Leaving It On the Table: Why Funimation Is No Better than Bandai at This

Okay, so people might have a point about the retreat into the niche market when it comes to releases for shows that, by the Iyadomi interview, Bandai Visual Japan and Aniplex pricing.

But it’s times like this we need to remember why we don’t have a Tatami Galaxy release yet. Funimation’s release model doesn’t work for everything under the sun. If we are to agree that anime is just a style/medium sort of thing, like TV shows and films, then we have to agree that some films will sell to a mainstream audience and some will not. How do we bring commercial viability to the widest array of ideas in anime? Are there any limits? If we treat “freedom of animation” as a goal then I can’t help but to think that there are few, if any, drawbacks to Bandai’s retreat from the US market. Rather, we gain the benefit of either having other players picking up titles at a lower cost, or having Japanese releases for the titles that wouldn’t sell under a Funi-style or S23-style model. It opens things up.

The drawbacks, as far as I can tell, are mostly in how markets adjust for prices. For one, some anime might be more expensive to purchase in the future. I think expensive anime is inherently a bad thing in that proliferation of idea require a low cost of entry. Expensive and hard-to-obtain anime invariably means fewer people will be able to see it. This is partly remedied by legal streaming and fansubbing, except the latter doesn’t promote things as it brings no dough home to the creators, at least by itself. It’s kind of a wash anyway, if we prize the proliferation of ideas–people will be able to watch what they want, the means to do so is sufficiently liberated that even people in third-world countries can do media piracy with increasing ease. And it really is not related to Bandai Entertainment’s retreat anyway, since North America has no 3rd world nations…and Bandai’s business doesn’t really have much of an impact on piracy to begin with.

The other drawback has to do with someone stranding a bunch of titles. This is a legitimate issue. I mean I suppose Bandai will still take care of its Gundam titles in some way, at least to make it purchasable with enough localized content slapped on it. I’m not so sure if same can be said about bigger titles like, say, Haruhi (if there’s ever any more new Haruhi), or their newly-stranded shows like Nichijou. Let alone their more niche shows. But Iyadomi at least said the rights will revert and Kadokawa can go shop around once again, for the new stuff. I’m not sure how that is going to play out, but it seems at least some care was taken to it so that stuff doesn’t get “stranded” too badly. And given it’s just one show, I don’t see too much of a harm, at least compared to the potential sequels that will get their heads segmented by different companies releasing parts of it.

[And of course, there are the manga orphanages, but I’m going to focus on anime on this post.]

I think given those pitfalls, if we look at what Funi is doing with certain properties, it really isn’t so different. I think it still comes down to that somebody out there has to be at least doing the work of localizing the stuff, making it available, and selling it at the right price. Funi and what used to be Bandai Entertainment did this. It is still a loss that we now have one less company doing that, so I wish nothing less than more of what Funi does basically. But it’s not just Funi, but every other company doing it–including Bandai Visual over there, or Aniplex. Or those blokes picking up titles I want to import in the UK or Australia.

I think it is better to categorize Funimation’s licensing strategy as piecemeal as they start to work with new media and expand their revenue stream. I also think they’ve made some big mistakes, along with which their gravest is their poor agility in the online space and inability to rectify it. I mean if this was 2008 maybe starting your own social ecosystem may make sense, but not in 2011. It is worth noting that Crunchyroll has dropped that even before wasted attempts like Funi’s beta site (and things like, lol, Mikubook) even saw the light of day. They are trying to do all the right thing, just 2-3 years too late. Its chain of partners seems like a smarter move, but I think it exasperates the piecemeal problem.

By piecemeal I mean the same copyright issue that international media distribution has. And in anime’s case it happens all the time. Especially when you are trying to identify and establish branding–anime IP is so poorly marketed that it makes more sense for local distros to focus on lines and brands and squeeze titles under it, essentially have these titles work in a team to lift everything in the line. And it works well when you have marquee titles (Funi has a few to say the least). But when your shows is everywhere, and some shows are in site X and others in app Y, it paints a confusing picture that benefits more so for the sites that hosts them and give little long-term benefit for the company that actually owns the right. Of course, unless those people are already following what the company is doing–in other words, not really the mainstream.

