Why Are Anime DVDs More Expensive Than Western Animation?

by Justin Sevakis,

Cody asks:

I have a question about retail price differences between Japanese animation and Western animation, specifically regarding series. For example, if I wanted to buy Maoyu on Blu-ray from Amazon, I'd be paying $34.77, yet season four of Legend of Korra is only $20.45. I understand that different publishing companies will charge different prices for their respective merchandise, and I never really cared to notice about the price differences before. However, after reading some of your articles that talked about the cost differences to produce Japanese animation and Western animation (including things like the animation process, voice-overs, etc.), the retail price differences seem odd to me. Basically, it sounds like, of the two, Western animation is more expensive to create and sells for less, whereas Japanese animation is cheaper to create and sells for more.

You're talking about two different series from in two different countries, made with vastly different business models, and produced by companies with vastly different approaches to the market.

The Legend of Korra was a TV series produced, start to finish, by Nickelodeon. It was intended to be a mainstream show, broadcast on Nickelodeon networks worldwide, and monetized initially through TV advertising and cable/satellite fees on those networks. The series would then be monetized with merchandise, which included comics, art books and novels, two video games, posters, T-shirts, plush dolls, and a soundtrack CD. (There might've been more had the network considered the series successful.) DVD/BD sales, though significant, were only a small part of any revenue projections put together by the network before they decided to invest in the project.

Maoyu, like most late night anime, was produced for a small, niche, otaku market in Japan. It was produced by light novel and manga publisher Kadokawa Shoten, along with a number of other companies on the production committee, to turn a successful light novel and manga series into a media franchise. They had to buy the time to air it on television like an infomercial -- there's no money coming in from advertising or broadcast at all. Since the series is niche, there's not a whole lot of merchandise: mostly high end figures that'll only sell a few hundred units each. Although the show budget isn't as big as an American show, it's far, far, far more dependent on DVD and Blu-ray sales to make its budget back.

Even if we're only talking about DVD/BD sales, Legend of Korra is a semi-mainstream show with lots of press coverage from non-anime sites, a TV airing on Nickelodeon (for most of the show) and retail penetration at Wal-Mart, Target, and many other mass-market retailers. Even though the show wasn't a huge blow-the-doors-off hit, it'll still sell well into the hundred-thousands of copies. There are only a handful of anime in history to ever sell that many units. I don't have access to sales data, but I know for certain Maoyu sold nowhere near that. To hazard a guess, it probably peaked at around 10,000 units, especially since Sentai released it subtitled-only.

But even if the two series cost the same amount to produce, or even if the American series we're using for our comparison was one that was animated for next to nothing, discs aren't really priced based on how much money the shows need to bring in. They're priced based on what the market will bear. The Legend of Korra was produced with a mainstream audience in mind, from a mom picking up the discs at Target, to pre-teens saving up their allowance money to buy it. It's mass-market, and accessible, the equivalent of a paperback book they sell at the airport. That has nothing to do with the quality of the content itself, but it's how you market something with wide appeal. Being able to manufacture and ship thousands and thousands of copies drastically reduces costs such as manufacturing and shipping.

Anime, which really sells only to collectors, can be priced much higher without impacting sales too much either way. There's no point in trying to sell a show like Maoyu to Target or Wal-Mart, because nobody will buy it -- only nerds like us have even heard of it, and only a percentage of us care about it enough to buy it. They'd mostly sit on a shelf and eventually get returned to the publisher. Instead, most copies will be sold through through Amazon or Right Stuf. Since it's a niche product for collectors with only a few thousand copies in circulation, it's worth a bit more.

This is hardly news. Anime VHS tapes, usually containing only an hour worth of material, would commonly be priced at $29.95 retail, which was 50% more than most new-release Hollywood movies used to cost. These days, although anime isn't the CHEAPEST it's ever been (that would've been 2008 or so, when the bubble burst and everyone was liquidating), it's still pretty inexpensive. But collecting anime on discs is a niche market, especially now that streaming and downloading is a thing, so disc sales aren't what they once were. The less nerdy parts of the DVD/BD sales landscape is a little behind in transforming to a collector's market, but in a few years, they may look more like the anime market: slightly higher prices, and more limited editions, aimed at collectors.

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.

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