Is The "Netflix" Way Of Making Shows A Savior For The Anime Business?
by Justin Sevakis,
The trailer for the new Castlevania anime came out today and my coworkers and I were remarking on the animation quality. It's an American production (despite what I thought initially), but it got me thinking... Would Netflix-style contracts/production be a way out of the abysmal animation industry conditions over there? It seems like being given a more lenient release schedule, more creative (and quality) control, and overall better funding would lead to lower stress and higher pay. If Netflix (or some other streaming service) landed some must-see titles to get users to adopt the service, it seems like it could start to turn the tide a little bit.
It's an interesting idea. A lot would have to change for it to work, but stranger things have happened.
As most people who closely follow the anime industry know, work conditions for animators are generally abysmal. Almost all the new, young talent leave pretty quickly because the hours are so long and the pay is so pathetic that they can't afford to move out of their parents' house, even if they work an insane amount of overtime. This is causing huge problems for the production of new anime, which is always short-staffed. The animation staff that are working are stretched to the breaking point.
Business is booming in the anime industry right now. Streaming revenues from North America and China have more than offset declines in DVD/Blu-ray revenues. However, this rise in cashflow is not trickling down to the actual anime production companies, who have spent decades cutting their costs to the bone in order to stay competitive. Rather than pay more for production, the producers on the Production Committees are using the money to make more shows.
Netflix's means of producing a series would really not up-end this model very much. Currently, Netflix works like a traditional American TV network, where they work with traditional TV studios like Sony Pictures Television, Lionsgate, Weinstein and others to actually produce their shows. What's up-ending about their business model is that they spend a lot of money, they don't share viewership numbers (with anyone), and they're producing a LOT of content.
So why wouldn't Netflix join a production committee so they can start doing the same for anime? Well, it's not that easy. Production committees run by consensus decision-making, and generally will only let in long-time partners that they know they can trust. (Funimation and Crunchyroll have only recently become involved this way.) Netflix, Amazon and other tech interests aren't really known for moving slow and playing by other people's rules. They sort of use their money as a battering ram. That means if they decide to produce an anime, they're on their own.
Assuming that this is what Netflix or somebody would want to do, it's highly unlikely they'd try to produce a project in-house from start-to-finish. That's simply not what they do. They work with producers to find and develop new shows, and then have them produced. In the case of anime, they'd need hire a planning office (what we would call a "producer" in the US) to develop the project, coordinate with the animation studio, find the top-level talent, and work out all of the contracts. Some anime studios can do that (such as Sunrise, Pierrot, Madhouse and MAPPA), but not many.
Anime studios have, by and large, not worked on many outsourced Western productions since the mid-90s, and they're really no longer very adept at it. To really get behind a show, anime directors expect to fully understand the overall concept of the show, either by reading the original work it's to be based off of, or by co-creating the project themselves. They need to be able to see the screenplay, and be able to have some back-and-forth with the screenwriter.
American co-productions very seldom work like that. Usually, an American producer is used to taking care of all of the storytelling heavy lifting themselves, and then hiring the foreign studios to pump out whatever they had in mind. It's impossible to attract Japanese creative talent to a project like that. At best, you get something like Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. There is so much anime work going on right now that no director will be all that interested in slaving away on a film they are basically making as a paint-by-numbers exercise from someone else's grand vision. In one case, the anime studio quietly subcontracted an entire job to Korea, rather than work on it themselves!
So in order for a project with Netflix to get started, a Japanese producer would basically have to pitch Netflix at an early stage of planning, and then rely on them to swoop in with their big bank of money to co-develop the show, and hire a high-end anime house at well above market prices. Basically, everybody would have to be on the same page that the goal was to pay the staff above market rates. Possibly under the guise of "there's so many shows right now, we need to attract the top talent."
Like I said, kind of a tough road to get there. But the whole relationship between anime producers and the actual animators is so screwed up at this point, I feel like something unusual needs to happen soon to break what is arguably an abusive cycle. This is as good of a scenario as any.
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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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