Why Did US Anime Publishers Experiment With Western Cartoons?

by Justin Sevakis,

Taylor asked:

I've gone through Funimation's catalog on DVDEmpire and watched the "not-so-hidden secret" videos from Skippy on Youtube, and from what I saw, during the mid-00s, Funimation licensed several cartoons for release on DVD and VHS (including Code Lyoko, Boom Boom Sabotage, and, with their Our Time Family Entertainment label, Arthur). There's also Degrassi: The Next Generation, and another different show from it's producers. Why did they do something like that?

It wasn't just Funimation. ADV Films released Super Duper Sumos. Media Blasters released Invader Zim. Manga Video released The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. If you count edited kids' anime from TV, Korean animation that looked like anime, and live action anime tie-ins, the list gets a lot longer: nearly every anime publisher has released things other than anime.

The US anime distributors are businesses, and during the DVD gold rush, they had something that a lot of companies wish they had: a distribution infrastructure. This included having ongoing sales relationships with major media store chains like Musicland Group (Sam Goody, Musicland, Suncoast, Media Play), TransWorld (Record Town, FYE, Coconuts, Saturday Matinee), Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video, Best Buy, Walmart, Target, and all of the other places that sold shiny discs back in the day. Amazon had not yet become the dominant force in retail it is today, and other online retailers were just starting to become a thing, so these brick-and-mortar stores were very important gatekeepers when it came to what was made available to consumers.

In addition to having a strong relationship with retailers, these companies had their own sales team. They knew how to drum up support with retailers, get new releases placed on shelves, and work within stores to get their titles included on sales, in promotional circulars, and displayed prominently. They knew how to produce and author DVDs (which was not all that common back then). They knew how to create packaging according to established retail standards, and get the product out the door.

This was very valuable know-how and infrastructure, and it often seemed like a waste to JUST use it for anime, when there was potential to use it for much more. Content owners of things other than anime call these companies on an ongoing basis, hoping to do a deal. At some point, any owner of a distribution business like this would think to themselves, "we serve the anime market well enough, why can't we serve other markets too?"

And so, you had labels like Funimation's Our Time, ADV's ADV Kids, and others, reaching out to what seemed at the time to be markets that were adjacent to anime. Kids cartoons weren't anime, of course, but they were animated, and some of them had crossover appeal.

Mass market home video barely even exists anymore, but when it did, it worked much differently than anime. Anime is a specialty market, where the consumers generally already know about the shows and shop for their favorite shows specifically. Kids' cartoons were mostly impulse buys -- they had to be stocked in stores and on shelves where kids would see them -- toy stores, and in toy sections. The economics are far different -- they have to be priced low, and you have to make it up in volume. You have to print far more discs, and take far more of a risk in retailers returning what they can't sell. It's not the same game at all.

Some of these releases did okay, but most of them didn't work out all that great. At the time it wasn't a big deal -- the anime world was flush, and there was money to be made elsewhere. Just a business experiment that didn't quite work out.

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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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