Why Did Funimation Partner With China's bilibili?
by Justin Sevakis,
In the last week Funimation just announce a partnership with the Chinese streaming platform bilibili. This has had a lot of anime fans wonder why they would do this? In the last few years Funimation was sold to SONY, which has a billion dollar bank role as well as deep ties to the anime industry. Which made perfect sense considering where the industry has been moving. The China element has many fans weary as well considering their history of stifling media that dose not align with their political beliefs. Why did Funimation agree to this partnership? What are they getting out of it that SONY could not already provide?
China is a huge market for anime streaming, rivaling even North America. Companies like Tencent, Baidu (owner of iQIYI) and Alibaba (owner of Youku) have invested billions of Yen into anime content, driving up licensing prices even faster than Netflix has for Western audiences. Of the big Chinese streaming companies, bilibili is the biggest, and is so huge that they are publicly traded on NASDAQ. In addition to streaming anime, they've diversified into other sorts of professional video content in recent years, and also have a hand in online games (Fate/Grand Order was a HUGE hit for them) and comics. Their video player features a "barrage" of scrolling comment text (much like NicoVideo), which can be turned off.
China, of course, is a much different market for anime than the West. Government censorship is an always-present force in Chinese life, and so R-rated shows and shows with "transgressive" or "antisocial" themes will largely be unavailable. I can't find any information on whether actual editing of anime takes place, or if the whole shows are simply not made available.
Anyway, the announcement made at AnimeJapan was very short on details -- both companies gave vague platitudes about how helpful the partnership would be in bringing new anime to its customers, and Funimation's Gen Fukunaga (who is mysteriously still being billed as CEO despite stepping down to a chairman role two months ago) made a comment about helping the company release simuldubs. We simply have no idea what this partnership will look like or how the two companies will work together.
And on the face of it, there's really almost no overlap between what the two companies do. The two serve vastly different audiences in two different parts of the world. They don't need to translate or dub the shows into the same language, and Chinese and English are so different that there are no efficiencies to be had in doing both languages together. Production, streaming, physical distribution and marketing are all best kept completely separate. The two countries don't even have the same taste in anime -- while big shows like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z are huge in both countries, recent Chinese/Japanese co-productions (sometimes funded by rival company Tencent) often don't even make it on Western fans' radar.
But this agreement is about licensing, and the general idea that approaching Japanese licensors and producers as a unified front would be better for both of them. Perhaps, in negotiations, some licensors have been playing the two companies against each other, demanding that they meet each other's bids.
Or perhaps this is about making a better "one stop shop" that can handle anime distribution worldwide. Funimation has been trying to make itself more of a worldwide presence, but Crunchyroll has a significant lead in trying to service the worldwide market. Now that Crunchyroll is part of WarnerMedia and has direct pipelines to Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, they look like a pretty great place for a licensor trying to work with as few companies as possible to get their shows in as many places as possible. A combined Funimation and bilibili would be quite a rival to that.
Most of the potential benefits of the Sony Pictures buyout of Funimation are still yet to be realized. Physical media is still being distributed by Universal Pictures for now. Any new production committees Funimation has managed to get onto thanks to papa Sony won't bear fruit for at least another few years. Any sort of cooperation between Funimation and Aniplex (part of Sony Music Japan) hasn't yet materialized. The reforming of the company under Sony leadership has, apparently, only recently begun.
Frankly, I'm not too sure how seriously to take the announcement. While the recent partnership between Funimation and Crunchyroll endured for a few years, there have been numerous other partnerships, co-licensing arrangements, etc. between anime distributors that never bore fruit, or ended nearly as soon as they began. But regardless, I don't expect Chinese tastes or censorship requirements to affect what we get Stateside, aside from maybe Funimation ending up with a handful of shows that don't connect with Western audiences that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
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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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