June 15, 2007
One time I read a book called "Up the Organization", by Robert Townsend. If you're an old-timer like me, you may remember in the 1960's when car-rental company Avis ran a series of ads based on the slogan, "We're number 2, but we try harder". That happened during a period in which Townsend was CEO of Avis, and this book is about his experience.
It's not a narrative. What it's about is an alternate concept of business management called "Theory Y". The book is organized as a series of one and two page essays, in alphabetic order. They're rather pithy. For instance, the article titled "Marketing" begins thusly:
Fire the whole marketing department.
And then it proceeds from there.
I don't remember exactly which of the articles it was in, but in one of them he was writing about how you have to keep your eye on the ball and not let yourself get distracted. As an example of that, he writes about how he himself came up with what he thought was a great idea: a cut-rate car rental business, with cheaper cars and lower rates. It would run under a different brand name. He apparently didn't think it was a problem that it would effectively undercut the primary business of Avis.
He says that he breathlessly explained it all to a friend of his who was of Polish extraction, and after his presentation was over, his friend sunk the whole thing with a single comment. "I don't know what you guys call that, but we Polacks call that 'pissing in the soup.'"
Fansubs are a real problem for the anime industry right now in North America. We've become an important market, and the studios are beginning to factor significant North American sales of their titles into their budget calculations. However, the North American market represents a quandry for the studios. One might even say it's a dilemma.
We've gotten used to getting DVDs with 3-5 episodes each selling for no more than $35, or $6-$12 per episode. We're also used to receiving DVDs with both Japanese and dubbed English soundtracks.
The Japanese market is used to paying $50 or even more for 2-episode DVDs. Meanwhile, the English-language fansubbing system has gotten so efficient that the majority of Japanese shows appear online for illicit download within weeks of original broadcast. And the quality of the video, and of the translations, has gotten quite good. A typical 25-minute show will be offered as a 190 megabyte file using one of the latest video codecs, and as a result will look excellent.
Some shows are being broadcast in Japan in high-def now, and those are starting to show up on the fansub circuit too. Typically the download files are about 50% bigger.
So what are the choices for the studios? Let's look at them:
1. Release DVDs close to simultaneously in Japan and North America. The problem is that this will undercut the Japanese business, because Japanese fans will start importing region 1 DVDs, paying $10 per episode instead of more than $25. Or if they try to charge Americans something like what they currently charge in Japan, titles will flop. No one here is going to pay $50 for a 2-episode DVD. (Bandai is about to prove that.)
2. Release DVDs in North America after a long delay. But as the fansubbers get more efficient and the fansubbing processing and distribution bandwidth grows fatter and fatter, there's a real concern that by the time DVDs are released here a large percentage of the potential customer base will already have the show and won't buy.
3. Kiss off the North American market entirely. But they can't do that; it's already worth too much for them, even with the problems.
#2 is what they actually do, mostly, and simply eat the reduced demand. But #3 is popular too. For whatever reason, there are a lot of titles that never see Region 1 release. (Magipoka, sob) Sometimes it's because they're crap, of course, and sometimes because the studios have an inflated idea of how much the licenses are worth. But fansubbing contributes to this, too.
Fansubbers will respond thusly:
1. We created the market. Commercial releases of anime DVDs in North America only started happening because so many potential customers had been introduced to anime via fansubs. (Note that this includes bootleg video tapes, back in the stone age.)
2. We have a code of honor: we stop working on fansubs for a series when it gets licensed for Region 1, and once that happens we also try to discourage distribution of the episodes that were already fansubbed.
There's truth to both of those arguments, but they're also both somewhat deceptive, and there's a degree of rationalization involved. #2 comes down to this: "We only steal when they refuse to sell to us." Maybe so. But it's still stealing.
I'm not lily-white here; I've downloaded some fansubs myself, and I understand the temptation. ADV recently announced it had the North American license for Magikano. But the first DVD won't come out until next December, and they'll trickle out at a rate of one every other month thereafter. Since it will probably be a 4-DVD release, it won't become fully available until a year from now.
About three weeks ago, I was able to download the entire series in an evening. It's on my HD right now. I haven't watched it yet, and I don't know whether I will. But I'm strongly tempted; the series concept sounds interesting.
