The president of Bang Zoom! Entertainment recently wrote an article about how anime releases in the western world, specifically North America, are dying. Many others have weighed in on the issue and by and large have come back with bland responses to what is a firebrand and alarmist editorial from a unique position within the release chain. While the president's motives tinge the post with a dubious slant, the core argument is one that has been used before and will no doubt be used again. It's the same argument used by the commercial music and movie sectors, the difference being that instead of companies posting record profits, anime related companies are disappearing, and not simply the upstarts but powerhouses that used to be staples of any release schedule. To summarise the article: fansubs and piracy are killing off the western anime industry. There is no proof offered, no empirical evidence backing up this assumption but it rests upon common wisdom to support the argument. The argument is wrong.
The reason commercial, western anime releases are dying off is because the companies can not offer a competitive, viable alternative to fansubs.
What does this have to do with the decline of commercial anime companies in the west? The thrust of this argument is that companies have been unable to adapt to changing technologies and lifestyle patterns, instead clinging to a single revenue model that has since become outmoded. The children - tech savvy and with an excess of time on their hands - who grew up during the genesis of fansubs and wanted to view the latest series from Japan had the choice of spending money on DVDs or downloading from the internet. At first, in the earlier part of the decade, the choice was unclear as not many shows were being released as fansubs and though the subtitles were good, the video and translation quality of the DVDs was superior - DVDs offered a better product than their alternative. As time progressed however these two variables changed and a third was introduce; video quality got better as codecs like DivX and XviD matured eventually giving way to full MPEG-4 compliant codecs, broadband became faster allowing for larger, higher quality files, and the availability of translators increased leading to more competition and at times, better quality. The third variable was the erection of a community. Beyond the release groups and IRC channels people spoke about anime more and more, sharing words and pictures and music and videos, and to be relevant within that community, one had to keep up with their peers.
This lead to a commercial problem: their product had been completely undercut by a free alternative. Their DVDs could no longer claim superior video quality or consistently better translation. The release model, still in place today, also doesn't allow for competitive timing which runs the risk of shrewd Japanese anime fans importing the comparatively cheaper English DVDs, and there's the innate matter of production and distribution - DVD mastering and packaging is not an undertaking meant for speed. In order to offer value to the customer then, who is required to buy the DVDs for their business to survive, they have to appeal to something other than quality:
- Materialism - the great capitalistic equaliser saying that owning "stuff" and building a collection is a reward in itself
- Morality - relying upon the ability to plan and feel: plan because buying now means more potential buying in the future; and feeling, because people need to feed their families
The former is an innate part of a product, especially a series of products and can't be capitalised upon through anything tangible - adverts cannot convincingly proclaim that one must buy the product simply to enjoy the feeling of owning it. Other elements must appeal to this sense such as special features, seductive packaging or bonus paraphernalia such as models or soundtracks. The latter, morality, is the one touted most vocally and is the thrust of the Bang Zoom! president's soliloquy. The argument is sound and the legality is not in question, according to most definitions of intellectual property law fansubs are illegal in that they are a re-purposing of someone else's work (artist, animator, production company, distribution company, TV station) without their consent. The issue is not with the semantics or whether fansubs are "stealing" (lossless copying is a modern invention and doesn't entirely suit the common application of "stealing"); the issue is that the alternatives are not in tune with the lifestyle that grew up around anime.
The problem posed to companies then in the wake of this rubbishing of their primary income, is to find ways of monetising other elements around anime, essentially spreading the income across different media, not just DVDs. Japan has this element down very well and it is brutally commercial: merchandise your series for everything they are worth. DVDs of series rarely recoup costs and it is down to paraphernalia such as t-shirts, figures, CDs, supplementary books, keychains, soft toys, posters, body pillows, mouse mats and all manner of other tat to claw back as much costs as possible. Look at the most popular franchises and the most profitable entities involved and it becomes obvious that those that can offer the full brand, from animation to toy, are the most lucrative. Applying this methodology to western anime companies raises a problem, one which will always be present: is the western anime market big enough to justify this blatant, mercilessly capitalistic approach? Would Evangelion bicycle shorts be worth releasing?
