Can Fans Ever License Obscure Shows Themselves?

by Justin Sevakis,

Nessa asked:

Say there's an anime with a dedicated Western fan following, but no interest from licensors and it went completely under the radar in Japan. There's no home media releases, it's nowhere to be found on streaming in any territory... the company behind it don't seem to care for the show as it's a failed project and so, they have buried it. Is it ever, at all possible, for a fan collective to maybe make a proposal to the rights holders to release the show to them for licensing? (Obviously assuming that somebody in the fan group is fluent in Japanese language and business practices.) Or is it extremely likely to fail?

It's POSSIBLE, and it's even happened a couple of times throughout the history of American anime fandom. It's just not likely.

For a licensor, it's very seldom a matter of a show just sitting on a shelf, gathering dust and not making any money. Licensing a show out to a publisher is a great deal of work on their part. If they're going to engage in all the legal and logistical legwork that's involved, it had better be worth it. And, in licensing a show to a ramshackle group of fans... well, it's very seldom worth it.

When an anime is produced, the producer has to engage in all sorts of contracts -- with the original creator, with the director, with the writers, with the musicians, with the talent, and with whoever else contributed money to the production. These contracts make them forever obligated to these people. Whenever a new opportunity comes along for that show, be it an international licensing deal, a new DVD or Blu-ray release in Japan, a streaming or TV deal or whatever else, all of those people have to be paid royalties, and some of those people have to be consulted. Some even get to sign off on the deal.

For older shows, or shows that were made without proper producer oversight, some of those contracts don't cover modern things like streaming. Some don't even cover the use of the work internationally. Those people (or their next of kin) then have to be tracked down and a new contract has to be agreed upon and signed with them. In the case of some of the master agreements with the creator, sometimes there's even an expiration date, after which the creator can completely kill any further release of the show, as if it never existed.

Any prospective release of a show needs to be on the up-and-up, if for no other reason than to bear the responsibility to all of those people that the producers are contractually obligated towards. If a group of fans enters the picture, and never having released a show before, it's a gamble to work with them, even if they seem legit. Because, worst case scenario, they go belly-up and the release ends up never happening, the licensor has spent a bunch of time and money jumping through legal hoops, gathering materials, and getting creators to sign off on a worthless deal. That's a serious embarrassment.

Even if this group of fans manages to get it together to establish a contact with the licensor, present themselves in a way that they'll be able to pay a license fee and release the show, there's still the matter of whether or not they can get it sold anywhere, collect the revenues from the retailers, file regular sales reports, and pay any royalties that would be due down the line. That's a high bar. Not many groups of people who are "just fans" are capable of all of that. And it doesn't matter how obscure or forgotten the show is, because the licensor owes it to the producer to find a partner that can fulfill all of those legal obligations.

There are a precious few (mostly older) titles that are owned outright by some licensors. These are usually original works, or based on an old, public domain piece of literature. These don't have an original creator that has to be sold on the deal, so if a licensor is going to test out a new potential distribution partner, it'll probably be with one of these shows. That way, if the fan group/startup they license the show to self-destructs (as they usually do), nobody has to make an embarrassing phone call to the creator and explain what happened.

A while back, Mike Toole wrote a column about all the little publishers, mostly started by overzealous fans, that only stuck around for one or two releases (and a couple that face-planted before accomplishing anything). This whole business of licensing and releasing anime is a lot harder than it looks...

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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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