Junker Woland

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day Late, and A Penny Short

Sometimes I really think having been born on a Friday the thirteenth means I’m destined to live under a constant cloud of shitty luck.

Minutes after posting my diatribe below, the very top story on Anime News Network (link) details how ADV, one of the largest US anime companies, will be streaming shows online for free over a new broadband component of their Anime Network television service (think Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim website).

Probably even bigger news, each week they’ll be adding one new episode of the highly anticipated series, Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, a recent giant robot anime from Gainax (creators of Neon Genesis Evangelion); these subtitled web episodes are being offered more than two months in advance of the first DVD release, set to hit retail in late February.

Well, I still think there’s way to much focus on how fansubs are killing the industry, but three cheers to ADV for this gutsy move. I honestly believe this is a huge step in the right direction and hope it’ll help brighten the dire outlook recently propounded by so many other anime insiders.

Hell, at the least it’ll make me reconsider buying Gurren-Lagann on DVD…maybe...I mean…it did kinda suck…

Here’s the link to ADV’s new broadband site. Enjoy my fellow anime-philes!


It’s the End of the (Anime) World as We Know It

Over the past several months, the anime community has bore witness to an onslaught of ill omens and apocalyptic soothsaying; spurred primarily by another year of falling anime DVD sales and the implosion of fan-darling distributor Geneon USA, an ever growing choir emanating from within the industry itself seems to prophesize a not to distant end of days, wrought by their demonic adversary, the fansub—anime episodes subtitled by enthusiasts and made available primarily via Internet peer-to-peer programs.

Hit the “Read More” link to find out why this doesn’t make me “feel fine.”

Long considered a cornerstone of the fan community, a necessary means of keeping up with what’s being shown in Japan, and an extremely useful tool for finding titles deserving of domestication, fansubs are slowly beginning to see their reputation soured thanks to comments from business insiders skewing their existence more in line with bootlegged media. Comprised of mostly upstanding groups, modern fansubbers release unlicensed material free of charge, ceasing their productions or removing their hosted files once a series has found a US rights holder. There are, of course, contentious issues surrounding this fan activity (topics too involved for this piece), but what’s important to remember is the fansub’s altruistic intent of helping to spread an interest in Japanese animation.

Now it must be noted the US anime market is indeed mired in a nasty bog, and no one should dismiss the obvious truths: DVD sales are down, and surviving companies find themselves turning leaner profits.

What worries me, however, is in circumstances increasingly mirroring the music industry’s stance on MP3s, fansubs have predominantly become the sole scapegoat for poor sales. To be sure, completely free media does pose some threat to a company’s bottom line, as there will always be those who consciously forego legally purchasing products to instead feloniously stock their shelves with varying quality copies of contraband. But much the same as the music industry misplaced blame on the fledgling digital media format—all the while overlooking their own price gouging and narrow genre focus—I fear many anime producers and distributors are also wrongly centering their ire on these free digital anime files, while evading their own role in the creation of this current situation.

Besides staging an ideological crusade against fansubs, the apparent cure decided upon by the anime companies for what ails the market looks to be licensing less new material—a sound decision to some extent, but with their consumers already split into many non-overlapping groups, one has to wonder how having less variety and less product will actually improve matters. The anime landscape nowadays is one where the audience with the most diverse spending habits is a minority in the face of larger, rigidly defined demographics who do not venture outside a specific genre’s perimeters. Deciding to cut back on the quantity of new material only runs the risk of increasingly marginalizing these various segments, in turn aiding a further drop in sales.

With the coming of DVDs, the US anime market underwent drastic changes, expanding beyond its hobbyist roots into a diverse mainstream consumer base. What’s been forgotten in the rush to create a generation of anime-holics fed by televised series and collectible card games is the need to mold true devotees, fans with dedicated interests reaching deeper than loyalty to only a handful of specific brands—fans who will sustain the industry as a whole once their more casual counterparts have died off. But all one needs do is look at those titles continually topping anime sales charts to see an industry propped up by parents buying DVDs for their children, teens spending their limited financial resources on the hottest, bloodiest T&A action, and late twenty-somethings indulging newfound bouts of nostalgia.

The real issue, then, is although the industry has expanded, it failed to develop the core audience needed to support this sudden growth. I believe much of this communal stagnation stems from a lack of sincere effort at the corporate level to engage fans in meaningful, straightforward discourse.

