Tech Connect: Online Distribution a Reality?

While the debate and speculation rages on over the next generation DVD format- HD-DVD or Blu-Ray.

But, new formats aside, this Slashdot article, a new company is offering a service where one can download and burn the material to your own DVDs. The service works like other online rental services; the customer pays a monthy fee for unlimited downloads and from there one can burn them to DVD for play later. As the service is just beginning, the company, CinemaNow, only has a number of titles around 100 and they are not exactly A-list titles. But now is the important test now is to see if the service can be profitable. If it can be profitable on this level, then most likely, irregardless of the Next-Gen Format Wars just beginning, we could see the big Hollywood firms taking advantage of this or similar distrobution services.

So, how does this relate to the Anime companies? The actual retail costs of DVDs in the US is a point of contention among many fans. With consumers looking for the cheapest prices, often finding Internet retailers cutting MSRPs from single percentages to a full 1/3, and many US licensing companies facing minimal profit margins on individual disc sales, perhaps a method of online distrobution as provided by CinemaNow or similar service would be something to look into. Ideally, marketing to old fashioned retail stores, shipment, and packaging models would change completely and in many of their current capacities, be compltely eliminated from the cost structure as we know it. Though CinemaNow offers a monthly subscription, perhaps individual licensing companies could offer a "flat rate" per episode or cost for a batch of episodes, still dropping prices but at the same time increasing their profits on products. Should this movement gain popularity, especially in the tech communities which are frequently citing "outdated distribution models" and requests for more online distribution, this might be an important factor in continuing to pull the anime industry out of its current slump.


Encounter in Space: Enomoto Daisuke

Anime Expo back at the beginning of the month saw a number of classic licensing and as personal affairs increased since then, the scene of classic anime has been thankflly quiet, so that is actually one area that hasn't been putting added stress upon me. However, even though there are moments that Akihabara Renditions may feel stressful, it certainly is a labor of love.

Since the news concerning classic anime in the US has been rather dry lately, I only have a couple of fun related articles.

The first article today concerns a bit of what could be described as taking the Otaku culture too far [slashdot.org]. This Slashdot article concerns a Japanese Internet mogul and anime fan, Enomoto "DiceK" Daisuke. Enomoto, who made millions with the Japanese Internet company LiveDoor, will be the fourth traveller of Space Adventures, Ltd . (SAL) to be a commercial traveller into space. As reported on Anime News Network and New Scientist Space, Enomoto's plan for a literal intergalactic cosplay has been approved by both SAL and the Russian Space Agency. During his 8 day visit to space, Enomoto will be able to cosplay as one of Mobile Suit Gundam's leading aces, Char Aznable.

Enomoto also has planned on constructing a model kit related to the series, assumibly also related to Char, in Zero-Gravity. For safety reasons, Enomoto will be wearing the typical safety suits for exit and re-entry. He also plans on releasing videos of his visit over the Internet.

It's this sort of thing that makes my inner-fanboy, especially the inner-Gundam fanboy, really happy but also demonstrates the oddity of the Japanese Otaku community, especially when compared with many of their Western counterparts. AkibaRen will certainly be keeping an eye out for videos of Enomoto portraying the Red Comet and this monumental piece of Otaku culture.


Breaking out the Mecha

With AnimeExpo occurring at this very moment, I expected the weekend panels to yield some classic licenses and was a little worried about more classic licenses being lost or not renewed.

The first initial reports that came out of ANN all concerned newer series. This was naturally expected. The largest con in North America (and I actually think AX is still the largest outside of Japan) and to see it fly by with no Industry news would be unheard of. While checking forums, though, Anime on DVD has announced one certifiable classic, in addition to two other licesences, as well as a continuation in a classic franchise. Bandai Visual (different from Bandai Entertainment, who do the Gundam franchise in the US) had been planning on releasing the two Mobile Police Patlabor films previously held by Manga Entertainment, which is pretty good news that within a quick amount of time two relinquished licenses were immediately picked up. Now Bandai Visual, across their IRC channel, according to Anime On DVD, has announced the license of another relinquished classic from Manga's library: Aim for the Top Gunbuster. This is GAINAX's classic 1988 mecha OAV,in case there is confusion with its sequel, Aim for the Top Gunbuster 2, which, because of the rarity of the first OAV, gets shortened just to Gunbuster among fansub circles.

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Gunbuster has had a tumultuous release pattern in the US. Bandai Visual is the third license holder of the series since initially being released by US Renditions from 1990-91. In 1995, US Renditions declared bankruptcy and sold off its assets, including its IP assets/licenses. The Gunbuster license, as well as a few other titles previously released by US Renditions, were bought up by a newcomer to the marketplace - Manga Entertainment. Manga re-released the OAV on VHS under their name in 1996. When the next generation format of DVD was decided, Manga announced plans to move its library to the format and when mecha fans asked about it being transferred over, it was always described as "being on the list", but no definite plans could be elaborated upon. With Manga's loss of the license in March of this year, the only outstanding copies that could be found in the US market - after much serious scouring and digging - were their VHS copies from 1996, which was certainly easier to find than someone disbanding a collection with an old US Renditions copy in it. All seemed lost for GAINAX and mecha fans who wanted a Region 1 copy. Region 2 copies in Japan were made for sale in 2004 and there is also a Region 2 PAL version called Gunbuster Renewal (which has been circulating on the net as a "fansub" as well) that people were trying to get a hold of. Bandai Visual's announcement is a welcomed one and I cannot wait to see this released on DVD.

Bandai Visual's other announcement, again reported by Anime on DVD as being indicated over an IRC channel was Sunrise's foray into the ONA format has licensed Rean no Tsubasa (Wings of Rean). I've already discussed my desire to see Rean and I think that this title, if marketed right, can do well in the US. It is based in a franchise of classic mecha anime but still retains much of the flashy animation that will hopefully attract new viewers.

