Interview: Crunchyroll Talks What Makes an 'Original'

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Crunchyroll parent company Ellation announced the launch of its in-house studio and its originally planned flagship title High Guardian Spice in 2018 with premiere plans set for 2019. One year later and the anime streaming giant launched its first "Crunchyroll Original" title, Tower of God, in April in what the company hopes to be a string of successful IPs. The lineup is set to include multiple adaptations as part of the company's partnership with digital publisher WEBTOON. Anime News Network sat down (at a safe, social distance) with Crunchyroll's Alden Budill, the head of global partnerships and content strategy to discuss streaming services foray into original IP and director of brand and title marketing Carter Hahnselle to see if we could squeeze out any hints on what's in store for Bam as he climbs The Tower of God.

Crunchyroll unveiled its full Originals line-up in February with three animated series based on comics on Webtoons. Can you tell me about how Webtoons and Crunchyroll's partnership started?

Alden Budill: We've had awareness of Webtoons and been in contact for a long time. They have a tremendous array of creators that they support and brought visibility to. The stories those creators have brought to life have incredible depth and breadth across the platform that's a tremendously organic fit for exploration for Crunchyroll in terms of original IP. Webtoons is a very natural partner and we're all very energized and encouraged by the early results of our collaboration.

As you said, Webtoons has a huge catalog; what factors did Crunchyroll and the Webtoons team consider when picking comics for a potential anime adaptation?

Budill: Without getting too far in the nitty gritty we at CR have had many, many years of viewership data and insight into what our audience likes to watch and we brought that information to our discussions with Webtoons. With that background from us and their expertise we were able to come up with a viable list.

Is there a difference between a Crunchyroll co-production, like The Rising of The Shield Hero, and a Crunchyroll Original?

Budill: That's a really good question. Our evolution into different projects, like investing in original content for the platform, is one that has taken place over time. I'm still relatively new to CR so a lot of that hard work preceded me, so I don't want to imply that my fingerprints are all over it. This has been a process that has been a long time coming and developing our approach to creating a CR Original has grown out from the experience in co-productions.

Co-productions are, as I see them, a tool we use and partnership we build for when it's time to invest in an IP we believe in. It also increases our involvement as a party to the production. I think co-productions have really enhanced our overall understanding of building a series from the earliest phases. In terms of CR Originals, I look at those as a sensibility. Those are series that are really developed with an eye towards our community and what we know about them. And we like to think that a CR Original is a piece of content that could only exist within CR and is made for our audiences with the distinct intention to fulfill what they're looking for from us as a brand and what they're looking for from anime as an art form.

The first entry in the Crunchyroll Original line was Urahara in 2015, based on the PARK Harajuku: Crisis Team! webcomic. How has the Crunchyroll Original initiative developed in the five years since Urahara?

Budill: The best way to characterize that first initiative is it was really like a toe in the water. Our first go at experimenting in the original space. Obviously our business, our overall credibility in that space has grown significantly from then to now. I wouldn't necessarily draw a direct line between that series and now as there's a lot that has happened in between.

Taking on the Tower of God adaptation is bold; the webcomic has run for 10 years. The comic is currently in its third season on Webtoon. Does Crunchyroll intend to follow the whole story? What factors would need to be in place to see a multiple season adaptation?

Carter Hahnselle: The fan reaction to Tower of God has been incredible and inspiring. We're so happy the audience loves Bam's story as much as we do! You'll have to check out the series yourself to see how far we follow Bam up the Tower in season one! Can't share too much more beyond that right now, but again we're so glad that fans all over the world have been enjoying the show.

Let's talk about the characters in Tower of God. What do you think is the appeal of Bam as a protagonist and his journey through the Tower?

Hahnselle: Bam is the type of person that you just want to protect. Here is a boy who came from nothing. He meets a girl, and becomes totally devoted in response to her simple companionship. When she decides to leave him, instead of feeling betrayed (like the audience does) he becomes determined to find her. And in a world where you must betray to succeed, Bam carves his own path - choosing to make friends instead of enemies. There is so much to admire in Bam - and so much to root for!

There are a lot of mysteries still surrounding Bam and Co.'s world, can you talk a bit about what the Tower is and the world Bam and Rachel come from?

Hahnselle: The mysteries are what make the story so enthralling! As a viewer, we are introduced to a world that is shrouded in the unknown, and throughout the journey, we unravel bits and pieces through Bam's perspective. The nature of the tower itself is probably the story's largest mystery, but we are given some basics on its inner workings. The tower has its own hierarchical structure, which includes a king and several (badass) princesses. Climbers must be invited, and anyone who enters without permission is considered different, special — like our boy Bam. I know that's not a lot of info, but it's sure proven enough to keep me (and the fans) hooked! And we do know one core thing: climb to the top of the tower, and anything can be yours.

Can you talk a bit about the "Crunchy Onigiri" branding?

Budill: This explanation is a little bit funny. Crunchy Onigiri is essentially the name of a legal entity. The truth is that everyone at Crunchyroll embraces our spirit and ethos, including the lawyers. As they were coming up with a new legal name, that was the name they settled on.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily influenced the entertainment industry in Japan, including anime, and in the U.S. Has production for Onyx Equinox, set to premiere this summer, been affected at all?

Budill: You're right that the entire industry has been impacted in some way. I think there's more to come, we're a ways from the end of it. We don't have anything specific to report right now but we will make it a priority to update our viewers as those come in.

This is a hotly debated topic in the fandom. Are CR Originals "anime", "anime-inspired", or animation? What do you think makes something an "anime"?

Budill: Our portfolio is a mix. Tower of God and The God of High School are anime series created in Japan. Onyx Equinox and High Guardian Spice I'd take your terminology and call them "anime-inspired," as they're created at Crunchyroll Studios in Burbank. That said, they are created by a team of people who both love and respect anime as an art form because they are designed and produced by true fans who seek to infuse that same spirit into their content even though it is created outside of Japan. I also would like to say that our credibility with our audience is our greatest asset. We really take that quite seriously and apply it in our execution of original content so that we're bringing new stories to our audience and stories that are very firmly rooted in the spirit of the artform and the authenticity we believe is so core to the fandom.


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