November 26, 2007

Fansub firestorm

An editorial over at ANN has caused a lot of rumbling and commentary.

In essence, what it's saying is that the Geneon collapse is the tip of the ice berg. The entire industry, both R1 and in Japan, is right at, or just over, the tipping point, and in serious danger of implosion.

I'm not sure I believe that it could outright fail, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some serious shakeout. No matter how bad things are, some companies are in more trouble than others, and as the industry sheds capability, the others will be in better condition to keep going. The demand is still there.

But the current business model for the anime industry doesn't appear to be sustainable. Industry execs are blaming fansubs, but the point of the ANN editorial is that fansubs are a symptom, not the actual problem.

I posted this as a comment over on Avatar's site:

I don't think the primary attraction of fansubs is that they're zero-cost. I think the primary attraction of fansubs is that they're current.

I can download a free fansub and watch a show a week after it broadcasts in Japan. Or I can wait anything between one year and three years, and then pay $5-10 per half-hour episode to get it on DVD. Why is anyone surprised that the former choice is getting taken a lot?

If R1 DVDs came out in a timely fashion, contemperaneous with Japanese DVDs, most of the popularity of fansubs would vanish. iTunes proved that with respect to music: people are willing to pay $1 per track for downloaded music if they can do so. The attraction of bit-torrented music wasn't really that it was free. It was that it was convenient, and it was a la carte.

Likewise, I think that the majority of fansub-watchers would gladly switch to paying for timely R1 DVD releases if both were available at the same time.

But that won't happen, because the Japanese anime companies want to ream the Japanese DVD purchasers, selling their titles at prices ranging from $25-$40 per half hour episode, if not even higher. (I know of at least one case of $70/hhep.) If they were simultaneously selling the same thing in R1 for $5-$10 per hhep, there'd be a huge bootleg flow of DVDs from R1 back to Japan, and undercut their market there.

So the anime companies will never go for it -- and I think that they're probably right. The increased sales from North America wouldn't offset the reduction in income from Japanese DVD sales, because the only way they could prevent a flow of R1 DVDs to Japan would be to drop the prices in Japan to about the same as what we pay.

The ANN editorial makes the same point. As long as R1 fans who try to be honest have to wait between one and three years in order to buy shows blind, or maybe find out they cannot get them at all, while they can see shows within a week of broadcast, for free, if they're willing to be dishonest, then there will be a lot of people who give in to temptation.

In some cases that's the only choice. Magipoka and Dai Mahou Touge aren't available here legally. If you want to watch either, you have to get online, and steal them.

Fansubs are filling a need. The reason it's being done dishonestly, by unpaid amateurs, is because the industry isn't satisfying that need. I think the majority of people who download fansubs now would be willing to do the right thing if only the industry would let them in a timely fashion.

It isn't the R1 release companies who are fault in this. The ANN editorial does a good job of making clear that the real problem here is management in the Japanese anime companies -- and unfortunately, the only thing that will force them to change is an existential crisis.

Which means that they won't change their business model until after there is a substantial meltdown in the industry. When half the companies close, the remaining ones may realize that they have no choice but to rethink their businesses.

UPDATE: Chizumatic favorite Media Blasters may have a new idea: they've started releasing DVDs with subtitles but no dubbing. That's a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to produce, so their R1 overhead is low. So far they've been doing it with crap titles (e.g. Aoi and Mutsuki) which they probably also paid a low license fee for, and that means they don't have to sell many DVDs in the R1 market in order to make a profit. I have no idea how successful they've been at this, but keep an eye out to see if they start doing more of that -- and if others begin to imitate it.

(Geneon's Card Captor Sakura release was also sub-only, but not for that reason. They'd have dubbed it if they could, but there were strange licensing issues involved. So that's not an example of this.)

UPDATE: This guy has more info about just how screwed up the Japanese DVD market is.

UPDATE: Author points out that Media Blasters is also releasing Muteki Kanban Musume (Ramen Fighter Miki) dub-only in R1. Unlike Aoi and Mutsuki, this is a recent production, and one which got at least some buzz originally.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Anime at 05:48 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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