So it’s 2007 or 2008 and you’re some teenager in a DVD store or browsing Amazon for anime. Another month of part-time jobs and hard-earned allowance is about to vanish in a heartbeat. You take out your wallet and before your eyes is a grand box, $40 flies out of your hands either digitally or physically and here it comes. The decorated display box is filled with all sorts of trinkets. OST CDs, a shirt, a body-pillow cover, pencilboards, and even some cosplay props! Oh yeah, the DVD is there too of course, but it’s only the first four or five episodes. The empty space in the display box is lonely, begging for more, pleading for further financial transactions. Oh well. One down, three to go.
Evening, ladies and gents, the Inverseman here to talk about everyone’s favorite elephant in the room, the DVD industry. Do we need it? How have times changed? How have they stayed the same? It all starts with about five or so years ago, in an ancient time.
If for some reason you are a six year old reading this blog post, try to remember it; there was a time when DVD sales for anime were up, up, and then some. It was an era not too long ago where Cartoon Network had a triple threat of Naruto, One Piece, and other well-known anime on Toonami while [adult swim] picked up Bleach and other great series. It was a time shortly after Dragon Ball rocked our airways with the end of the Z saga. People were tuning in and times were good, even for shows not on US television. I personally recall covetously dashing for my Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya season one limited edition box when I saw the UPS guy, and that was only the first four episodes with goodies. What was going on then that we don’t see as much now?
Well for starters, anime had been in the public eye and was experiencing a boon that started in 2000. The evolution of watching Pokemon, Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, Ruroni Kenshin, Sailor Moon, and more had caught up and folks were craving more. And being more exposed only meant good things. Kids and teens were talking all about it. But if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind. As the decade went by, CN killed Toonami and started phasing out different kinds of anime from their lineup until once in a blue moon [as] would broadcast something new but mostly stick to reruns. And if you ask me, CN could have continued a golden age had they realized the juggernauts they had in their hands. You know you’re doing it wrong when you decide to show heavy hitters like Code Geass at 5AM. But that can’t be the only factor, what else came about?
Pricing and piracy. Piracy was still somewhat young-ish and while widespread, had not become a deal breaker for most companies. Subs were subs, they gave you the show quickly. The subtitles had variable quality but the big thing was that you got the show. So why buy? Well, incentives always sweeten any deal. Having all the merch and other goodies made my purchases far more meaningful. So while I did have my Haruhi episodes tucked neatly in my HDD, I had proudly filled my season 1 box as I “took over” an anime club with the Ultra Chief armband pinned to my sleeve. While cheesy and kinda lowbrow, it was nice seeing F.Y.E have a decent corner for their anime selection as well as Borders (r.i.p) pushing manga like Kuroshitsuji on numerous flyers and sales.
The change was this: piracy evolved and fansubs got more sophisticated to rival “official” subs. They also got speedier, delivering a mere week later instead of a months later. Prices were still all over the place. 60 was a standard but some folks like Geneon’s release of Samurai Champloo would go for about 120 dollars for the whole series, intimidating for even the biggest diehards. Sadly, technology at the time could only hold three or four episodes to a disc, so chopping a 26 episode or even 13 episode show into discs was a pain and became a nightmare when you sold them as individual volumes over the course of a year long after the series aired in Japan. You could only keep throwing down 60 bucks for a show you have likely already seen so many times; folks “got smart” so to speak. Incentives were slowing to a mere trickle. To add insult to injury, DVDs were seldom accessible, like I mentioned with my cousin; she would even buy season one of K-On! but not once has she seen it on Netflix or a brick and mortar shelf. Anime was tucked in the back as “one genre” with other niche things “normal” people find arcane like sci-fi and horror. There was both a push and a pull effect going on here.