I don't know if ADV could release it any sooner, what with their staff cutbacks, but even if they could, Tokyo Kids wouldn't want them to due to the danger of undercutting their Japanese DVD sales. If they released sooner they'd make more money in North America, but potentially less in Japan, and it's probably a net loss for Tokyo Kids.
I'm a practical man and I know that fansubbing isn't going to end. And maybe it's true that fansubbing created the demand that companies like ADV and Funimation now cater to with real products. But as a system engineer I know that systems scale non-linearly and you can get crossovers where you start getting negative yield. That's the problem for the fansubbers: they've coming close to the point where they could kill what they've created.
Fansubbers are pissing in the soup. That needs to stop.
Let's look again at fansubber rationalization #2, shall we?
We have a code of honor: we stop working on fansubs for a series when it gets licensed for Region 1, and in that case we also try to discourage distribution of the episodes that were already fansubbed.
The theory being that by doing this they encourage people to purchase the real DVDs when finally released. But for a variety of reasons it doesn't really work well, and the official release industry in North America is suffering because of it.
What is needed is a reason (besides guilt) for fansub downloaders to pony up money for the real DVDs once they come out. So what do ADV and Funimation have to offer? Well, dubs, extras, and better resolution.
Fansub fans don't care about dubs. (If they did, they wouldn't be downloading fansubs.) The extras are usually pretty minimal, and if not then they end up online pretty rapidly. And the resolution difference isn't all that great.
Here's a framegrab from the second (i.e. first) fansub episode of Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu:
Here's the same frame from the Region 1 release of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya:
It's bigger. The color is a bit better, I think; the fansub is more contrasty and I think someone was monkeying with the alpha a bit. (And for reasons I don't quite understand, the aspect ratio is different. Haruhi's face is fatter in the fansub.)
The DVD isn't really all that much better than the fansub. And that's the problem: absent strange gimmicks (e.g. including panties in a boxed set of Najica Blitz Tactics) there isn't really all that much of an incentive for fansub downloaders to pay for DVDs once they become available.
There is something that fansubbers could do about this. It would be easy. All they have to do is to reduce the resolution of their fansubs. That would have the added benefit of reducing filesize. And it would give fansub downloaders considerable incentive to purchase licensed DVDs once they become available. The fansub was released with a resolution of 640*360. If it had been 480*270 it would have looked like this:
Definitely legible -- but definitely considerably less desirable than the 720*405 of the DVD release.
[Side note: the native size of a DVD frame is 720*480. If the show is "full-screen" then it should be resized to 640*480. If it is widescreen as is the case for this particular show, then either you reduce it to 720*405 or you blow it up to 853*480. I've found that 720*405 is more satisfactory. Any time you expand an image it becomes blurry, and the fansub 640*360 would actually be considerably better than an 853*480 DVD image because it would be sharper and cleaner.]
Unfortunately, it's a simple idea that would be very effective. And it won't happen, because of competition inside the fansub community. It's not uncommon for a popular title to be done by two groups or even more, as I understand it, and if one group reduces its resolution then it makes its product (ahem) less desirable than a competing one which is higher resolution.
Which means that fansubbing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. A large number of independent decision makers, each working to optimize his own results, are collectively destroying the very thing they hope to benefit from. Or at least damaging it.
Pissing in someone else's soup is stupid, if it turns out that he's pissing in yours at the same time.
[I'm not going to be in the habit of using profanity here, but in this case the particular figure of speech which is the foundation of this article requires it. Please refrain in comments.]
Posted by: Andrew F. at June 15, 2007 08:22 PM (C7Z1R)
Fansubbers are "free riders". A fansub costs the original production company nothing, but also yields no revenue. So it's an example of what in biology is known as "commensal parasitism".
But in biology, and in economics, it's never that simple. Mistletoe is a commensal parasite for trees, but too much mistletoe can cause a tree to collapse from the extra weight. And too many free riders can result in too few paying customers, resulting in market collapse.
It isn't possible for everyone to free ride. Someone has to pay the fare. A system can tolerate a certain degree of free riding, but if there's too much you end up in a downward spiral. So it actually is an example of the tragedy of the commons.
Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 15, 2007 08:36 PM (+rSRq)
Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 15, 2007 08:39 PM (+rSRq)
First off, the companies simply don't have the resources for actual enforcement of copyright laws. Anime isn't like the US music or movie industries - there's no big sump of profits that can pay for legal campaigns that aren't productive, teams of lawyers who don't produce results, or lawsuits that win judgments that won't get paid. Copyright's a federal matter, but that means -every- copyright case is a federal case, with the attendant costs involved. The average anime fan simply doesn't have the kind of assets to make them worth suing - hell, the company would lose just filing the peckers, much less paying the lawyers - and the companies can't afford demonstrations.
