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Otakon 2008 Fansubs and Industry Panel

by Mikhail Koulikov,

At Otakon 2008, a new sort of industry panel took place. Attempting to bridge the gap between the American anime industry and the fansubbers that are increasingly overtaking them as the means fans use to get their anime, the panel hosted several prominent fansubbers (under their IRC pseudonyms) from groups LivEEviL (YaoiBoy), Shinsen Subs (GetFresh) and Dattebayo (Hishoburaiken and Interactii), along with Funimation's Lance Heiskell, Media Blaster's John Sirabella and MB production guru Sean Molyneaux. The panel was hosted by Ken Hoinsky from the new translation company MX Media.

The format Hoinsky settled on was a short introduction to lay out the groundwork of the current state of fansubbing in the U.S., and then, a sequence of questions presented either to the panel as a whole, or to specific members. To kick off, he also laid out a set of ground rules for the discussion. He would not tolerate attempts to turn the discussion into an “us versus them” debate. The round-table would also work from the assumption that fansubs will not go away or disappear; the goal of the panel would be to talk how the anime industry can adapt to this, and how fansubbers can help along the way. This also gave Hoinsky an opportunity to summarize some of the developments in the anime industry that fansubbers have been involved in – and possibly even responsible for.

It is doubtless that sales of anime in the U.S. have been decreasing, leading to the “collapse or near-collapse” or at least two of the companies in the market. Other companies, even if they have been able to avoid closing their doors entirely, are scaling down production levels. Digital piracy and fansubbing has been cited as one of the causes of the difficulties the industry is facing, although it is not necessarily a direct cause, or an only cause. In any case, unauthorized or outright illegal distribution of anime online has changed drastically in the last few years. Fansubs are higher quality than they have ever been, streaming sites like YouTube and Crunchyroll have made downloading an intuitive, seamless process, and access to Japanese raw episodes' transport streams, which carry the closed captions during their television broadcast has allowed fansubbers to create translations that are better than they have ever been. All of these factors combine to produce some stunning figures: in one recent week, there were at least six million fansubs viewed, according to research conducted by Central Park Media, and in fact, there are more viewers watching the fansubbed versions of some anime than there are people who have legally bought the DVD releases of those series.

The discussion's first question, addressed to the entire panel, simply asked them to reflect on how the proliferation of fansubs has affected both their companies in particular, and the larger North American anime industry in general.

The fansubber GetFresh fielded it first. For whatever else can be said about fansubbing, in his opinion, it has brought more Japanese series to the attention of potential viewers than DVD sales ever have, especially since, unless an anime is shown on television, there is simply not a lot of advertising available regarding new series. Watching fansubs, then attending conventions are, he argues, logical steps in the growth and development of both anime fans specifically and fandom as a whole.

The licensee and distributor view, as presented by Heiskell, is more complicated. There is no monolithic “anime industry”; fansubs affect anime creators in Japan, the Japanese licensing and production companies, American licensees, and down the line, even retailers. At one point in time, fansubs were certainly useful as a promotional tool, but currently, creators and producers simply no longer have control over how a particular anime reaches American viewers. This is particularly true given the proliferation of video-sharing sites – which he named several dozen of – that have drastically lowered the barrier to entry for any viewers interested in immediate and free access to Japanese content. At the same time, reiterating a view he has previously put forth, anime is “good content” that will find its viewers regardless of the restrictions license-holders may impose on access.

The question went back to the fansubber side of the table, as Interactii agreed that at one point, fansubs were a good way for viewers to preview shows and to learn about new ones. That kind of relationship is almost completely gone now; rather, audiences are drawn to fansubs because the official anime industry is not yet able to meet their demands regarding availability and speed. This is beginning to change, however, and if and when the gap between what anime viewers want and what the anime industry is able to offer them fills, the entire picture may change once again.

To get a truer sense of the issue, the moderator then asked whether there was any kind of number regarding the popularity of a fansub site like Dattebayo. As it turns out, there is – in a typical week, it sees at least six hundred thousand individual file transfers.

