A Time for Drunken Publishers

by Justin Sevakis,

I've just gotten back from NYC (which was lovely but FREEZING) and I'm still catching up with the giant amount of work that piled up in my absence, so let's get to some questions!

Melissa asks:

I'm wanting to get some of my favorite anime & manga digitally, without ripping content from the physical discs I've bought. But companies aren't making it easy for me to do that. Why are the US licensing companies all over the place when it comes to digital releases? Why are theses companies making it so hard for the consumer? They seem to focus so much on iTunes & Sony's PSN & Microsoft's Xbox store, but then random titles won't be in one of those places. Funimation's xxxHolic and Sentai's Getbackers are both missing from iTunes, for example.

It's true that it's frustrating that no single online store has anything resembling a comprehensive anime library. There's always something missing. That wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for the fact that every one of these platforms is a closed ecosystem that gets tied to specific hardware or specific software, due to DRM-encrusted downloads or proprietary streaming. Having to juggle several of these platforms when building a home video library gets dumb and confusing fast, and it's a big reason why a lot of people still buy discs.

Every anime company has its own strategy when it comes to putting their stuff online, and I figured that these holes in each collection were a result of that. But just to be safe, I reached out to both Funimation and Sentai to ask what was up, and I'm glad I did -- because I was actually completely wrong! As it turns out, those holes (mostly with older titles) are remnants of older days when those services were much choosier about what anime they would take.

Funimation's Adam Sheehan passed along this: "About four years or so ago some platforms were a little more hesitant to launch every release we had, they picked and chose what they would launch and what they would not as they had limited bandwidth. Now, the vendors know that our titles perform well and take essentially the whole of our offerings, both dubbed and subbed content. So you should see more new anime titles available moving forward. Since XXXHOlic is an older title, it fell victim to this selection process."

Jason from Sentai Filmworks concured that they, too, make their content available to all of the platforms. But "Sony is usually ok with everything we send them, and if for some reason they decide they don't want something, we will make a sort of one sheet to push the show further. iTunes has a stricter content policy, whereas XBOX is a little more lax. So it really depends on the platform and what their QA team thinks of certain content over others."

Funimation noted that they're still trying to fill in the holes when it comes to back catalog titles, but it's a slow process, and some platforms are more on top of that than others. (And the distributor themselves only has so much capacity to feed them content, capacity that might be better spent keeping up with the new simulcasts.) So the problem is a complicated one, and one that the anime companies are trying to overcome. But they really only have so much power over platforms they don't control.

All we can do is deal, I guess.

Jake asks:

I have been thinking quite a bit about the anime bubble leading up to the crash in the late 2000's. From what I have read and heard from some people who were working in the industry during the bubble was that they weren't entirely blind sighted, that the writing was on the wall well in advance. I cant help but play the “What if?” game. I am not saying that some companies wouldn't have had gone though some hard times or inevitable gone out of business, but maybe some could have riden it out or at least gone out on a high note. I realize that the DVD boom was cooling off, piracy was rampant, the deals they were making with Japan were outrageous, and the economy was going into a slump. Even still, I can't help to wonder if a few alterations were made back then that maybe some outcomes would have been better. As someone who has worked in the industry do you feel that anything could have been done differently, or was too much changing to fast and unpredictably to do anything?

There were absolutely a lot of dumb things being done in the pre-bubble era that, with the benefit of hindsight, were clearly idiotic and absolutely made things much worse for everybody involved. Heck, it was obvious that stupid things were happening WHILE they were still happening. I mean, who didn't look through some of the anime being released in the mid 2000s and go, "holy crap, who's buying THAT??" (Answer: NOBODY)

Licensing departments got ludicrously competitive with each other, and started buying up rights to new shows sight-unseen for ridiculous amounts of money, just so nobody else would get them. They all got stuck with a lot of turkeys, and paid too much for most of those turkeys. That flooded the market with low-quality product and turned off a lot of fans. It also hastened the march towards fansubs, since fans got sick of having to shell out money for a show they might hate.

