Is Netflix Good For Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Kasra asked:

Funimation's president Gen Fukunaga got very salty about Netflix getting Evangelion. It seems like to him and some of fans that Netflix will not do the series justice. But it should be celebrated since well eva is back for the old otakus(been only a fan since my mid 20s) and it might help get new fans maybe?

For those who haven't seen it, Funimation president Gen Fukunaga told Polygon in an interview that Funimation would've done a better job marketing Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that Netflix only got the title because of their ability to vastly overpay for shows.

It's well-known that Funimation would've loved to have the series. They got the movies, going to great lengths to re-unite key cast members for the dub, and marketed them heavily. They even infamously redubbed the third movie (likely at no small expense) after Khara determined that they adapted the script too much. (Fans love to give Funimation grief for that, but you must remember that licensors get to approve dub scripts before they get recorded.)

And so, Fukunaga's words sure do sound a bit... let's call them "savory." His company didn't get what they wanted, and now he's disparaging the company that did. No doubt the implied drama caught people's attention, because his comments were HEAVILY re-blogged and reposted by other pop culture news sites (including this one).

But is he right? Do shows that appear on exclusively Netflix die on the vine, unseen by many, because they don't put much effort into marketing them? It's hard to say for sure, because Netflix infamously never releases numbers -- even to people who produce these shows. Absolutely no information is available about how well anything does on Netflix. Even their recent grudging theatrical releases for films like Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece Roma are data black-holes, because rather than releasing the films normally, Netflix is renting out the theaters ("four-walling") to prevent them from reporting grosses to box office tracking services.

But there's a growing suspicion in Hollywood and among anime producers that the company might be hiding these numbers for a reason. There's no doubt that shows like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black are huge, mainstream shows and are part of the cultural zeitgeist. But there are literally hundreds of shows -- perhaps thousands -- that Netflix either produces or licenses exclusively that nobody has ever heard of. A few high profile shows get a lot of marketing thrown at them, but most of their output gets posted with little notice. Much of it seems to be ignored or forgotten. The general theory when dealing with secretive tech companies is that, if a project does well enough, they'll loudly brag about the numbers -- but staying silent about them is usually hiding failure... or at least, mediocrity.

Due to their sheer number of subscribers, Netflix has become so dominant that that major studios like Disney are cutting them off, refusing to license them content. And Netflix is spending an obscene amount of money -- a reported $10 BILLION this year ($2 billion of which is deficit spending) on content, mostly so that they can make their own shows and not be beholden to traditional producers like the major Hollywood studios. But without any idea how many people actually watch these shows, it's not clear whether people will stick around solely for "Netflix Original" offerings.

This is why anime is so important for Netflix. Anime fans are passionate enough that a good anime offering will all but ensure that they stick around. And a title like Evangelion is so important, and demand for it is so pent up, that it alone can give people the impression that Netflix is an anime destination. It's been widely reported that Netflix doesn't even care that people watch their content so much as add it to their queue, so that they have a reason to continue paying for a Netflix subscription. And Evangelion so well-known that everybody who cares even slightly about anime will feel that they need to at least see it once.

There's an old canard that anime doesn't need to be marketed: that the fans talk amongst themselves so much and the enthusiast press covers releases so exhaustively that all fans already know about all the shows, and advertising is a waste. That's probably true of more niche titles, but there are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of fringe fans that don't pay much attention, but are still open to watching a particularly good anime if one piqued their interest. Of all the companies currently marketing anime, only Funimation currently goes to much effort to reach those potential fringe viewers on a regular basis.

But while it's true that Netflix currently under-markets many of their shows, when people do care, their sheer size can shine a spotlight on a series in a way Funimation could not dream of. As proof, their YouTube teaser for Evangelion has well over 800,000 views on YouTube, 3.06 million views on Twitter and 2.8 million views on Facebook as of this writing -- two weeks after it was posted. It got written up in countless mainstream entertainment websites. It's already a phenomenon, simply by being Evangelion, and by Netflix simply being Netflix. It did not need Funimation's help. It's not at all clear to me that Netflix is missing some major part of the puzzle in its release of the series, but I honestly can't think of anything Funimation could be doing better at this point.

The concern with anime on Netflix comes not with giant ubiquitous shows like Evangelion, but with smaller shows. Evangelion won't die on the vine at Netflix, but smaller shows already have, and many others probably will. And as for their ability to overpay for licenses... well, let's just say that $2 billion dollars in annual deficit spending is going to catch up with them sooner or later.

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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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