The declining Western anime industry

The imminent bankrupsy of Central Park Media (CPM) forecasts a bleak year ahead for the US anime industry, but given there are more fans now than ever before, one would assume that the opposite should be true. The Anime Almanac has an answer, though I’m not sure whether they are right; it seems fansubs are to blame.
The internet is a great tool for sharing information and this is especially true for the anime community. People are now able to watch new series months (sometimes years) ahead of their local releases and later even share opinions with other like-minded fans (e.g. the anime blogsphere). From the fans’ perspective, this is great, though looking out from say ADV’s base in Houston, it must be frustrating.
ADV US recently licensed “This Ugly Yet Beautiful World” – a 13 episode TV series from none other than Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL maestro’s GAINAX. Coming from GAINAX, it should be a license to print money, but “This Ugly Yet Beautiful World” is actually a complete load of rubbish, and there-in lays the problem. Suffice to say had I not watched this show fansubbed a few years back, I would be a lot more interested in it than I am today.
For many of us newer fans, simply being anime is no longer good enough; in this rapidly maturing community, companies can not just go out and license everything under the sun because now the fans won’t have it; we now know what is good from what is bad.
The boom of the early 2000s has led to another problem too. The Japanese companies noticed how successful their anime was becoming in the international markets and decided to bump up the cost of licensing. Now we are in a situation where the US companies are less than willing to throw around their money and the Japanese are asking for too much anyway. Stalemate.
Fansubs are still at the forefront of a newer generation of fandom, while the DVD industry is stuck years behind floundering in the past. The music industry recovered from the MP3 revolution by embracing it; and if it wants to survive, sooner or later the anime industry will have to do the same thing.

14 replies on “The declining Western anime industry”

For the longest time, I always subscribed to the view that fansubs benefit a show, but between pre-licensing and how ADV only now licensed Konomini, I’d begun to look at that position more in a more nuanced way. A few months ago, when Shakugan no Shana finished and I was writing up a review for it, I was thinking about how because of fansubs, I was able to realize that this show was bad (and able to tell people in a review on my blog that this show was bad and not worth your time), but that I was watching a show that had been licensed ahead of time. Therefore, rather than (possibly) a tepid response causing a company to think twice about or possibly pass up a show, this could actually really be hurting them since they’ve already invested the money.
Of course, there’s also the response of "So what?" Why should the consumers feel like it’s their responsibility to prop up these companies? Do people just fail to recognize that whether or not an American company makes a profit on a title doesn’t affect whether or not anime will be made, but rather whether or not anime will be sold to you?

Using Paul’s experience of his Ugly Yet Beautiful World as an example, my view is that there is some truth in fansubs putting fans off some releases. You know what? That’s actually a good thing, from our point of view at least. Had you not seen the fansub you might have gone ahead and bought the DVD and been disappointed. Sure, the company would benefit, but it would be doing so because you were unaware of its quality (or lack of as the case may be). Should they ake advantage of customers’ ignorance like this?
Saying fansubs dissuade fans from buying the DVDs is a weak excuse – they should have thought of that before buying the licence to a poor quality product. jpmeyer’s right as well. It’s not the customer’s responsibility to ‘prop up these companies’ and support their efforts in releasing garbage. We should be supporting their efforts in releasing stuff that’s good; this requires an informed decision on our part, and fansubs play a part in that.

I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame on fansubs alone. While it is true fansubs make people realize what some of the crap are, it also works the other way. Using my own example, if I had not tried the fansubs for GTO, I would have never even given a look at it. That’s a hundred dollars they just gained from fansubs there.

First: the news about the CPM bankruptcy is unsubstantiated. Companies may let a substantiated amount of people go, but not necessarily go down the hole.

jpmeyer: Just wanted to comment on this:
"A few months ago, when Shakugan no Shana finished and I was writing up a review for it, I was thinking about how because of fansubs, I was able to realize that this show was bad (and able to tell people in a review on my blog that this show was bad and not worth your time)"
You’re stating that as if it’s a fact, but it’s only your personal opinion. I don’t think it’s fair for you to decide for others whether or not the series is worth thier time. Me and many others tremendously enjoyed the series which in our case means the fansubs helped promote the upcoming dvds.
Back on topic: I feel that the major issue here is that DVD releases are still years behind the fansub releases. For many people who watch the subs it’s a question of wanting to watch the shows when they are currently airing and participate in the online anime community. By the time the series are out on dvd at least 1 year later it just isn’t the same.