On the sales end, the sales guys trying to make their quotas and boost their numbers sold ridiculous amounts of product to retailers like TransWorld and Musicland, only to have to take back all of that product, which would later have to be liquidated. That flooded the market with cheap DVDs, and while that was fun for a while, everyone lost money. Worse, it made anime DVDs seem pretty worthless, when they could be had new for $3-5 each at Big Lots. This hastened the march towards season boxed sets, which sell more product for less money, but at least have more psychological value.

With so many shows coming out, no anime company could afford the time to really craft any coherent marketing strategy for any specific show. Very strong, appealing titles would never find an audience because nobody could get the word out and really get people excited for a new release. It was all the companies could do to keep the titles straight in their own heads!

There are many lessons to be learned from the anime crash, and they're very similar to the lessons to be learned from the 1983 video game crash. Companies getting too excited, too competitive, and too short sighted when it came to financial realities, and what the finite, fledging market could handle. But it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. The stress of keeping your numbers up, of keeping your job, of feeding your family, and of beating your competitors makes for quite a smokescreen. It's an unfortunate part of life in the business world that people stop making good decisions sometimes.

James asks:

With long running manga such as One Piece and Fairy Tail carrying on with no sign of finishing, I was wondering in a slightly morbid way what would happen to these stories if the authors passed away? With the amount of money the merchandise bring in are there contingency plans in place for someone to take over the work or would they just stop being printed?

It's hard to say what would happen to the shows you mention, which are heavily serialized, if something ever happened to the manga artist. I couldn't find any cases of a prominent manga artist being replaced by their publisher after their passing -- manga tends to be a singular vision, and if the artist got replaced it would probably be very obvious and the fans would probably reject it, even if the publisher could justify such an action legally.

This doesn't mean the gravy train stops, though. Depending on how the contracts are written, the publisher or someone else designated by the manga artist (a manager or family member) can keep authorizing new adaptations and merchandise long after the creator departs this world. This is how we're still getting new adaptations of Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori manga, even though those two have long since passed on.

We do have one very prominent recent example to look at: when Crayon Shin-chan manga artist Yoshito Usui tragically passed away from injuries after falling down a mountain back in 2009, publisher Futabasha took responsibility for finishing and publishing all of the remaining manuscripts that Usui had written, and then the series ended. However, the anime is still going strong, with both the TV series and annual movies still being cranked out uninterrupted. The flow of merchandise also continues unabated.

Geoffrey asks:

Sometimes when older anime titles are re-released here, the new DVD or Blu-ray releases contain a brand new remastered version complete with a brand new 5.1 surround sound mix of the Japanese audio. That's pretty rare when it comes to re-releases of a dub: discs like FUNimation's Tenchi Muyo Blu-rays and RightStuf's Revolutionary Girl Utena DVD still have Stereo dubs. While it's not something that's ever really bothered me, I'm curious why it happens, especially when some re-releases of older anime DO have brand new mixes of the English dub. In the case of Dragon Ball Z, the Japanese audio gets stuck with a mono mix and the English dub is got a 5.1 mix). What exactly factors into a company's decision to do a new remix of an audio track versus sticking to an older mix?

Almost always, the big limiting factor is materials. Until quite recently, when a show got dubbed, the dub studio would record and mix down the program, deliver the mix to the publisher, and call it a day. They would not deliver an archive of the unmixed "stems" -- which are essential to making a new mix later on -- and so the separate elements of the audio would get deleted and no further audio production would be possible. This was a big pain in the butt when it came time to make trailers, since you couldn't pull any dialogue without also pulling whatever music and sound effects were in that scene.

Technically, you CAN make a 5.1 mix from an existing Stereo one, but it's very hard and expensive to do it right. Unless you completely half-ass it, such a project often requires adding new sound effects on top of what's already there (which is frowned upon by Japanese licensors), and even then the result isn't great.

Even if full stems are available, it's not always worth it to go back to the studio to make a new 5.1 mix. 5.1 mixes are nice, but unless a show is going to be a really big seller, the effort of remixing a whole show is usually not worth it anyway.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

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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