On the bright side, nobody else doing physical distro is even close to what Funi has done. So uh, yeah.

I suppose that just can’t be helped. I mean I don’t know how Funi is run, but it sounds like a fun place to work. It also clearly doesn’t run like a start-up, at least from the top-down. So how can it compete in the new media space? I’m not sure it has the resources to do so, even if it is relatively inexpensive.

Inexpensive enough that Nicovideo is charging us $0.25 for some anime, and you get a lot of NASA programming for free! Weeee.

I think more relevantly, it’s inexpensive in that Japan can pony up and front it. They still will need help but it would be way better than, say, Toei’s failed attempts.

When we talk about, in a broad sense, what a market adjustment looks like, I think we’re just seeing it playing out in this marketplace. Sometimes it’s all internal, like what has happened to Media Blaster recently and its continuing rounds of HR issues. Sometimes it’s not. So I say let’s just keep our course and look at what will happen next.

6 Responses to “Leaving It On the Table: Why Funimation Is No Better than Bandai at This”

  • NegativeZero

    A side note, regarding the companies in Australia that pick stuff up for the local market – they’re really depenedent on US companies most of the time. Almost all of Madman Australia’s releases use the US release material (unless this has changed recently – i haven’t purchased a local release in half a decade or more) and less players in that market will flow on to less releases available in English in general.

    I actually personally think that the Japanese companies are missing out by releasing their stuff without english subtitles when those titles have subtitled simulcasts. There’s a reasonably big enthusiast market who will track down the *best* version of the shows they love, not the cheapest, and the cost for putting some pre-existing subs on the disc has got to be incredibly low.

  • dm

    Have you found a way to import the Australian releases to the US? (NegativeZero, they have Kaiba and Dennou Coil — neither of which got a streaming release here). All I’ve found is Australian eBay, so far.

  • omo

    There are ways, but it’s pain in the ass. Australia mail system is worthless, at least as an impression from my Aus friends.

    It might be easier if I get a hold of someone who’s going there…

    You’re partly right. I think the effort is low and the cost isn’t high, but it is more about opportunity costs. Moreover it has more to do with who is doing the subbing, and most importantly, what title it is. To clarify, if you want Japanese subs on Japanese releases, it will be the Japanese who is doing the subbing, not because they buy the subs from some R1 sublicensee…i mean that seems like a dumb business move on the licensee’s part. Tho I don’t know who is doing the subs for those simulcasts these days, seems like it is mostly the Japanese owning up to it. (By “doing” I mean who is the owner, not who is actually translating.)

    Some productions have done this exact thing. I think the real test to your statement is just how big of this “enthusiast” market compared to those who would buy it even without the translation, especially in the situation when there is a localized version.

    See: Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere.

    Your points about UK and Aus companies buying dubs is well put though.

  • vunder chikkin

    The power of cheap digital distribution would help to offset the OC and other areas, but it always seems that the licensing is like hoops and dancing bears, combined with the rights and what not.

    However, markets are sadly cold feet nowadays. Gabe Newell in one of his blog posts about piracy and marketing, explained it was a problem of service and convenience that determines the how the market is responsive. IMO, the way that shows are currently distributed is pointing in the right direction, but still fail to find the proverbial yellow brick road.

  • NegativeZero

    @dm/omo: the Dennou Coil release as I understand it is using the same subs that are available on that iOS app that was put out a while back. If you really want stuff from the Australian market I could probably help out with that, but the bulk of our releases are massively overpriced and low quality due to the NTSC->PAL conversion process.

    I really hope that Horizon isn’t the test case for subbed Japanese releases though. It’s a pretty limited-interest show.

  • omo

    I think that is a big reason why people with the spending power would just import from Japan and live with fansubs, rather than to deal with it.

    I’m sure Horizon is just one of several test titles. But whatever they test it with, it would have to be a limited-interest show because there’s no point not to do it the old way with a popular title. Or even if it works, they would largely apply it to limited-interests titles since that’s the majority of the cases that are in this kind of limbo.

    Unless you’re Aniplex anyway!

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