Interview: Aniplex of America President Henry Gotoby Zac Bertschy,
Hideki “Henry” Goto needs very little introduction – the president of Aniplex of America, Goto has had a storied career in the Japanese animation industry, having been a familiar face to American fans since his days at Geneon. While things remain busy on the DVD and bluray side of production, Aniplex of America announced a new event at Anime Expo 2016: Akibafest, a new festival in downtown LA that runs the weekend of October 15th. We sat down with Mr. Goto and John Inada, Aniplex of America's director of business development at Anime Expo to talk about the festival and how things are going at Aniplex of America.
Zac Bertschy, ANN: So tell us a little about what Akibafest is.
JOHN INADA: Our idea is to bring the Akiba experience right here to Los Angeles. We're looking for the perfect place do it. Little Tokyo, we figure okay, that's the perfect place to do it. Because the backdrop is already set for us. I don't know what your impression of Little Tokyo is, but it's the closest thing to Akiba on the east or the west coast.
I've been there!
So we're going to call this event AkibaFest. AkibaFest in Little Tokyo. Our ultimate vision is to bring everything Akiba culture has to offer to this little event. But we know it takes a few years before we can reach our ultimate vision. In the first year, we have to start a bit smaller. The ultimate vision is to recreate Akiba.
At least in California, there's no other anime fan event around this time frame. The perfect time to do it. Right before Halloween, so cosplayers who are working on their new costumes, they can reveal it right here.
So what can people expect to see at this event?
Answer: What we plan to do here is screening of various anime films. We've rented two theaters. So if you love to sit in the theater all day long, you could do that.
We've got The Downtown Independent and the Aratani Theater. That's one of the things you could do. We also have a big exhibition area, outdoor area, with a big tent. Aniplex will have a big tent, we're going to display and demo many new things. We're also working with videogame publishers that have anime-based videogames. They'll have their booths and their demo stations. Then we have merchandizers as well. We're going to do it by invitation only, basically.
So the exhibitors are “curated”, so to speak.
Right, the right partners. Of course we don't like bootlegged products. We're working with legitimate licensed vendors. Then, to make it AkibaFest, of course there has to be a food component, right? But of course, the Little Tokyo area has all these restaurants. So consider the entire Little Tokyo area as your playground for AkibaFest. This whole idea isn't just from us. Basically it's a collaborative effort with the Little Tokyo community. We're working with multiple business associations. They have the old-school traditional Japanese merchants, and the new ones, and they're kind of still, you know, working things out. The people who embrace the new culture, they want otaku.
Answer: They want Akiba Fest so badly that they invited us, actually, to come and work with them. Then of course we have Aniplex and we have business partners and fans, right? You have to have the fans?
Little Tokyo, you said the neighborhood came to you. I was under the impression that neighborhood was undergoing revitalization right now. Is that correct?
There's a metro station being built there in Little Tokyo, that's why you see all these construction activities, doing underground work. But yes, there are a group of merchants that want more otaku. Little Tokyo has Kinokuniya and Anime Jungle. So, our folks are there already. We thought about doing this kind of event, but at the same time, they contacted us, “why are you not doing it here? If you welcome us, we'll definitely at least hear you out and consider it.” That's kind of the story.
So they came to you, but Aniplex has always done huge events at Anime Expo. You'll have festivals, you'll always plan extra events. Is this you taking your events planning business to the next logical step?
Mr. Goto already had the vision to do this, and we were just searching for a good area, good partners. So I guess great minds think alike. It was perfect timing.
Do you see Aniplex of America moving more in the event planning direction as a business?
Is this a personal passion of yours? It seems like this kind of thing is a personal passion. Something you enjoy doing.
HENRY GOTO: Let me explain the reason behind this. As you can see, Anime Expo is growing. But this is not the only one. Almost all conventions are growing in the States. I thought “why?” I checked the trend of the attendees of the top ten conventions. It increased from 2012 and 2013, that's a big business trend. We found out it may be something related to the popularity of simulcasts. A brand new audience. After 2012, all of a sudden, all conventions are increasing. So we thought it was because of the simulcasts, and a new audience encountered the world of anime all of a sudden. Through legal exposure, people can watch anime. Netflix, for example. Netflix's audience all of a sudden watched anime recommended by Netflix. Next they want to talk about anime, they want to cosplay. That's the next step. So I think live entertainment is very important. It's becoming important. That's my view.
Do you think, moving forward, getting into live entertainment events is going to be important for media companies like yours? Do you see the industry moving in that direction?
I think the event is an opportunity for all industry people to interact with a fan audience, especially face to face. I think other companies may be interested in the same direction, we don't know.
What sort of attendance are you anticipating?
We cannot predict the number of attendees. The venue's too small, the venue's too big. Cost was too high, cost was too low. We want to start something. So I thought, in association with Little Tokyo is a nice way to go.
So the last time we interviewed you was, at this point, four years ago.
Four years ago?
Yeah, and the business has changed completely since then. You mentioned simulcast changing everything in 2012. At this point, what do you envision as Aniplex of America's core business?
