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Impenetrable Markets

by Justin Sevakis,

A couple of weeks ago, I got a question from someone about becoming a voice actor. The person who asked the question hadn't really done much research before making a pretty major career decision, so I spent the majority of my answer trying to enlighten her on exactly what she was getting herself into. The column went up, I got a good response from the internet at large, and all seemed well.

Except for one thing. Chris Macdonald, my website-boss and owner of Anime News Network emailed me, notifying me that while my answer was entertaining, it didn't REALLY answer the question of how someone new breaks into the world of anime dubbing. I'd spent the entire answer telling her "OMG STOP, DON'T DO IT" rather than actually dispense with any real knowledge of the kind she asked for. It was probably the correct response in this case, but I did still owe my readers a real answer.

This bothered me, so when I stopped by the offices of Bang Zoom! Entertainment this week to drop off a disc I'd been working on with them, I had a quick chat with Mami Okada, who produces most of Bang Zoom's dubs and is also in charge of casting. She helpfully told me that Bang Zoom gets a TON of unsolicited inquiries from voice actor wanna-bes from all over, and they usually can't consider them. That said, they do always have their eyes open for new potential talent.

The vast, overwhelming majority of those trying to inquire are simply non-starters. Mami only considers actors who live within a reasonable distance from Los Angeles, have a decent-sounding "reel" (a short audio sample of different voices and roles), and some formal acting training. "Voice role or not, you still have to be an actor," she says. This is pretty consistent with what I've heard from other studios over the years. New, untested talent might be given a tiny role in something before they prove they have what it takes. Slowly, as that actor's reputation builds, they get bigger parts. Or not.

Anyway, that's pretty much it. Be an actor. Live where they make dubs. Have a reel. Be persistent. And above all, do not quit your day job.

Onto some fresh questions. By the way, I'm starting to run short on questions again (and am hearing a lot from the same people -- and thank god for those people), so if you've been holding out on me, I want to hear from you! We need your questions to keep this column fresh!

Rachel asks:

Many anime, manga and video game series sometimes get adapted into a audio drama CD, why aren't audio drama CDs released here in North America?

Because nobody wants them. There simply isn't a huge interest in audio dramas in the United States -- unlike other countries, audio dramas largely seemed to die out in North America with the rise of television in the 60s and 70s. Other countries, including Japan and even the UK, still regularly make radio dramas, but the art from is pretty much dead in North America.

And really, what would you sell? Would you sell an MP3 download (or, god help you, a physical CD) that most fans would have to slavishly follow along, reading a translated script while listening to? It would be like watching a subtitled anime without any actual art or motion or animation. I attempted to subtitle one such drama as a "bonus" item for a VHS fansub I made several decades ago, and even though the drama track was only 14 minutes long, it was DEATHLY dull. Sitting through the video fansub of it (which I accompanied with a screenshot from the anime, AND credits) was like watching paint dry in slow-motion.

As proof of how little interest there is in such projects, there have only ever been a small handful of fan-translations of anime drama CDs. Most, like mine, have been haphazardly made into video form by fans, using art from the show to try and illustrate the drama. But when there's no actual motion, no original artwork and literally nothing happening on screen, it's a tough sell. Nobody wants to sit through that.

I've listened to a handful of anime drama CDs, and the vast majority are fan-service-y nonsense that don't really add much to the stories. Most are just thinly veiled excuses for the voice actors to regurgitate fan-favorite lines. At best, there might be a cute out-of-character skit or something with the characters. They're mildly amusing, but you're not exactly missing out.

There are exceptions, of course. For example, there was a Perfect Blue drama CD that WAS an episode of the drama-series-within-the-movie "Double Bind" (where, of course, the mystery surrounds a fallen pop singer-turned-actress named Mima Kirigoe, just in case the movie itself wasn't meta enough for you). There's the legendary Evangelion "After The End" skit, a comedy taking place immediately following End of Evangelion. I'm sure there are others.

There are probably a lot of interesting drama CDs out there that English speaking fans have no idea exist. But, without the pretty pictures to get people interested, they are just going to lie on the shelves of Japanese CD stores, as impenetrable to otaku as the giant wall of Japanese prose novels.

