Why Aren't New Dubs Made For Old-School Shows?

by Justin Sevakis,

Leigh asks:

I'd like to know why dubbing companies don't take more chances on old-school anime. I mean, just look at how long it took my favorite character, Locke the Superman, to get a subtitled DVD release for his feature film. There's a market for nostalgia with older fans, so what prevents old-school anime from getting a chance to shine? Are people afraid that there's just no interest whatsoever? Or is it simply a matter of copyrights and distribution contracts?

This is an older question, but one that still comes up occasionally, so I thought I'd revisit it.

Making new dubs of old shows is a losing proposition for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious one, is that old shows don't sell very many copies. Licensing and producing DVDs of these oldies might cost a publisher only a few thousand dollars, start-to-finish, whereas dubbing a show would cost, at minimum, $7,000 per episode. A few shows are established classics that have enough name recognition that they'll still sell a ton (think: Sailor Moon, Escaflowne), but the vast majority are lucky to move 1,000 units on a new release DVD.

These shows generally don't move the needle much on streaming sites, either -- in fact, some don't even break a thousand views online. Some of them have legal issues behind the scenes preventing them from getting streamed at all. Others have either technical issues with the master tapes that would prevent major streaming sites from accepting them (assuming they even want them in the first place). If a show is cheap to license and is projected to move a couple thousand units of discs, that show is probably worth re-releasing... but a new dub? That's simply a dumb investment.

The other reason is that shows made before the 90s often don't have existing "M&E" tracks -- separate audio tracks containing the music and sound effects, but no dialogue, which is required when dubbing a show. If they do exist, they're usually not on any video master, but rather on old, unsynchronized reel-to-reel audio tapes. Those things have no timecode, often stretch with age, and generally don't synchronize with the video at all anymore. Some of them have degraded to the point where the magnetic oxide layer is flaking off of the tape. (There's a practice where such stricken tapes must be baked in an oven at a low temperature to reset the glue temporarily, but they still sound terrible when that happens.)

Without a useful M&E track, any dub production would require coming up with an all-new audio track, including sound effects and music queues. That's expensive, fraught with legal issues on the approvals-from-Japan side of things, and also an absolute nightmare for anyone unfortunate enough to be working on such a project. It's just not worth the trouble.

It's for this reason that older shows with an existing English dub are worth far more than shows that have never been released in the States. The latter usually have poor fan recognition, and only a handful of really hardcore fans really even know about it. Generally, younger fans steer clear of older stuff entirely. There's just too much for them to catch up on.

Unfortunately, older content, especially older content that hasn't been established as a "classic" across the board, is a very tough sell. If it was never released in the US before and has no existing fan base, it's rare that the show could be successful today. Certainly not successful enough to warrant creating a new dub.

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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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