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Interview: Michelle Lee

by Bamboo Dong,

We had a chance to chat with Michelle Lee, social media manager for Funimation, about the company's decision to release a premium edition of Kamisama Kiss. The complete series was released February 11, and is available in both a standard BD/DVD combo release, as well as a "Goddess Edition" which comes with Nanami's ornamental hair stick, a folding fan, a tote bag, a Tomoe Omamori lucky amulet, seven postcards, and an exclusive colelctor's artbox. The MSRP for the set is $129.98.

Regarding the Goddess Edition for Kamisama Kiss, it's actually the first time Funimation has really done something like this, correct?

Yes. Kamisama Kiss is going to be our first release that has our premium edition branding and this brand-new configuration.

What makes this different from your usual box sets?

Our premium edition differs from our normal limited editions because it's going to have not only the full episodes, but it will also include lots of extras that are not available anywhere else. With our limited editions, we had only added maybe media content with an extra art book, or maybe a booklet with additional information about the show. And with this new configuration you're gonna get a lot of customized items.

Such as?

For the Goddess edition, it's going to be a wider box because it's going to have to hold all of the extras, and it has a hair stick that's based off of Nanami's hair stick in the show. It also contains an omamori lucky charm which is the kind you see at a real Japanese shrine. It has a folding fan, a tote bag, and art postcards. You also get the entire series on Blu-ray/DVD combo, and on the discs for the series you get audio and video voice actor commentaries. But if that's not something you're interested in, we're also releasing a standard edition that's just going to be the Blu-ray/DVD combo.

Why Kamisama Kiss? Why is this the first title you've chosen to go out all out?

We chose Kamisama Kiss because it's a really solid show, it's got an incredible pedigree, and it's from the same director as Fruits Basket, which is a perennial bestseller for us. And not only that, but what you may not know is that Kamisama Kiss was our number one simulcast for the fall 2012 season. It broke all previous simulcast records up to that time, and for us, simulcast numbers are our best indicator for a show's popularity and so we use that to determine what kind of release something should get.

Are you worried that because so many people watched it while it was simulcasting that they wouldn't be willing to plunk down the higher price tag for this premium edition?

I don't think so, because with the premium edition. It's got some really cool extras, and if you're a real big fan of the show, it's catering to that fan. The hair stick is great for cosplay, you can also use it every day if you want to, and it's functional. The tote bag is also functional. The omamori charm is really cute and you can put that on your bag or your purse and carry that around with you. And all the extras are included on the disc, plus the English dub that is also included as well. We think it's a really appealing release.

Part of the appeal of simulcasts is that there's almost no risk attached with watching one. You know, if you're not doing anything that day, you can see what's on Funimation.com, you can see what's on Hulu. But with something like this, it's up front, saying, “I'm going to pay $130 for this,” and for people who have already seen and loved the show it seems like a no-brainer, but for people for whom this is the first time they're hearing of this show… are you also hoping to try to target that audience too?

Of course, we're also trying to target people who have not seen the show, but might be interested in something like it because of a similar genre that they've been a big fan of in the past, like Fruits Basket or Ouran High [School Host Club]. Those types of shows have always done really well for us and are continuously our best sellers. We're really relying on word of mouth from our fans; I think that's one of the reasons it really did so well in simulcasts, because we had fans who were watching the show who were like, “Oh, it's really, really good, you should watch it too!” to all of their friends, and so we're kind of relying on the same thing for this release. We've also got a very limited and very short print run for this premium edition, and so we're still testing the waters a little bit to see if this is something we can do in the future.

Do you have other of these premium editions planned for future titles already?

We've got one already for Psycho Pass, which is going to be coming out shortly after. It's a very different show, obviously, so they're kind of on two different ends of the spectrum. With the Psycho Pass premium edition, since the show was a little bit more music-focused, there are soundtracks included for the release, among other things like a card case and a keychain. So the configurations are a little bit different.

There are a couple of other companies in the U.S. that do fairly well mostly doing fan-oriented premium releases. Has their success at all perhaps influenced some of your willingness to jump into this new venture?

We've been paying attention to it for a while, and we've had fans on social [networks] obviously asking for it, for these other kinds of releases, or looking for something a little bit more special that caters more to the collector. So we've had in mind for a little while, and then when Kamisama Kiss came along, we were like “Oh, okay, this is the perfect time to test this out.”

Have you considered doing this for titles you've already released, like in the form of a re-release?

That's actually more of a brand-manager question, so it falls more into their strategy. I'm not really prepared to answer that.

After this and Psycho Pass, when do you think that you'll be willing to step back and think, “Okay, based on the sales of these two items, we're going to go forward” or keep trying things here and there? What is your goal before moving forward?

We first have to see how these two premium editions do on the market, so I'm not sure at what point they'd take a step back and think, “this is something we can do for future releases.” But first things first, if fans want to see something like this for future releases, if there's something they desperately want to see a premium edition for, then the best thing to do is to go out and buy or preorder Kamisama Kiss Goddess Edition or get the Psycho Pass Premium Edition.

Let me ask you a theoretical question. In the past, a lot of these premium editions were generally for shows that don't have an extensive fan base, but had a very hardcore fan base. I wonder if this is part of your strategy, to find shows that maybe don't necessarily have vast mainstream appeal, like Attack on Titan for instance, but would appeal to those who are more hardcore in their passion for a certain show.