Going back into the history of fansubbing, Sirabella then reminded the panelists how exactly both the scene and its customers have evolved from the days of college anime clubs, Compuserv forums and Shinsengumi fansubs of Ruruoni Kenshin, distributed by mail and in Chinatown shops. What has changed since, in his view, is the make-up of the consumer pool. From the 1990's image of anime fan as avid collector, all too willing to pay for anything he could actually get his hands on, the audience has changed. Anime is a consumer product, not a status symbol or commodity, and for high-school-age fans with limited incomes, who grew up on Napster and YouTube, the idea that if something is on the Internet, it has to be free feels nothing less than obvious. At the same time, he cautioned all of the panelists that in the greater scheme of things, for all of the talk surrounding the decline of the anime industry, it is still a very small market when compared to, for example, the typical opening-weekend gross of a Hollywood movie.

At the same time, for its revenues, Hollywood can depend on other international markets, on home DVD sales, and on merchandising. For anime companies, on the other hand, home video has always been the predominant revenue stream. And just because of the costs involved with anime production and distribution, and the already low profit margins, Sirabella feels that for anime, an Internet distribution model alone is not going to be viable. In Japan, on the other hand, the collector mentality still persists, so generally, Japanese anime companies see no reason to decrease prices, especially as they are only now beginning to come around and realize how important the overall international market is to their profits.

Turning the spotlight more firmly on the fansubbers, the moderator asked each one of them to talk about the reasons they first started creating fansubs, why they still continue, how their own motivations as fansubbers change, and how did the scope of the entire practice evolve.

YaoiBoy's motivation to begin as a fansubber is, perhaps, the easiest to understand among the four speakers. His goal was to “fill a hole” and prove fans access to classic 20 to 30-year-old anime that the anime companies have either ignored entirely or only release in versions that are extensively edited. “It makes me feel good to present the show in the way it originally was”, he says.

GetFresh actually “retired” as a fansubber, but returned once Macross Frontier began airing, since, in his view, no Macross series will ever be released commercially in the U.S. as long as Harmony Gold retains the rights to the original.

Like YaoiBoy, Interactii is driven by a sort of service ethic. “Dattebayo started because we love these shows,” he says, and grew because of fan demand and positive feedback. There is clear interest in the fansubs he works on, and that feeds back to give him a reason to create more.

Hishoburaiken, to round out the four, was driven by a sense of competition. He felt that he could create a better fansub than some of the other groups already working, and did not want to let them get away with putting out an "inferior product." He also went back to Sirabella's comment about the difference between fansub audiences of ten years ago and the people who watch fansubs now. Both groups, he argues, are on the cutting edge of the best technology available during their time.

The next question Hoinsky threw out asked the panelists to reflect specifically on the effect that the launch of BitTorrent and other video sharing/streaming sites has had on the audience for fansubs.

Heiskell immediately made the point that from the industry's perspective, streaming sites are particularly hard to interdict, and the easy availability of licensed anime on them has had a direct effect on sales. Streaming sites that actually implement subscription charges are even more egregious, since none of the money they make gets back to anime's original creators. "These are the people you should be really concerned about," he warned. Just like fansubbers, Funimation's goal is also to promote anime, but it is driving towards this goal in its own way. Heiskell also predicted that, as video streaming technology evolves, and is accepted by more and more people, Japanese anime producers will come to embrace it. Within two years, he predicted, it may not be uncommon to see anime that are created in Japan, subtitled in English by Japanese companies directly, and then streamed worldwide.

Heiskell's firm stance against streaming sites found easy support all around the table. A particular concern that all of the fansubber panelists raised is the fact that anime series, whether fansubbed or actually released commercially, that are placed on such sites cannot be controlled or removed easily. Nonetheless, this does not prevent even fansubbing groups from trying to force some sites to take down files of anime series that they had worked on. In particular, Dattebayo has been active in this field - while for its own part, committing to abide by any take-down notices. GetFresh's position on this is similar: the purpose of fansubbing is not to aggravate. At this point, as the talk turned to some of the specific ways in which both anime companies and anime fans can react to unauthorized distribution, Heiskell also revealed that his company had recently been retained by the Japanese anime production house d-rights to "preemptively" take down fansubs of a slate of anime that have currently aired in Japan, including Nabari no Ou, Hitman Reborn, Bamboo Blade, Monochrome Factor, and Cazador de la Bruja. He emphasized, however, that Funimation does not hold a license to distribute any of these, and in fact, may not necessarily end up licensing all of these series.