One of the ways which was used successfully in the past to increase the potential audience for anime as a whole was television. Pioneered by television slots such as Adult Swim, or even the sporadic movie on the old UK network Bravo, they epitomised the best of anime, bringing brilliant series such as Furi Kuri or Cowboy Bebop to an audience which appreciated the programming as much as the off-beat humour that interspersed it. It wasn't long before the obvious happened and an entire channel was set up for anime: The Anime Network. Ostensibly a boon to expanding the influence of anime, it operated not only in the twilight years of television for its target audience but also failed to reach enough operators quickly enough. Initially a subsidiary of ADV, it switched to a video-on-demand service but suffers from holding its audience in contempt:
Unfortunately this seems to be the level many anime distributors put their audience at and it is demonstrated time and again with a vitriol that is difficult to ignore, that the president of Bang Zoom! calls all anime fans thieves is testament to this. It's difficult not to imagine bean-counters looking at the seed counts for various torrents and mentally calculating the deficit in DVD sales. So when the free fansub groups prove to be more professional, reliable and enthusiastic than the commercial companies whose livelihoods are dependant upon the anime, what does that say about the companies? Treating the audience, fans of anime, as no better than criminals and no smarter than chimps is no way to engender support for a medium they claim to be failing.
If western anime companies wish to succeed in a niche market, when Japan has shown indifference towards exporting its culture internationally, then finding the balance between commercial viability and pandering to the supremely fickle audience should be accepted as part of the myriad problems facing them. However it should not be for companies to decry that times are hard and that their target audience is in fact causing it to wither, it is up to them to find a way to improve it and to capitalise on it. It's not easy, and anyone in the business chain of distributing anime in the west needs to do their research and ask themselves whether the market is big enough, or crucially whether it can be expanded, to support their enterprise.
Not all doom and gloom
The elephant in the room is of course to forgo physical media and utilise online video - something which trailblazer Crunchyroll has been doing with some success. Indeed this is seeing uptake with the British arm of Manga Entertainment as well and though numbers are unavailable, it's hard not to see this as the most effective method of not only reaching the right audience but combating piracy. After a rocky and litigious start, the utility of CrunchyRoll is beginning to be seen: not only is it reducing the time between the original airing and availability but proving there is benefit in the fostering a community - no matter how basic. The business model is still being tweaked but each season sees more and more series being snapped up for release and, crucially, fewer high quality fansub groups willing to spend time on a product already released - its remaining hurdle lies in its region locks which still proves divisive but are a natural hurdle to this kind of endeavour.
Complementing this paradigm shift has been a series of high profile campaigns which have succeeded in one way or another at advertising the product with belittling it, or the target audience. The most successful of which is undoubtedly the SOS-Brigade which ran in the lead up to the release of Haruhi in the US and involved the fans in both celebrating their latest interest and, as a side effect, advertising the series. Likewise more recently was one of Gonzo's last series, Strike Witches, which is gifted with a superb campaign that pokes fun at itself but in a charming way - quite aside from the lascivious content the show is renowned for. It is efforts such as these which, although undoubtedly commercial, show companies more willing to play to strengths rather than exploit weaknesses.
Taking shots at piracy and the loose morals of the people who enable it is easy but it's missing the point. One can rage and stomp and shout at the unfairness of it all and still try to peddle their wares with only minor format changes or one can think more tactically and come up with ways of combating piracy better than appealing to morals or strafing sites with cease and desist orders. To a degree, the situation has come about because it has taken so long for a select few companies to change and adapt and many structures particular to the distribution of fansubs are now deeply entrenched, meaning that changing them will be all the more difficult. Agility and innovation are not uniquely beneficial to western anime companies, however with such a focused and thrifty market they are all the more important. Misguided are those who would argue fansubs legality, however it's time they're viewed as a symptom of a problem with the companies not catering to their market, rather than as a death knell.