I'm typically skeptical of the whole "fansubs may destroy the industry" argument these days. A few reasons...
- Traditionally, sub watchers have always been a minority of sales. Most fansub watchers, well, they're not dub watchers - people tend to self-select into one category or the other, and it's unusual for someone who prefers dubs to watch fansubs at all. (Not unknown, just unusual.) There are an awful lot of people watching fansubs and not buying, sure, and the proportion of total subtitle watchers to subtitle -purchasers- is pretty terrible, but the lion's share of the money never came from that market anyway.
- How could the situation deteriorate further? For the last year, practically -every anime airing in Japan- saw a fansub release within weeks. The most popular shows are released, generally speaking, before the week is out. Certainly there's a huge compromise in quality involved (don't get me started on THAT topic), but fact is, most of the people watching don't care, nor would they necessarily appreciate the difference between what they're watching and a higher-quality release. Seriously, I mean, I'm more or less a snob when it comes to this sort of thing, and I'd like to pretend that the last little bits matter when people make purchasing decisions, but the fact is, it just ain't true.
So in this situation, what's going to go wrong, actually? You could argue that the system has already reached a dynamic equilibrium with respect to fansubs. Sure, on paper, you can look at the Eclipse logs of Claymore and note that there's been 75k downloads of the first episode - and lemme tell you, that's a big honkin' number of people, for a show that's not even half over yet - but that doesn't necessarily mean that the problem's getting worse than it was this time last year. And the companies are more or less adapting (or rather, were adapted in the first place.)
It's kind of sad, in a way, because it means that companies definitely orient towards the dub consumer - who's actually buying - versus the sub consumers who mostly don't. And, hate to say it, but that's the right way to look at it...
- Finally, there's more to the instability of the market than fansubs. I mean, sure, if you look at 2001-2002, when broadband is still getting out to people and IRC f-serves were cutting-edge delivery technology. But having hit the technical plateau, I'm not sure I'd say that there's any reason to believe that things are getting worse on that score.
However, on the business end, there's a -lot- of flux. Traditionally, the biggest problem was getting the Japanese end of the market to take the US market seriously. Not in the idea that there is a US market, though of course that was the initial problem. But in the idea that the US rights are an economic asset, and it's important for a company to properly value its assets so that they might be exploited to full value - that kind of seriously. There were plenty of Japanese companies that were perfectly happy not to worry about the US market, and others that did no business in the US market because their perceived valuation was totally out of line with the actual value of their licenses. This is starting to change, especially now that companies are relying on US cash flow to fund production in the first place - when you do that, you don't have the luxury of watching your product sit on the market because you can't stomach the price that market will bear.
Of course, now we have Japanese companies attempting to capture that profit themselves by handling the release in the US themselves... which won't work in the short term, because if you think that the US market is the same as the Japanese market... you'll act like Bandai Visual, heh!
All that said, companies also have an option 4 - prevent reverse importation of the US release into Japan by making it unpalatable to the Japanese consumer. The easiest way to do this is to simply not include the Japanese audio track...
Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 15, 2007 09:24 PM (dlP4b)
Posted by: Ken Talton at June 15, 2007 09:35 PM (GpR+s)
Posted by: Ken Talton at June 15, 2007 09:42 PM (GpR+s)
So the idea is to have fansubs as "extended" prewievs of products not available yet... it has merits.
What Ken reports is just another version of the typical elitist, anti-capitalist rant. Sometimes it ends in smashed windows, sometimes in copyright violations.
Posted by: FabioC. at June 15, 2007 09:52 PM (Lx9ty)
Here's another take on the question, with a little bit on the Singaporean Odex threats. Odex is trying to be a very good example of how not to serve a small niche market. Though it is interesting to wonder about whether the "extra products" like the novels, figures, etc will help the situation, how much can that help? Even in Japan a fair amount of those products are "inspired-by" fan-works, instead of actual licensed product.