I'm not exactly sure, because right now what we're using primarily to determine whether something is going to get a premium edition is the simulcast numbers. So like I said before, Kamisama Kiss was the number one simulcast for its season, and not far behind it was Psycho Pass. If fans want to see something get a premium edition in the future, then the best thing to do would be to watch the simulcast, or raise awareness for the simulcast so that other fans watch it.

This argument has been going on for years and years and years now, which is that girls don't buy anime, and girls don't buy nerdy things. Obviously you think they do, because you're putting a lot of eggs in this first basket. Your first premium edition is targeted mostly at females.

Here at Funimation we don't really put much stock into that controversy that girls don't buy anime, girls don't buy merchandise, because we've seen what happens at conventions. The conventions are very even in terms of the male/female demographic, and we see shows like Fruits Basket and Ouran High [School Host Club] sell extremely well, and I've seen Hetalia fans at conventions buying tons and tons of merchandise, so obviously we don't believe that girls don't buy anime. So here's a great opportunity for us to show that we believe that with this premium edition that is catering to our female fans.

Based on your experience at conventions, I'm not talking sales numbers, but conventions alone, are you seeing more females versus males buying anime at conventions, or is it pretty much 50/50?

I think it's pretty even, honestly. In terms of what I've seen at conventions, in terms of who's buying stuff at our Funimation booth, it's pretty even.

So do you only just have these two titles planned for now, or do you have more that you just can't talk about yet?

As far as I'm aware we only have these two planned for right now. Obviously if these two do extremely well, then we can definitely take a look at which other titles in the future might possibly get this type of configuration.

If they don't do well, are you still open to the possibility of trying again later?

It's always a possibility, but again that would be more up to the brand manager and what they feel is the best strategy for their title.

I imagine there's another side of this too, which is in regards to what you can get from the Japanese licensors, right? I imagine it's not a free-for-all, “We want to do this” for X title.

We do have to run everything by the licensor and get their approval for everything that's included in these premium editions, and so they have input on what we can include.

Was the process this time around fairly painless, in terms of trying to get stuff from Japan?

I'm actually not sure, because it was more the brand manager having to deal with the licensor. As the social media manager, I deal mostly talking to our fans and fan input and feedback on Facebook or Twitter or Google, so that's a little bit more of what I do.

Did you solicit fan feedback before you started planning this Kamisama Kiss release?

We didn't directly solicit fan feedback, but we have been seeing a lot of fans asking for these types of releases, so we took that into consideration.

How has the response been since you announced it?

It's been incredibly positive, at least from a social standpoint. I see on Facebook and Twitter all the time, “Oh, I have to get that! That looks so cool! Oh wow, I need to buy this now!” And of course you get the obligatory, “I'm throwing money at the screen and nothing's happening!” [laughs]

It's actually not priced that bad for the whole series.

Yeah, it's really reasonable. In fact, if you go to online retailers, like if you go to our Funimation shop, or if you go to Right Stuf, it's a lot cheaper than SRP [standard retailer price]. And again, if it's not something you're interested in, but you want to pick up the show, we have our standard release available for pre-order.

So back in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of anime companies were releasing more of these collectible goods with their shows. In the mid-2000s, even though fans were excited by these collectible goods, it wasn't necessarily driving sales. Are you worried about trying to jump back into the collector's market?

Not too terribly. Again, we're still testing this out; it has a very short print run. I can't emphasize that enough. If somebody misses out on getting this this time around, we're not going to printing any more of it, so once it's gone, it's gone. That, in combination with back in the day, there wasn't really any social media available. Now we've got a ton of places where we can talk about the show, raise awareness for the show, and get other fans to talk about the show, and get their friends and other people they think might be interested involved.

Are you doing anything different to market these types of premium editions versus your regular everyday marketing strategy?

I think we're just talking about it a little bit more on social just to raise awareness. Every single time I post, especially for the Kamisama Kiss Goddess Edition, I always get new people saying “Oh wow, that looks really cool!” So it's really just repetition and putting it out there and making sure as many people know about it as possible.

I think it's definitely cool and as a fan, it's nice to see these types of releases come back. Back in the early 2000s, it was always fun to have a release in which fans could get excited about a plush or a ring or some other kind of collectable. It's something that I am glad is coming back. I wish you all the best of luck and hope it works out really well.

Is there anything you want readers to know in particular about this release? What does this mean for the future of Funimation and your strategies moving from here forward?

Basically, I guess what we want everybody to know is that again, the way that these two premium editions perform is largely going to be how we determine if this is something that we can pursue in the future. So it's still new and it's still experimental, but if it succeeds we definitely want to try a similar strategy with other brands that are in the pipeline. If you want to see more releases like this, then we definitely encourage fans to go ahead and order now, get their pre-orders in now, because that's what we're going to be using to determine whether or not this is something that we can do. And make sure you watch the simulcasts, we've got a ton of really good ones for this season as well, so go to Funimation.com, go to Hulu and check out the shows and see if there's something you really like, and if you do then make sure that everybody else knows and you get other fans involved in watching because we're using simulcast numbers as a big part of how to determine if something is going to get this type of treatment.

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