Brandon asks:

When it comes to subs vs. dubs, I am always neutral on the subject, though I prefer purchasing physical copies of the dub anime. However, this was far from the case back in 2010 and 2011. There are many anime that I wanted to purchase and watch in English such as Star Driver, Heroman, Tegami Bachi, and Katekyo Hitman Reborn! (and if I recall, Funimation has Reborn! licensed but isn't doing anything with it). Even Blast of Tempest received a Japanese with subtitle only release, and Kuroko's Basketball, while very popular, has yet to receive a physical English release in any form. Do anime fans dislike English dubs that much that English anime companies have to follow their request in order to not lose money?

It's not a matter of anime fans telling the companies "don't make dubs, they suck!" While people say that to anime companies all the time, nobody listens to them because they're being silly. No anime fan who buys a DVD HAS to listen to the dub, and a lot of people will ONLY watch a dub. Dubs open up a lot of doors for an anime property, particularly with "fringe" fans who like anime but don't follow it obsessively. Dubs have a lot easier time getting on TV, they can be sold on XBox Live, and are much more likely to find their way onto iTunes.

But dubs also cost a lot of money to produce -- somewhere around US$7,000 to $8,500 per episode. (This is more than many anime cost to license!) That's a lot of money for most anime distributors, and frankly, even with a dub most anime will never sell enough copies to make back that investment. They're also a huge amount of work, since casting and script adaptations must be approved by the licensor and dub production must be closely supervised by people who know what they're doing. For several years surrounding the anime DVD market crash around 2005-2008, companies were dubbing everything and then selling so few that they lost a ton of money, contributing to the massive losses that eventually saw the closure of half of the US anime industry. So now the companies only dub the shows that they think will appeal to a large number of fans, and release everything else subtitled-only.

Kuroko's Basketball doesn't have as many fans in the US as you might think -- every time someone's tried to release a sports anime in the US it's faceplanted pretty hard. As for the others on your list, there might be a chance that a couple of them could do some significant numbers in the US, but for whatever reason, the powers that be have come to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth the risk.

Ben asks:

Not an anime question, but one I hope you can shed some light on. Why is it with some big American blockbusters Japan gets them dead last compared to every other country? I've noticed that Frozen just came out in Japan while it was released in the US on November 27 last year. The Avengers came out in the US on May 4 2012 and got released almost everywhere else within the month, but Japan didn't get it until August 14. What's up with that?

Japanese fans are pretty annoyed by that. Japan has to wait longer for Hollywood films to get released than virtually anybody else. Some films get released day-and-date with the rest of the world, others can lag behind for as long as a year.

Why? Well, there's simply no great rush on the part of the studios. Unlike the rest of Asia, Japan doesn't have much of a piracy problem. If you wait to release a movie in, say, India, the streets will be flooded with camcorder rips and pirated versions long before the movie opens in theaters. Japanese media consumers don't do that. They wait patiently. They generally don't pirate stuff.

Releasing a movie with a proper marketing push takes a lot of time and money, and Japan has a very crowded film market that sees the release of hundreds of their own movies domestically, in addition to localized releases of Hollywood and other foreign fare. In order to maximize a film's box office potential, releases are carefully timed around holidays and competition at the box office. And of course, this being Japan, I'm sure there are bucketloads of red tape and salaryman hand-wringing involved too.

It's certainly not an ideal situation from the consumer point of view, but the industry has no reason to change, and so it won't.

Mathieu asks:

There is a growing number of simulpubs services with Crunchyroll manga adding new titles and ComicWalker from Kadokawa coming soon. Since the japanese publishers now have access to metrics on the international popularity of a number of titles as they're released do you think these metrics will influence a decision to greenlit anime series? (i.e. Anime series is greenlit because of the manga's international popularity even though it's only an okay title in Japan).

Nope. Despite how much better the anime market has gotten in recent years, American fans are still nowhere near being a major profit center for anime companies. Once in a blue moon, some renegade production committee will somehow find the money to make a major push with something only Westerners would like (Space Dandy, anyone?), but for the vast majority of productions, what American fans want is irrelevant. Producers in Japan don't understand American tastes, and don't try to predict them. The few times they've tried in the past, they've mostly ended up with very expensive failures.

So instead, they just concentrate on what the Japanese domestic market wants, and what the big marketing pushes will be for the various major media products that are coming up among their partner companies. They do the best job they can making good content, and if the Westerners like it too, then great. But nobody is really counting on overseas sales anymore to make or break a show, so metrics from simul-publications of manga series really don't make much of a difference.

Not that having the data doesn't help, of course. This might be where the market is now, but who knows what conditions might look like in a few years.

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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