TL;DR: Sub-licensing companies need to focus on the question “Just because you like it, will you buy it?”
Partly inspired by reading Funimation’s latest survey on what they should license next, I had a moment of clarity in how to articulate this issue. I live in a land where legit DVD and Blu-ray releases are relatively cheap–anywhere from $10 to $50, you can buy a season of something. You can definitely buy a single, new movie at that price, save some crazy special release.
I ask myself: why do we buy what we buy? I can think of lots of different reasons that are common enough: love for the show, wanting to support the creator, liking the physical format, want to collect stuff, convenience, as a gift, etc. The money is not a big barrier at any given SKU in that price range.
Contrast this with people who, for this week, propped up over 6000 copies of HanaIro #7. It’s just an example. A copy of HanaIro #7 is still over 6000 yen at Amazon.co.jp, which is one of the cheapest place to buy Japanese anime (new, not used). That makes it 5800 yen before tax, or about $75 USD by today’s exchange rate.
It isn’t like Japanese otaku are rich people. A lot of people are doing it because they really love the thing, so they can afford the mental fortitude and determination to cut whatever they need to make ends meet. And there are 9 volumes of HanaIro in total (I think). At the same price that comes to $675, which is like, a lot of money for 26 episodes of anime. Well, the actual cost might be a bit more or less, but you get the idea.
All I’m trying to say is the majority of people who buy Japanese releases are people who really loves to own that very specific title. Only truly the rich buy anime just so they can collect stuff. The guilt trip, the store sale bonuses, the ultra-high quality release details, all that and more, are purposed to solicit people who already like a given show to take that next step and become owners, in a physical sense.
[It just occurred to me I bet a lot of people bought HanaIro just because they are fans of particular seiyuu-things. Maybe. Or maybe they work for the Toyama Prefectural government.]
It is in bizarre America land where we still treat TV anime like, well, OVAs. The OVA market is half-dead in Japan, for lots of reasons. The economics just don’t hold up as well today than it did during the “good o’ days.” Well, in America it was still the “good o’ days” until just recently, and today we are still expected to buy the anime we want to watch sight unseen. And not just high quality, high budget OVAs, but almost everything anime. Can this business model truly work in the long run? It seems like a very far-fetched idea. But I guess “sight unseen anime on DVD” still has a market if the price is low enough. Supply can meet with demand when the price is right, to go back to 16th century economics.
I hope you see what the problem is.
[Ok, it's not immediately obvious what the problem is, but it is definitely why the anime market in America is not growing organically, when there already exists an entire generation who grew up on Pokemon and Japanese video games, who are now entering the workforce. The Naruto Generation is due in another 8 years or so?]
Of course there are some titles, namely movies and OVAs, that could be treated this way. And we continue to do so. And it works. But the bulk of shows that gets pumped out by the usual R1 distros are not such things.
Because nobody respects the gap.
I think this is something everyone is aware of, or at least everyone that matters. Again, I’m stating the obvious. Again, this is why Funimation asks you what they should license, but also what titles you will end up buying. I mean after all this good talk about Redline, does this mean I’m going to buy it on Blu-ray? Probably not, at least not until it’s $10 or something. Kind of like why I didn’t buy FLCL on Blu-ray, since that would quantify as a triple-dip. Seeing Redline in theaters was enough for me.
There are countless ways why someone may buy or may not buy something. That is the bottom line. It has a correlation to quality, but it is not causally linked I would think. I have only my observations to support that conclusion, but I think it is sound.
This is one place where spreadsheets will tell the tale.
The real issue I want to get at is why Japan keeps on making moe anime that some people complain about. It’s because those sort of show fosters some kind of obsessed fans, in the way how idol fans buy everything a group releases, three times over. Shows that largely appeal only to people’s good tastes, however, don’t foster that kind of attitude towards their product. “Cool story bro.” You know the drill. And that doesn’t pay the bills.
Shows like Kaiba or Tatami Galaxy are great, and I like them. But it’s incredibly difficult to feel obsessive about those shows the way I do, say, Manabi Straight. (Did you know that thing is getting a BD remaster?) I’m sure some people loved those shows enough to buy it on home video, but it should not be surprising to see low sales for them, at the usual otaku-only price points.
In order to get people to not just like, but buy, anime, there needs be some kind of added factor. A franchise, a release, whatever, needs to build that allegorical bridge. Sure, you can simply drop prices, but the distance between my heart and the show would not have moved closer by even one centimeter.