Well, debate about the issues whether fansubs kill the American Anime Indusry, but to be honest, the music companies will never recover from that large blow. Because they still stick to outmoded methods of sell stuff because they think the people still rely on them for merch. Hell, if you go sue your customers, do you think people will buy your overpriced, buggy merch?
And well, the irony is that Apple, a hardware and software company, is still sticking to the same outmoded business techiques, just that it’s a hell lot cheaper, and it’s music.
People never learn. Even if you whack them silly with nailbats.

I’d have to say that fansubs ARE contributing somewhat to the decline of the anime industry in North America… but at the same time, it’s also helped feed the demand for some series. Bandai pre-licensing some of their series has been due to, at least in part, to the increasing popularity of anime in North America… which fansubs have helped feed. At the same time, some sub groups are less than… ethical… about subbing licensed material, which results in some people not buying the DVDs when they show up… a few years later.
I’d have to say that the delay between licensing and then shipping of series hurts the industry as much as anything – sure, I can understand them wanting to take their time with the translations… but fansubbers often can put out similarly good material far, far faster than the DVD-licensees do, and considering that the material’s already usually been put onto DVD overseas, I doubt the issue is due to encoding or packaging decisions. For example, if ADV was willing to license a series like Honey & Clover, and then put out a new volume every month or two, then I’d probably be buying that pretty quickly… versus waiting 4-5 months per volume, after waiting 2 years or so for them to actually move from licensing a series to releasing it, by which time the series is a little… cold.

I’d have to agree on the matter that to some extent the fansubs steal from the licensing company’s profit, but let’s not forget that there are people for whom the fansubs are the only way to get anime.
In my country one can count on their fingers the number of licensed anime on sale and there would even be fingers left, and those are only some Ghibli’s + one single series, that being Yu-Gi-Oh. To order from Europe or the USA makes the price impossible to pay. But that is not the issue here, just mentioning this.
I’d like to say that there are other things that more and more fans start to look for, and that is more than a mere release of certain series. Things such as the quality of the offered translation and the quality of voice acting of the dubbers (assuming that one watches the dub and not the sub version of the anime) are also issues. The fact is the anime fans get more demanding and spoiled with time, not only about the quality of the series.
And then fansubbers try to always be at the edge of new developments in terms of encoding, type-setting, karaoke and so on. And I guess there are others like me who quite prefer eye-candy. I just love good and well-fitting karaoke as well as nice type-setting. And none of those are currently offered by original DVDs (as far as I know). I have no idea whether or not this is difficult to do, I care that I want to get something I really feel is superior to fansubs when I buy the original. The simple idea that I am supporting the creators and the licensor is not a reason enough for me.
I mean, I have original DVDs and I still prefer the fansubs for the animes in question. So what is the point in owning them if I do not watch them.
On the matter of blogs changing the opinion of viewers, I think that is not such big an issue. I think most people would just see a few eps of the fansubs (most often the whole fansub) before going out to buy the series anyway, with or without blogs. Plus different bloggers have varying tastes so what one has discarded as rubbish may be another’s personal choice. I believe that serious mature fans won’t base their decision just on someone’s review. (Or at least I wouldn’t).
Sorry if the post is a bit random and inconsistent, I just wrote what came to me.

DrmChsr0 said… “…and it’s music.”
I don’t think it will be long before video is just as easy to download as music. It will be another few years before everyone is on fast enough broadbandcable connections, but I can see an iTunes style system for TV episodes working really well. If LOST was being sold over the net, it would make a ton money- especially in countries like the UK where we have only just started the second season. The downside of this model is that it cuts out the middle men- i.e. companies like ADV.

