominent film critics have named it to their Top 10 of 2013 lists. Even more importantly for the Oscars, the film is widely thought to signal a true return to form for Walt Disney Studios, which is a cherished American brand that a lot of people of all ages, Academy voters included, have a strong emotional bond with.

That's a lot to overcome. Not many people have seen The Wind Rises yet, and compared to Frozen, not that many will ever see it. It's like being a small art house movie the year Titanic came out: it doesn't matter how good the film is, some years you simply don't have a chance, and I'm afraid this is probably one of those years.

I don't put The Wind Rises' chances at zero, but they are very low. There's a chance they could win, but it would be an absolute miracle. Gambling sites list Frozen as the overwhelming favorite, but some give The Wind Rises a nod. Another hopeful is the French film Ernest and Celestine, which just had its English dub (from Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh!) premiere at Sundance last week, and that's not being counted out just yet either. So who knows.

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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