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Rethinking Anime Distribution: Niche Labels & Premium Products

Posted April 21st, 2009 at 08:51 AM by SeannyB

(a repost from my personal blog)

In the past decade, with the emergence of digitally distributed, fan-translated "digisubs" (now just "fansubs") and dual-language DVDs, the anime fandom in the US experienced rapid expansion. Distributors like (most famously) ADV / A.D. Vision also experienced growth, but then a sudden leveling off and eventual contraction, despite the continuing rise of interest in Japanese animation. ADV’s troubles are representitive of the declining state of anime distribution industry in the US– something that "Ask" John often recaps in his blog.

Part of the problem was they banked on anime becoming the "next big thing", able to stand side by side with Hollywood blockbusters and prime time television shows, as opposed to a niche market for hipsters and nerds. Obviously, this turned out not to be the case. To their peril, they secured distribution rights to anything and everything they could get their hands on regardless of demographic appeal or quality, and went as far as launching their own cable television network. After the bust, they were left with diminishing sales and a mountain of licenses for yesteryear’s anime already long forgotten by the fandom.

Some said DVD releases came too slow, missing the wave of hype that followed each series. Fan-translated, pirated copies were the lone option for the non-Japanese fan who wanted to keep up with current anime. However Crunchyroll and Funimation’s efforts now compete for that demographic with web streaming, simultaneous releases.

Others have said the video quality was bested by fan-translated HDTV rips. Blu ray now offers a solution on the physical home video front.

And finally many people still say the products themselves are simply not desirable– tasteless, unappealing physical packages, half-assed voiceovers and a general sense that the people who put together the package couldn’t care less about the anime itself or the audience it aims for. Here’s the fundamental problem that underscores the peril of ADV’s gamble. In their push to capture a market that turned out not to expand beyond its niche borders, they made themselves too generic and their catalogue & product too unappealing. The ADV label came to stand for nothing but mediocrity. Why would a fan bother with their lame physical product over a torrent?

Distributors must give up the dream of "dominating" the industry, and face the reality of Japanese animation forever being a niche market in the western world. Therefore, distributors of physical media need to become like niche labels, offering interesting, premium products in categories of taste and style. There have been a few stabs, deliberate or accidental, at this idea.

Manga Entertainment, in its efforts to replicate the successes of their early hits Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ninja Scroll have continued to pursue and license dark fantasy and apocalyptic sci-fi anime like Karas and Noein. Despite their demographic/taste emphasis, their releases are known for their occasional mastering/authoring errors, lame box art & unappealing packaging, poor-quality English dubs (by anime dub standards!) and overall undesirability.

AnimEigo made a name for itself by releasing classic and obscure anime, but the distributor never really took off. Urusei Yatsura box sets might be a little too niche.

Funimation made a slight name for itself with its sometimes desirable, high quality packages (e.g. Mushishi non-thinpack). However when you’re putting out Ouran Host Club next to Mushishi and Dragon Ball Z, you’re not making the label very distinctive otherwise.

The most interesting attempt has been Bandai’s failed sublabel, Bandai Visual USA, which at first aimed to become the Criterion Collection of anime. It wanted to put out niche OAVs, films and series in expensive but desirable packages. Its target audience was collectors and connoisseurs with real money to spend who would be unphased by "Japanese" pricing. Among its first releases were the classic Mamoru Oshii Patlabor films, complete with a full printed storyboard book in a $70+ package, mirroring similar box sets that were available in Japan at the time.

While the idea of the sublabel was nice, along with its initial offerings, it overloaded its prospective catalogue with low-quality anime that carried no appeal whatsoever in thoroughly boring, overpriced packages. Galaxy Angel Rune was the most bewildering of all of its announced licenses, a show that was completely ignored by the anime fandom during its run on Japanese television (and the fansub scene). As fans expressed their bewilderment and hostility to what they saw as nothing more than a price hike of mundane anime DVDs, Bandai quickly dissolved the sublabel.

Anime distribution in the US should take a look at niche music labels. Labels exist for the purpose of filtering the vast quantity of garbage into the few gems worth paying for. Labels often target a style or a category of taste, and entice their demographic with releases tailored to their sensibilities. This gives buyers a reason to examine the other releases in a label’s catalogue and become an active follower of that label

Physical anime distributors are in a similar position, since their (supposed) purpose is to filter the vast output of the Japanese animation industry into the few gems that international fans would pay for. Distributors can also split themselves into sublabels that target demographics and taste.

For example, one sublabel can license high quality shoujo/josei works like Honey & Clover and Ouran Host Club as well as classics like Maison Ikkoku and Hana Yori Dango.

Another can target offbeat, artistic works like Casshern Sins, Kaiba and Mushishi, along with feature films like Satoshi Kon’s and Mamoru Hosoda’s, and rare artistic classics like The Tale of Genji (1987).

Yet another can devote itself to "moe" / otaku works like Kannagi, Clannad and Ef: A Tale of Memories / Melodies and so on.

Equally as important as targetting a category of taste, is selecting only high quality productions (or things perceived to be worth watching in the international fandom), and packaging them in unique, thoughtful sets with physical extras like miniature artbooks, printed storyboards, weird trinkets and novelties. What this will do is counter the effect of undesirability that crushed ADV and the anime distribution industry in the US.

Anime is not an if-you-slap-it-on-a-disc-they-will-buy thing like a Hollywood blockbuster is. It’s a weird, niche genre from a foreign country. Casual fans need themed labels they can trust to help navigate the terrifyingly dizzying output of the anime industry. Hardcore fans need a reason to buy a physical product over archiving their old torrented fansubs. If the catalogue is without vision and the product undesirable, the label ceases to mean anything to fans. In an industry that survives on merchandising, distributors have done the exact opposite of what they should’ve by peddling undesirable releases of arbitrary anime.
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  1. Old Comment
    wow, well said and well thought out. I agree with you completely.
    Posted May 26th, 2009 at 06:04 AM by Achron Achron is offline
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