"The boom of the early 2000s has led to another problem too. The Japanese companies noticed how successful their anime was becoming in the international markets and decided to bump up the cost of licensing. Now we are in a situation where the US companies are less than willing to throw around their money and the Japanese are asking for too much anyway."
indeed. and this is basic market maturation: the US anime DVD market is maturing, so the stag profits are decreasing, and there’s an inevitable (and not unwelcome, except to the poor buggers losing their jobs) market consolidation – the result of which will be stronger and more robust companies. how (again, not withstanding the individual unemployment stories) is this a bad thing?
i’m not sure what has kicked off this latest round of fansub self-flagellation, but i’m guessing it’s the imminent demise of CPM, and the rumoured troubles other US distributors are having. from here tho, we seem to be mistaking correlation (active fansub community/ struggling US DVD industry) with causation. yes, the US anime DVD industry may well be going thru a period of consolidation – but it would be doing so with or without the fansub community. the goldrush is ending, and the fly-by-nighters are flying away.
and more generally, the DVD industry as a whole is struggling as everyone who wanted to buy back libraries/ replace their VHS collections has done so, and there’s only the new release market. again: the market is maturing, and the DVD industry recognised this a long time ago: it’s the whole motivation behind HD-DVD/Blu-Ray, after all.
so: the global DVD market is stagnating, and the niche US anime DVD market is doubly hurting as the Japanese producers start to demand a larger share of the profits via increased licencing fees, kicking off a needed market rationalisation. these forces are independent of us either as a fansub community *or* as anime DVD consumers – why then we feel the need to feel bad about it or take responsibility for it, i have no idea.

Just because you didn’t like Konomini doesnt mean its crap, I happened to thoroughly enjoy it and will definetly be buying it when its released.

Alexis: As far as fonts and typesetting used on DVDs they have to use what works best on a TV screen and be easily readable. While many of the fonts and typesetting styles used on fansubs look great when watched on a PC monitor they’re darn near unreadable if you try watching them on a TV. Of course it might be possible to provide a second subtitle track with a fancier font for PC watching use to get around this. I think most companies (not just anime, but all media companies) still expect their products to be watched on TVs and not PCs.
Personally I don’t think fansubs had much to do with CPM’s problems. If you look through CPM’s catalog there’s not really much that stands out. Most of their titles are niche titles within the niche that is the Anime/Manga market. Given that it was kind of inevitable that they’d end up in financial trouble someday. I suspect they also ran into problems licensing popular titles as licensing costs went up since companies like ADV have/had deeper pockets and could outbid them.
As for ADV’s problems, they seem to relate back to their ill planned push into the Manga market. They tried to push into it too fast and too late since it was largely saturated at the point they started. Since they made it a big push with lots of titles it ended up costing them dearly when things didn’t sell as well as they had expected. They should recover from that though, they have a good catalog of high profile titles and as long as they cut down on how many titles they license till they’re back in the black they should be fine.
Mentioning ADV and their catalog of titles reminds me of something though. They’re about to put out yet another version of Neon Genesis Evangelion on DVD. This is really getting absurd and I doubt it’ll sell well. Most everyone that was a huge fan of Evangelion bought the Platinum version. Unless they find lots of extras to dig up for this new version I can’t see many fans buying yet another copy of the same show. Things like that hurt companies more than fansubs ever will.

I have heard that karaoke style subtitles don’t work on DVDs. I haven’t confirmed this myself but basically, the technology is not at a point where it can support the multiple bouncing letters and colour changes 🙂
sean said… “why then we feel the need to feel bad about it or take responsibility for it, i have no idea.”
You are right; fansubs haven’t nearly damaged the industry as much as other factors, though I wouldn’t say the community is blameless either. Like I’ve said above, I don’t think companies can now (like ADV were a few years ago) go out and just license everything and anything, because if sales are projected to be in the high hudreds, low thousands; then community word-of-mouth can genuienly become the difference between profit and loss. The margins are that tight.

What’s contributing to the lack of DVD sales is the insane cost of DVDs. When I can get a season of Batman for $40 versus 8 episodes of anime for $50 my choice is pretty clear. I wonder whether the companies are pricing their wares correctly. I mean, it seems like they’d get more sales by selling their product for a slightly lower amount. Indeed the slim packs from ADV seem to take this very approach. I just hope we see more of it in the future.

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