Why Do Publishers License Anime And Not Release It?

by Justin Sevakis,

Miri asks:

Recently I was looking at some (US) publishers' lists of announced titles and I noticed that many licensed series but never do anything with them -- no DVD, Blu-ray, and sometimes not even streaming. Aniplex of America is particularly bad with this, considering Meikaku City Actors and Nanana's Buried Treasure hasn't had any releases or news since 2014 and Day Break Illusion since 2013, -- and that's not the full list. Sentai Filmworks didn't have any news on their release of Legend of the Galatic Heroes since 2015 until they answered a question about it on their page. Why do companies bother to license shows they don't plan to sell or do anything with? It feels impractical and like a major waste of money.

There have been a number of titles over the years, where a licensing announcement has been made, and then... nothing. No new news, no release of any kind. Nothing but the handful of fans that remember the announcement quietly (or not so quietly) wondering what the heck happened.

Aniplex of America is a special case, since they are simply a satellite releasing office for Aniplex, who is the original producer/licensor behind most of these shows. That means that every title that they control worldwide distribution rights to automatically is part of the Aniplex of America arsenal. (This does not mean every title they co-produce... remember, anime is made by a comittee of companies that split the rights in different ways amongst themselves.) Whether or not they do anything to make the show available in the US depends on how well the show does streaming. If they don't think, based on the evidence that they have, that a physical release is worthwhile, they won't do it.

As for the rest of the publishers, there are a few things that can happen. The most common one is that, despite having a signed contract and perhaps paying the first chunk of a license fee, something has happened in Japan that has caused the licensor to go, "oh, wait a minute. We can't do this right now." They'll notice that some piece of music in the show hasn't been cleared for international use, or the original creator will say something about being worried about their overseas release, or even business reasons like wanting to wait to collect the license fees in the future because they foresee some lean times ahead. Oftentimes the licensor won't give the publisher a clear reason, just a "no." Or not even respond.

In times like this, the publisher really doesn't have much recourse. They could just go, "screw you guys, I already have the rights, so I'm just going to rip and re-author the Japanese Blu-rays," but that would piss off everyone on the production committee to the point where they'd likely never get to license another show from them ever again. If money was paid, they might be able to redirect those fees toward another show. And they'll just keep hammering the licensor until they hear that it's OK to proceed with the release. That can take years.

In other cases, it's the publisher themselves that gets overwhelmed. This can happen with really long shows (like Legend of Galactic Heroes), older shows that might not sell very well, and shows without any real political reason pushing them towards release. The publishers are always short-handed, and pushing out SO MANY RELEASES that they simply get back-burnered in favor of something that will sell more copies.

These delays can be incredible wastes of money. Each license agreement covers a set number of years, and if a significant number of those are spent just waiting for master files and a green light for release, then the publishers are not getting what they paid for. They will often be able to negotiate an extension to the agreement, in cases like that.

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