Finally, we had a misaimed market. As DVD sales declined, companies tried their hardest to keep their market in numerous ways. Some companies like NIS and Bandai would try and release sub-only DVDs, since an English dub was always a point of contention amongst the teenagers and 40 year olds that live with their parents, why not remove it? The problem was that model gave far too little far too late. The viewers had still got the fansubs ages ago so these DVDs released months later would have been a strictly redundant and pointless purchase. If I was going to buy, it would be for the English dub, it’s an “extra” so to speak for a diehard, 26 episodes worth of “extra”. Even if you hate the dub, why would you say buy an English release for a live action martial arts movie like Kung-Fu Hustle? Because you don’t have a hilarious dub track on your digital copy that can add new kinds of funny to an already great comedy film. Point is, you still got it for the dub. It’s not appetizing to sell a crowd something they got for “free” at a price long after they already got it, whether they got it legally or illegally.
Now consider this: how many Glee fans do you know? How many people do you know are fans of the Game of Thrones adaptation? How many Family Guy fans can you count amongst yourselves? Are any of them major fans? Fans that tune in every week for the next pulse-pounding chapter or hilarious joke of the week? Okay, now out of those fans how many of them do you know have every season and every episode on DVD at home? Of the many Simpsons fans I know, I doubt I know a single one that has so much as two seasons on DVD, let alone the decades of legacy. Now think about these fans of American television and how they heard of the series. Did the Glee fan see “season one box set” for $59.99 on a shelf or Amazon? How did they find out about this show outside of other fans’ word of mouth? Television (and now streaming) to the rescue. If the show wasn’t on the airways and just on shelves, suddenly the show becomes intimidating. “Is this show any good? I’m paying sixty bucks here. What if it’s lame? Then I wasted lots of money! But if I like it then how many seasons will I have to shell out big bucks for?” This was the major flaw of the DVD industry for anime in America, to get more viewers you needed more exposure and friendlier access, neither of which season sets released ages later provide. Owning the series on DVD was limited to the bigger fans, not for every person remotely interested in the show. But with DVD being the only access back then and networks out to rout their anime, how do we get more prospective viewers exposed outside of the obvious methods?
The answer is streaming. When you stream on Hulu, Crunchyroll, and Youtube, you have an entire “network all to yourself”. No need to worry about broadcasters turning you down. No phase outs due to ratings. And no 5AM timeslots. On the internet every time is primetime. You can increase access and you can even cater to various audiences. Subtitles, dubs, everything at your viewers’ fingertips. And if you have prime spots on Hulu, you can seed some anime recommendations to “normal” people that only watch “normal” TV. Boom! Instant fanbase expansion! Now the fear of laying down massive money for a crappy show is gone when you can watch for free legally. If major license companies wish to stay competitive they should go the way of Funimation and the Anime Network, the former of which has taken Hulu by storm. There is a great amount of anime ripe for the watching. Streaming is also high speed with many license companies vouching to simulcast shows online. One thing fansubs always had over the official guys was speed, but now license companies can race out subs ASAP giving you your fix even in real time! True you don’t “own” the streams, and it would be nice to watch offline, but something’s gotta give. The biggest challenge to streaming is the facet of owning the file and while there are “owner types” that would not pay for the DVDs, a majority of viewers would be fine with having the entire series online under a streaming site with only so much as three or four individual commercials. That said, the focus of DVDs should lean towards being a bonus for fans, not the sole means of exposure. I mean, I still love Puella Magi Madoka Magica and I still desire to get the whole series on DVD but just because I am the type to enjoy owning things.
The big announcement in all this is that Sentai Filmworks, a license company that would previously only distribute DVDs without extra features or dub, is going to get the original English cast for Persona 4: the Animation and dub it. While you can already watch the series officially online from the simulcast, it’s going to be a real treat to have Johnny Yong Bosch and Yuri Lowenthal back in action. Hopefully Sentai Filmworks can continue their success and develop onwards. The streaming model is something to behold and contains much power to keep our anime coming to these shores. Join me next time when I will wrestle a bear with my own hands and make it into a coat for a good friend of mine.
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