Why Don't DVDs On Demand Work For Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Drew asks:

Can you explain why in theory anime being released via DVD-on-demand doesn't work? Discotek is starting to stream old shows that they are unsure how they'd sell, like Miss Machinko currently on CrunchyRoll, and a lot of folks have brought up why not do them as DVD-R releases like Warner Archive, however, it was brought up it has been tried once before a few years back and didn't work at that time. What failed then? Could it be different now?

Full disclosure: I make Blu-rays for Discotek.

Ah yes, DVD-On-Demand. I tried that some years ago, through ImaginAsian Entertainment, back in 2006. It was kind of an unmitigated disaster. We had decent sales, but the costs were stratospheric, and the entire operation was run by a company that ended up not paying us before going out of business. Like I said, disaster.

DVD-On-Demand works well for Warner Archive simply because the discs are very simple. All Warner Archive is doing is taking a decades-old master tape from an archive and slamming it on DVD with no further effort. Each disc can be authored in an hour, and most of them aren't very long -- just a movie and maybe a trailer. The menus are generic, and made from templates. There are no subtitles or alternate audio tracks. Some of them look pretty good, but they're absolute bare-bones affairs.

DVD-On-Demand (and Blu-ray On Demand) has a number of limitations. The discs are literally burned on blank DVD-R (or BD-R) media, in the same BD-R drives you can order from NewEgg. Since they're burned discs, they can't be dual layer, because dual layer discs don't burn reliably (you have to burn them excruciatingly slowly), and they tend to have player compatibility problems.

While it may seem like burning discs on demand is cheap, it's actually not. The blank discs -- $0.27 or so for a good quality DVD-R -- are among the cheapest parts. The expensive part is printing the disc label and insert -- those are cheap to mass produce, but full color printing one at a time can really add up. Also, you have to pay people to do all this one at a time. If you need a third party copy protection solution (more on that below), there's a per-disc royalty to pay. And then there's the cost of shipping them out one at a time, which is very expensive unless you're fulfilling customer orders from the same facility as where you're manufacturing.

A lot of licensors are extremely wary of allowing their programs to be distributed on DVD-R or BD-R. Neither format supports the copy protection schemes that their mass-produced siblings do. While both DVD's CSS and Blu-rays AACS copy protections have long been defeated, they still prevent a lot of casual copying -- and most licensors will not allow their shows to be distributed without it. There are alternative copy protection systems out there, but they all charge a royalty per disc you burn, and that further adds to your costs.

And then you have the fans. A lot of them won't order on DVD-R, because recordable discs are seen as less valuable or reliable. Many completely ignore the release unless you sell through Amazon and/or Right Stuf, and if you do that, they get a cut -- further eating away at any money made from the sale.

Anime fans are THE most discerning customers in the world when it comes to audio/visual presentation. They complain if the video quality isn't perfect, if the audio isn't the best available, if the subtitles aren't exactly how they like them. That means that you can't skimp on production -- which usually costs more than replicating the discs would have. They're also likely to get bummed out by the single layer limitation. That means you have to use more discs, and charge more for them, or you have to cut down the video quality.

That's all a lot of effort and a lot of caveats for something that you'd be lucky to sell a few hundred copies of. If you sell any more, you might as well just go ahead and mass-produce the disc like normal. Ultimately, most companies do the math and realize distributing anime on DVD-R is just not worth it.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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