Returning to the industry perspective, the panelists were asked to think to what degree America's anime companies would ever be willing to tolerate the existence of unauthorized distribution of anime. Heiskell actually believes that overall, fansubbing is not going to ever disappear. Some 30% of anime fans, in his opinion, will simply never spend money to watch Japanese animation. So, if fighting the demand is hard, Funimation will have to turn to policing the supply, or at least keeping it in check.

Somewhat surprisingly, the fansubbers on the panel largely agreed with this sentiment. "You don't have to deal with fansubs, you have to make them moot," said Hisshoubaraiken, who also argued that as anime companies in Japan and in the U.S. adopt new practices, the percentage of fans who will be reluctant to pay for their anime will decrease. At the same time, companies must be careful to avoid damaging their own reputations in the eyes of hard-core fans - especially when there is a consensus even among fan-subbers that there is a difference between translating an episode of a series that just recently aired in Japan and ripping a full episode off a DVD that is already commercially available in English. Interactii agreed that there would be an audience for legal digital downloads of anime as well.

A more specific question followed: Would a more aggressive industry approach to fansubs dissuade any of the four fansubber panelists from continuing their work?

Here, the replies were more nuanced. YaoiBoy says he would "absolutely stop" fansubbing if requested, but would then demand that whichever company does the asking then give him a viable alternative to watch the anime in question. GetFresh said, flat-out, that his response would depend on whether the company that attempts to get him to stop fansubbing actually has the North American rights to the series. Dattebayo's Interactii would stop as well - but he is fully sure that if one group were to abandon a series, another, with fewer ethical concerns, would likely come right along to continue. Even more complicated is the possibility that a new fansubbing group that picks up a series after an established one has dropped it will do an inferior job of presenting it to fans. In addition, anime companies may do well to notice that according to a survey Dattebayo conducted recently, some 40% of a total of 70,000 respondents answered that their decision to buy an anime DVd was actually based on having first watched a fansub.

For Hissobaraiken, the answer also depends on which exactly company were to approach his group. Moreoever, he noted that fansubbing is something that occurs on the group level, but from then on, individual fansub files are distributed by individuals, and no anime company can afford to then engage in tracking down and stopping these individual file-sharers. Summarizing, the moderator proposed that the answer to whether fansub groups would voluntarily cease their activities is...maybe.

This, naturally, led into a question of whether the industry representatives on the panel think about actually preventing either individual fansub groups or BitTorrent tracking sites from participating in further distribution of fansubs.

Just some of the difficulties here that Heiskell and the two Media Blasters speakers brought up included the difficulty of penetrating fansub distribution networks that are based on IRC, and the issue of properly determining the nationalities of fansub creators and sharers. Funimation's general attitude is to go after "devices, not people", and overall, work more to meeting the needs of their customers better than their competitors can, rather than devoting time and resources to fighting with the competition. Similarly, Media Blasters, a fairly small company that dedicates most of its efforts to actual DVD production simply cannot afford to go away from that core business.

Another question to the industry representatives was whether they ever noticed the existence and popularity of fansubs for particular anime having an effect on how expensive the North American distribution licenses for those series were. In Funimation's experience, that has not been the case, since they have frequently had to make a licensing decision based on nothing more than a screening of one or two episodes. Media Blasters generally is not even concerned with the question, since the shows they focus on are more eclectic, and come with a built-in collector audience.

Recently, it has been suggested that if Japanese anime distributors embraced digital distribution of their shows, with English subtitles and supported by advertising, on the same day that they were shown on Japanese television, much of the issues surrounding fansubbing would become irrelevant. Only Heiskell was able to comment on the possibility of this happening. Such a scenario is definitely something his company is working on, and of Funimation's Japanese partners, Gonzo has shown itself to be particularly understanding. However, it is still extremely difficult to convince typical anime production committees that are made up of representatives of many different companies that an approach of this kind is ever viable. Similarly, Japanese companies are - and will likely remain - reluctant to directly use fansubbers' expertise during production.

The final question to the panel asked the speakers to think about how they would like to see the North American anime industry change to best work towards a harmonious relationship with fansubbers and fans. The answers, from various of the fansubbers, were to continue developing and perfecting new distribution models for anime, embrace the Blu-Ray format more fully, and stop editing anime for American release. "I don't like Americanization on my DVD's. I can handle Japanese culture," one of them stated, to much applause from the audience.

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