This past Saturday I spent the day at AnimeLA, a small anime convention about an hour’s commute from where I live. One of the panels involved discussing how technology has changed the US anime industry. That, together with the recent news of Bandai’s closing, got me thinking of exactly what the future holds for the US anime industry…
(Sorry this post is longer than my usual editorials. I had a lot to say on this topic)
At the panel I attended with my friend and fellow blogger Neo-Shonen Fujoshi, I was surprised that not many people passionately blamed Internet piracy alone as the main culprit behind the decline of the industry. They probably would have a few years ago, but nowadays I think people are seeing that, while piracy does still have its impact, the problem is not so much obtaining anime illegally as much as a shift in how the younger fans of today express their hobby.
With this, the discussion at the panel brought up the idea of our changing times that are de-emphasizing the need to own physical copies of things. As I touched upon in a past post, with iPads, iPhones, streaming movies, Kindles, and the like, our society is rapidly shifting away from the need to own physical copies of things in order to have access to them. There’s now so much encouragement to save shelf space and money and just stream or download movies, TV shows, and even books rather than buy individual copies of them. And this is bad news for the anime industry, whose very life’s blood is DVD/BD sales. While DVD/BD sales of anime are still doing fine in Japan (more on that later), American fans are different – with so much anime available on Crunchyroll and similar legal streaming sites, many of which never even see a home video release, the concept of “being a fan equals buying anime on DVD/BD” is deteriorating. Not only that, but what was also mentioned at the panel is that, because of these streaming sites, the Japanese companies can just hire someone on their side to make subtitles and that’s it, saving money by bypassing the American anime company altogether. They’ve even started doing so with some home video releases, like the BD box set of Kara no Kyoukai. Just like getting your own book self-published or making your own videos with Adobe Premiere, what was once needed to be done by paid professionals with professional equipment can now be done by just about anyone with a computer. And unfortunately that means a gain for some but heavy losses for many.
So, with this de-emphasis on owning physical copies of all the anime you watch, what are the young fans of today doing to show support for their hobby? As the panelists mentioned and what I myself was briefly a part of in my early years as a fan, the only way to really see anime and be involved in the fandom back in the day was to either buy the VHS/laser discs/DVDs yourself, borrow them from friends, or get together in groups such as anime clubs to view and trade them with others. All you really found in the dealers’ rooms at anime conventions back then were anime on VHS/DVD and perhaps some character goods like shirts, CDs, and artbooks. Nowadays however, thanks to what I previously mentioned about streaming anime and society’s de-emphasis on owning physical copies of media, anime fans today watch all the anime they want alone via the Internet, no longer needing to go out and buy DVDs or get together with other fans in order to obtain anime. So, when they do get together with fellow fans such as at conventions, they’ve come to socialize in a different way.
In addition to a cosplay boom, another shift I’ve noticed through attending anime conventions over the years is that the fandom is getting younger and younger. With the ease of Internet access, and therefore anime access, it’s no wonder. And of course, these young fans who are still in school aren’t going to be spending large sums of money on anime DVD/BD releases, especially in a society that’s encouraging them to stream. So they express their hobby through other means – cosplaying, often quite passionately and in organized groups, talking about anime with others via vast social networks like Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., making their own anime fan art or web comics to sell at conventions and online…all of which is nice, but is giving little, if any, money back to the industry that creates what they love in the first place. And the dealers’ room at conventions can’t help but follow this shift in fan interests. Now what we mostly see there is cosplay accessions and grey market character goods, which again, unlike sales of DVDs/BDs, profit the industry next to nothing. Of course, there are still plenty of American anime fans (yours truly included) who are not part of this new mentality and like to own their own physical copies of the anime they love. But it’s hard to please everyone and my kind of fan is a dying breed.
So why is the Japanese anime industry doing fine while the American industry is in such peril? The way just about all anime series are released in Japan has been pretty consistent – 2-3 episodes per Blu-ray disc every few months, often with extra goodies such as mini-artbooks and posters, for about 5,000 to 9,000 yen each (roughly $65 to $120). As expensive as that is to American fans, Japan has been following that same model for years and it’s been working. Call it a difference in what it means to be a fan in Japan compared to the US, but Japanese otaku do spend that kind of money on anime releases. Why aren’t American otaku willing to spend the same? I think over the years American fans have gotten used to having everything in cheap box sets. In recent years, companies have been releasing full 26-episode anime series on DVD for less than $50. Even Blu-ray sets of 13-episode series can be bought for less than $80. Compared to Japan where you can’t even get 2-3 episodes for less than $50, Americans can get anime for very cheap. So why don’t they? Other than the legit reason that people, especially the young people that make up the majority of anime fans, don’t have the money in this bad economy, and of course pirating still being an issue, I believe the reason goes back to what I discussed in the previous paragraphs. I’ve even heard people speculate that the reason Bandai can’t go on in the industry is because they followed the Japanese model of releasing anime (3-4 episodes per discs released every few months) rather than go with cheap full box sets from the get go like other companies are doing.
In addition, the Japanese anime industry has another major side of it that America doesn’t have – character goods. Official products from practically every anime released each season, ranging from CDs, artbooks, figures, and plushies down to mousepads, phone straps, and towels, are available, often for a limited time, at stores like Animate and Gamers. You can get a good idea of what these products are like by scrolling through sites like AmiAmi that sell character goods to US consumers. While they’re not as profitable to the industry as DVD/BD sales, they certainly promote series and reel in profit.
So, what does this all lead up to as far as the future for the US anime industry? One of the panelists mentioned that the Japanese companies may just start bypassing the American companies altogether. Or more extremely, they might not even see a need to have an American industry anymore, as the majority of their profits are from Japanese otaku anyway. If that were to happen, the only way American fans could legally buy anime series on DVD/BD is to import them at the much higher Japanese prices, certainly without dubs and perhaps without subtitles unless the Japanese companies decide to have them. I personally can’t afford to spend the Japanese prices on anime releases, nor do I want them without good English subtitles, so I would be very upset if this extreme outcome came to pass. All I can do now is to keep supporting the industry as I have been: buying the US DVD/BD sets of the anime I especially like (as we all know it’s too hard nowadays to buy every series we watch) and importing figures and other official character goods whenever I can. If I become a millionaire and fluent in Japanese in the future, then I wouldn’t mind importing the Japanese DVDs/BDs at all. But that doesn’t look to be happening anytime soon, so unless some comparable alternative from Japan’s side comes about, I really hope Funimation, Sentai, Viz, NIS America, Nozomi, and Aniplex, with all their various business strategies, can hang in there.
Signs of the Times: An Industry in Transition – relentlessflame expands more on the changing industry and the differences between the Japanese and American anime markets
Endings and Beginnings – Neo-Shonen Fujoshi’s AnimeLA con report and her thoughts on the state of the anime industry
Revenge of the Special Edition – Mike Toole from ANN wrote a great article comparing the US anime industry of the past to the state it’s in today