Why Aren't More Original Anime Made?
by Justin Sevakis,
Why do so many anime studios in Japan produce anime based on a light novel, game or manga series but rarely create an original anime? Is it simply less time-consuming and less expensive to make anime while using and altering existing content?
Animation studios generally have two modes: work-for-hire and original work. The business of both of them are very different from each other. Work-for-hire makes up the vast majority of anime being made, and it involves the production committee hiring the studio to make the production for a pre-determined price. The production committee has already decided on the project separate from the studio, and basically shops around to find a studio that can get the job done. As part of the production committee's reason for making the anime is usually to promote an existing manga, book or game, original ideas are usually not considered at this point.
Work-for-hire is hard work, but is pretty straightforward. The existing work, in whatever form it currently exists, acts as the creative jumping-off-point for the scriptwriting and the overall design process. If the original work has a visual component (and isn't just a prose novel) its original artwork may be used to design the look of the anime, be it character or mecha designs, backgrounds and settings, or anything else. As overall world-building can be extremely time-intensive and challenging work, the fact that this job is already done makes the anime staff's job far easier.
For original works, the animation studio develops (or helps an auteur develop) a concept for an anime, and then once it's ready, approaches producers to help them fund it. Self-producing a show is very very difficult. It requires deep pockets (or a parent company with deep pockets) and/or a concept commercial enough that multiple sponsors can be sold on the idea, who then join to become a production committee. This can take years. Many sponsors are wary of original projects, because anime productions so often go off the rails. Even when they do go for original concepts (and as they did a lot in years gone by), these sponsors tend to veer towards "safe" show concepts that are similar to shows or genres that already exist. They're less likely to have a complete dud that way.
If that show is a hit, the studio enjoys a big share of the profits. However, if the show flops, the financial effects can be devastating. Since making a show of their own is a major undertaking that is very important to the studio staff, oftentimes they can stretch themselves to the brink, both physically and financially, in getting it produced. Failing at this point can be a huge blow, and has even contributed to the closure of several studios. (Manglobe was rumored to have never really recovered from the failure of Samurai Flamenco, for example.)
Some studios specialize in original work. Sunrise is a good example: a big percentage of their shows are original anime productions -- especially famous ones like Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, and Tiger and Bunny. Satelight keeps a foot in both worlds: their new series Jushinki Pandora is original (created by Shoji Kawamori), but they're producing Caligula, a mobile game adaptation. But most other studios tend to lean heavily on work-for-hire these days. There's plenty of it, it's far less taxing on staff, and most importantly, it's simply safer.
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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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