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Why Don't More Anime Discs Come With Digital Downloads?

by Justin Sevakis,

Joe asks:

I recently got the Psycho-Pass movie on Blu-Ray and instantly noticed something strange on the box - it came with a digital copy of the movie. I've been getting digital copies with most Blu-Rays of Hollywood movies and even some TV shows for years, but it just occurred to me that I've never seen an anime release include a digital copy before. Are there licensing or production issues that go with including a digital copy along with a disc, or is it something that just isn't worth it most of the time?

Including a digital copy with a Blu-ray is a very nice extra that Hollywood studios include all the time. The US-based anime publishers would love to do that too, but doing so is a lot more difficult and costly than one might imagine.

Years ago, the major Hollywood studios would include downloads with their discs via iTunes. However, this wasn't a good long-term solution. Download codes for each film had to be purchased from Apple, which meant that every unit sold meant Apple got a royalty -- something that the studios were really not all that comfortable with. Additionally, not everybody uses iTunes. So the studios all got together and made their own platform.

That platform launched in fall 2011, and is called UltraViolet. UltraViolet acts as a conduit between several major movie studios (20th Century Fox, Anchor Bay, BBC, Lionsgate, Paramount, Relativity, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Bros.) as well as online movie stores Vudu, Flixter, Cinema Now, Fandango Now, Kaleidescape, Verizon FiOS and the studios' own websites. You go to the appropriate website and enter a code, and the movie gets redeemed for you across all of the sites in the UltraViolet network. (Meanwhile, Disney came up with their own entirely separate system called Disney Movies Anywhere, which works with iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Microsoft and Amazon -- It's also a little clumsy but has some real advantages.)

As one might expect, UltraViolet is clumsy and complicated, with virtually every website in the system requiring its own login, occasional download codes that don't work, and other nonsense. That said, once you have a movie or TV show in your digital library, it's available everywhere, across every service, which is pretty nice. UltraViolet partner services usually have apps on Smart TVs, and have iOS and Android apps. Some of the apps even let you temporarily download (encrypted) video for offline play. But not every website has every UltraViolet movie and TV show.

Anyway, when the service first launched it had a boatload of problems, and a lot of people tried it once and walked away. Now, years later, the service is up to 25 million users. The studios have kept up with the download codes and their customers appear to be using them. Or at least, they're selling them on eBay to people that will.

Funimation discs are now distributed by Universal Pictures, and as part of that arrangement they are now able to include UltraViolet codes with some of their discs. (This has to be approved by the Japanese licensor, as always.) It appears that Warner Bros. is not extending the same offer to Viz Media, or at least, Viz isn't taking advantage of it. A per-unit fee is definitely involved with offering a video on UltraViolet, as is the delivery of the video materials to every UltraViolet partner.

With most anime discs only expected to sell between 5,000 and 10,000 units, so the time and expense involved in releasing a show via UltraViolet may sometimes not be worth it. We don't know how much the fees for each unit sold are, or how much those prices vary depending on how many units are printed. UltraViolet was created for mainstream films that sell hundreds of thousands of copies; the pricing structure for smaller niche releases may simply be too costly.

Regardless, UltraViolet isn't really available to publishers that work entirely outside of the major studio system. If an anime publisher wanted to include a digital copy, they would have to either buy their own download codes from iTunes AND an alternative service (that would get insanely costly, especially at low quantities), or build their own digital media platform. Simply offering video without some sort of security mechanism in place that guards against ripping and copying is simply a non-starter with licensors.

And so, offering a digital copy remains out of reach for most independent video distributors, anime publishers included. Hopefully someday that will change, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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