True fans of the medium exist in a rather secluded bubble, associating primarily amongst ourselves because there’s little opportunity to inflate our influence throughout the overall anime sphere. This to an extent is the effect of being patrons of a clandestine hobby that’s never really moved past the guarded routine of: secretly license title, announce this property, eventually release said show into the marketplace; a three step process rarely including much fan interaction—not to say companies should be foolish enough to let their customers’ whims run their businesses—but diehard followers are the most valuable resource when it comes to recruiting new members into the fold.

Today’s fans feel in many ways like an afterthought, relegated to a niche faction by an overwhelming desire on the part of the anime companies to line their pockets with the potentially more lucrative spoils culled from the mainstream—people who don’t particularly care about Japanese animation and view their products as merely self contained entities. The riches of many is understandably preferable to wealth from a few, until businesses, already operating at a heavy cost to consumers, overextend the quantity and diversity of their merchandise; in these instances, the mainstream market rarely budges from their myopic scope of interests, while the niche fans suddenly find themselves rigorously parsing their spending. The end result: too many titles receive middling to no buzz and find their DVDs becoming permanent residents of retail outlets and warehouses.

Mobilizing the existing fan base is one of the best solutions for bolstering the size of the consumer market, where even simple actions can be effective, like having representatives reach out to popular forums or other highly trafficked interactive channels to excite fans with some insider knowledge and garner their aid in promoting a new show (this does not mean loosing your marketing dogs; there’s nothing worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing whose short leash only allows them to drool out insipid, regurgitated pap, regardless of how a conversation might turn).

No matter the method, here I fully believe technology is key. More so than followers of many other entertainment forms, anime fans have historically made use of non-conventional communication to spread their hobby, and as such were some of the first to harness the Internet to quickly and cheaply spread their favorite pastime. Today, the Internet has become the epicenter of fan activity, so it’s surprising to see how poorly anime companies have integrated online technologies into their business plans. The best of company websites are labyrinthine patchworks of shallow content, half-baked multimedia, and clumsy shopping, caused by their blatant identity crises over whether they should exist to provide information or function as online stores; the worst sites are broken embarrassments serving no actual purpose. It says a lot when online merchants like RightStuf.com and AnimeNation.com offer better venues for shopping, advertisement, and fan socializing than the actual content providers.

Anime companies need to step up their game by creating better online portals, and begin aggressive campaigns to embolden their current fans while converting anyone who might exhibit some interest in Japanese animation—educate the public on your products, give them ample free opportunities to sample your material (like uploading several episodes of a series for online viewing), and provide entertaining areas for people to directly interact with personalities within your company. Instead of demonizing fansubs as the seat of all the industry’s woes, make a proactive effort to win people over, turning them into loyal customers.

Considering the integral part fansubs and raw anime have played in the creation of the current US industry, seeing so much corporate ballyhooing over their existence suggests those backing this eclectic cult have lost touch with their paying disciples. I honestly don’t mean to dismiss the negative impact illegal downloads have on media companies, but releasing fansubs and raw digital files of unlicensed shows comprise a separate issue from the illegal downloading of licensed material. Unfortunately, paranoia aroused by tumbling profits is creating a witch hunt atmosphere where only the most trivial solutions are considered to be valid response to an overly complex problem.

Remember, there are other issues exacerbating this dour financial outlook: the apparent skyrocketing cost of licensing fees, emphasis on quantity over quality in regards to what shows are chosen for domestication (and no this isn’t purely subjective, there’s a lot of crap on the market right now), the cost of purchasing individual anime releases (baring retail discounts) has not fallen since the VHS days (which coupled with the constantly growing number of series has resulted in an unhealthy trend towards waiting to buy cheaper collected volumes), plus the gap between when anime is licensed and when it’s finally sold to the public is still ridiculously large in most cases—this in particular is where fansubs gain their more nefarious propensity for fully sating consumers before an official product ever hits US store shelves.

Being a fan in times of wormwood and sackcloth is never easy, though it becomes increasingly difficult to carry a positive outlook when those most capable of bringing about change only appear to focus on a single specific issue—one I’ll personally admit to feeling causes only minor detriment to the future stability of the industry. The problems haunting US anime are more complicated than merely the downloading of unlicensed anime fansubs. Domestic anime companies, if nothing else, need to begin openly discussing these various issues with their fans, instead doing themselves a major disservice by aiming the baulk of their rhetoric at the abolition of such an intensely fan supported endeavor as fansubbing.