It's really difficult to say what is the main business. It used to be the packaged media business was the most core business. Now we do packaged media, streaming, events, imports, merchandise, all of it. Actually our operational revenue number is increasing. Sometimes we have to be careful about the future of the packaged media business, but we have to prepare something new year by year. So we started as a video company, but we sublicense streaming, and we started to sell through to other businesses. We did Aniplex Plus exclusive importing. We try to make new business year by year, to diversify the opportunities. We have multiple touch points with our fan people.
It sounds like you've been given a tremendous amount of flexibility to react to the market, which feels like a sea change from the way things used to be from even five, seven years ago. Did you have to lobby Aniplex of Japan, say “look, give me the freedom I need to make these changes and forge ahead, because needing approval from up the ladder is going to take too long”? It sounds like you're able to think on your feet now, you can just go.
No, I can not simply… <laughter>
The good part of Aniplex of America is we are here. That's a very big deal for us, as a Japanese company. We hear a lot of comments and questions and we see other distributors, what they're doing, what comes next. So probably we are more sensitive to the market trends. Sometimes Japanese companies come to Anime Expo and have a meeting, and they ask me “what's going on?” I think that it's very important to be a local company.
Where do you see the package media business here right now? How is it still important?
Last year was the best year for the package sales.
Because we added titles.
So it's more volume?
First year, two titles or three titles. I think the US market is really healthy, because in the Japanese market, the life of the title is a little bit short. In the US, once a title becomes popular, the life is long. Sword Art Online, Madoka Magica, Cowboy Bebop… I really like it, because it's a more evergreen market. So we focus on making the next star player, and those titles contribute back to us. Right now there are so many titles, people cannot remember, right?
So our goal is to make legendary titles, as many as possible. Legendary titles stay longer.
Is it getting harder and harder and harder to find things you think are really going to hit? Creatively, where do you see anime right now?
With simulcasts, after thirty minutes or one hour, we see the fan's reaction, same time as Japan. Then, we see. Before, it was like this: we acquire the title, we don't know the real popularity. But after the simulcast, we know “oh, this title has a big chance” or “with this title, we have to work out something,” like that. But we see the reaction quickly. That's very informative and helpful.
Was there any one big surprise title that was a huge hit that you didn't see coming?
Yeah, Sword Art Online.
You didn't think that was going to be a hit?
Not at this level.
What do you look for in a show you're going to put out on Bluray? Has that changed? If so, what are your standards right now?
Our acquisition policy? Basically, we are 100% owned by Aniplex, so our main focus is marketing Aniplex titles. We're not selecting shows ourselves, but Aniplex Japan is handing us good titles, and then we take care of it. We try to make the best marketing for each title.
Some stuff they license to other companies.
Uh-huh. Yeah, it's happening due to the popularity of simulcasts, each platform tries to buy shows by bidding an MG (minimum guarantee). Sometimes they evaluate the power of a title really high, but sometimes it's a more strategical acquisition.
Do you think those prices are getting out of control right now?
As a seller, it's a good thing. But I think sometimes, even if they spend a lot of money, if they don't promote a title, it won't be seen. That's a problem. That's a waste.
So, huge MG and then they don't promote the show?
No marketing. It's a pity for the property. Our goal is to deliver our creator's work to our fan audience, that's our role. So more of a marketing focus.
Right, absolutely. Do you think the simulcast schedule, the nature of the anime industry right now makes your job more difficult? Things will hit and die so quickly.
In some cases, it's difficult, because we have to prepare everything in advance. For example: Sword Art Online, we are expecting the movie next year. We are promoting the film not only in Japan, but worldwide, We're making a new announcement at major conventions all over the world. Here, we have one announcement. Next one will be the AnimagiC in Germany and a convention in Asia. We are hosting all this news on the Sword Art Online portal site. The Sword Art Online portal site is now three languages—Japanese, English, and German. So Aniplex, as a group, promoting one property on a worldwide basis. That's only one company.
That's a lot of work. From a content standpoint, what do you think the prescription is? Do you think anime should just forge ahead, doing what it's been doing, being anime as it is now? Or do you think it's going to change to meet that global audience? Do you think it needs to lose any of its cultural identity to be even more global?
Yeah, I think so. Because an audience is an audience. One Sword Art Online fan in Japan, one Sword Art Online fan in US, same. Same fan.
Right, exactly. But in terms of meeting that global audience, you're going to start selling shows to Germans and whoever else in the world. Do you think Aniplex Japan is going to start creating television that is aimed more at that global audience? So the content itself will be potentially more appealing to an even bigger global audience? Like, now you need to consider what a German fan would want to see?
I can probably defer to Hayao Miyazaki's words – to paraphrase, “I am making the movie for a Japanese audience”. But, there are people all over the world with the same mentality as Japanese fans. So I think like radio waves, some people “get” it.
Even in Japan, everyone is not an anime fan, right? Anime fans react with the same radio wave. And the US audience, some people feel it too.
Lots of people. <laughs> Turns out millions.
As long as the creators are Japanese, they can't be Germans, they can't be American, they're Japanese. What's important to chase is the next great property to inspire people. That's an important aspect.
Thanks to Aniplex of America for the interview opportunity.
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