So far, Bandai Visual's four licenses are all a part of the "mecha" genre, which I think is a good base to go after. Not only am I personally a fan of mecha, Mecha is one of the two unique genres founded in the Japanese animation medium (the other being Mahou Shoujo/ Magical Girl). What started out as a sci-fi sub-catagory has gone on to be its own genre with defining characteristics and whose defining characteristics are recognizable for most non-anime fans. With good releases of strong titles within this fanbase (which I am fairly sure is pretty sizable), Bandai Visual can spin some nice profits early on and hopefully not pigeonhole themselves as being referenced as "the mecha licensor"; while it may limit market potential, it's not as bad as having the reputation for being a bad licensor.

Kudos again to Bandai Visual for scooping up some old licenses and showing that faith in classic anime still remains in parts of the Industry.

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ADV Seeks Out More Capital

Well, the title itself is a little misleading. All anime licensors and their Japanese producers are always looking for more capital. After all, capital funding is what gets new projects made in Japan and here in the US, capital gets us new licenses.

However, the "traditional" model of a independent US-based companies seeking out local distribution and translation licensing is seemingly on the downturn.

An announcement reported on ANN on Tuesday (2006.6.27) that ADV has formed a partnership with a Japanese company, Sojitz, with Sojitz and other members of the Japan Content Investments, an investor group, buying equity in ADV for capital funding. In return, ADV will assist Sojitz and other JCI companies in aquiring North American and European properties for export to Japan. Even though there is a buy-in from a Japanese company, ADV's CEO and Founder still remains majority shareholder and the company remains in US/North American hands.

ADV's partnership is only the latest in a growing number of deals between US licensors and Japanese production companies outside of the normal licensing procedure. Earlier this month we saw Dentsu, with an anime investment fund purchasing equity in Generon Entertainment USA. Last year, Bandai Visual of Japan opened the doors to Bandai Visual USA, BVUSA being completely independent of Bandai Entertainment Inc, who most fans are referring to when talking about "Bandai Licesnes", especially those of the Mobile Suit Gundam 『機動戦士ガンダム』 franchise. VIZ Media's book line has had a long standing partnership with Japanese publisher Shogakukan when it comes to publishing their manga in the US. One even begins to think about Toei Douga in Japan; how it has made licenses expiring in the US hard to re-new so that it can hope to release them in North America themselves. While many fans may welcome the idea of a Japanese company directly releasing their own anime in the US, Toei's dismal performance with their SLAM DUNK DVDs (which, ironically, no one remembers) is creating a deadlock with many Toei properties.

And to think, it wasn't until a few years ago that fans were amazed company like ADV, Urban Vision, and Geneon were financing productions in Japan and getting distribution rights before shows even aired.

This latest evolution in the North American industry, making stronger ties with Japan, isn't something that I don't think many of us thought we would see happen. While I don't think partnerships that Viz, Geneon, and ADV are adverse partnerships, but there is, like in all business actions, a fine line to walk here. What do I mean by this? Let's look at the example of Toei Douga I mentioned earlier.

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They were looking at breaking into the Region 1 market and did so with their basketball title SLAM DUNK, which garnered a great deal of popularity in Japan. Toei, seeming to sense speed was the key to a successful release, quickly released the TV series on DVD. The DVDs released had low quality translations and were widely criticized by fans. The release flopped. What Toei hadn't noticed were trends in the Region 1 Market. Sports anime, which are few and far between here, typically do not test well. In fact, a small handful of them are fansubbed and even fewer gain praise and wide viewership. Most often, the sports anime that do well in fansubs are those that have an added appeal rather than just the sports action. Series like Touch 『タッチ』 and YAWARA!, both nostalgic classics in Japan as well, much like SLAM DUNK, have received some fansub praise and I personally think are fantastic series, but very much the draw for many people are the romantic/slice of life elements and not always the sports action of the two. Touch as a baseball anime has gained support in the fansub community but I've not seen people as anxious about H2 (by the same author, Adachi Mitsuru, focuses more on baseball earlier in the story, too), nor do I see groups coming out of the woodwork to subtitle Kyojin no Hoshi 『巨人の星』, another classic baseball series that was very popular in Japan.

With a growth of equity stakes being taken on by Japanese production companies in North American licensors, will the quality of the Region 1 market look like Toei's SLAM DUNK release? I'll go on record to say that I don't believe so. To say that more Japanese partnership will lead to poor and uneducated releases is liken to comparing all anime licensors in North America to 4Kids Productions. ADV, Geneon, and Viz have all been successful companies in their own right; the fans know them and they know the fans - knowing your customers is part of knowing the market. In each of their respective partnerships they hold majority share of equity.

The news of these partnerships has also lately been coupled with license losses and predictions of bankruptcy from Manga Entertainment and Central Park Media/US Manga Corps, respectively, and the general absence of AnimEigo from the licensing race, one must wonder if these companies are looking at what their competition is doing and not contemplating what similar agreements might hold for them? AnimEigo has said that anime licenses since the 2003 Licensing Boom have went from expensive to astronomical and that it is barely pulling in enough from their anime line to break even. After all, Akihabara Renditions is all about the classic anime and we support the licensing of all classic anime for release in the US. While to expect every classic to be licensed and released is unrealistic, we do stand behind the companies that do make classic licenses. While many companies have classics in their library, I cannot think of a single company that has made classics their mainstay and market recognition the same way AnimEigo has. If AnimEigo has not looked into pairing with Japanese companies for more initial capital, I think perhaps they should.

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