Personally, I see US licensers sitting up and taking notes on a couple of recent release strategies: Kadokawa is shopping licensors purely for distribution and dubbing assistance (the third FMP and Haruhi going to Funimation and Bandai Visual respectively--scripts for dubs and all visuals were naturally by Kadokawa/KyoAni). Funimation is starting their own channel like ADV did, but Funimation's not limiting it to their own licensed titles--many of which are being shown free on Cartoon Network. ADV is looking at possibly simulcasting according to this interview (which Ubu Roi posted commentary for here).
I think you're going to see a stronger partnership between the Japanese production companies, trading companies on both sides of the Pacific, and US "licensees" (which may just end up as distribution/dubbing outlets in these kinds of partnerships). Another thing mentioned somewhere (apologies if it was in the above article) might be for those same companies to release 2 or even 3 "main" versions of any given title (not including rereleases such as thinpaks). You'd have your "Early Bird" version, sub-only, 2 eps/disc, $40 with a bare minimum of extras--but released the same month as the second ep on the disc airs (preferably the same week, though at first you'd take a little more time to work out distribution kinks). Those, you're buying speed. Then you'd have the "Mass Market" version, 3-5 eps but dub only, released about the same time and manner as what you have now for shows like Pokemon, One Piece, or Naruto. Then you'd have a bit later, "Premium" editions which would have the combined sub/dub discs at 2-4 eps per (depending on the length of the series), fancy artboxes, pencilboards, headbands, figurines, collectible puzzle-piece swag ("collect all N volumes, 'cause N-1 just won't do!"), a couple volumes of manga/light novels, whatever the partnership decides to put together (I'm thinking something very fancy, probably selling for around $200 when you put the whole series together--see the Captain Tylor "Ultra Editions", or the recent Patlabor Movie ones for what I'm talking about).
We're not in at the death of anime in the US here, just another moment where things get interesting. Like when the bubble deflated, but this time hopefully not getting so many titles and jobs lost in the shuffle.
Posted by: Rich at June 15, 2007 10:13 PM (mPWmU)
Also, the idea of manufacturing, shipping and selling DVDs (or Blu-Ray or whatever) is doomed; it has a decade plus-or-minus five years of life left in the mainstream.
Neither of which is a valid defense of fansubbing, of course.
Posted by: Pixy Misa at June 15, 2007 10:24 PM (PiXy!)
Anime shops sub in-house (or subcontract--sorry!) their releases as part of the production process, into as many languages as they think will be immediately profitable. They then sell direct downloads globally. Dubs may be too hard to squeeze into the timeline, but as mentioned, that may be a different market that can be serviced by a different website (like the R1 dubber's).
That pretty much destroys gray-market fansubbing, by making quality subs available for purchase from Day 1. However, it would have to go along with some sort of rationalization in prices, or else a lot of fansub watchers could simply choose the other direction, to go to blatant piracy. It would also require extra resources in order to do the idea justice; official subbers would face the same culture/connotation barriers that fansubbers do, and the best would be those who had lived in and were comfortable with both.
Posted by: Big D at June 15, 2007 10:49 PM (JJ4vV)
At the end of the day, though, there is no "sic the lawyers". It will not happen. The US companies can't afford to - even if you WON you'd still go out of business. The Japanese companies can't afford to either - if they had that kind of money kicking around, they wouldn't NEED the US sales.
The move to television (and, bluntly, the higher revenue potential it represents) is tough. Let's face it, if anime's going to remain what it is, a lot of it is going to be uncomfortable to present to the American public - not only is it niche, but it's a niche full of things like pedophilia and gore (by US television standards, naturally). Lots of shows simply have no TV market, period, because they can't be shown without cuts that would amount to murder. A lot of what can pass muster is, well, pretty bland. And CN's hardly a savior, because their rates are tiny - you can't afford to do the production work on what CN pays you alone, forget profits.
The "reduce the resolution" idea has been presented before. Unworkable, unfortunately; the quality of the image used is determined by the logistics of delivery and not some kind of "ideal", modulated only by how good of a source is available in the first place - and nowadays, for anything that's airing in Tokyo, that's as good as you need it. Like Steven said, if one group releases in a crummy resolution, another group will release in a better one. And frankly, advances in video compression technology are fantastic - I'd have given a minor extremity to have been able to encode with the kind of quality people are getting out of h.264, MPEG-4 encodes on the DVDs I worked on.
The "pack in tons of extras" idea seems to be where they're going with the Haruhi SE release. Can't pirate a hair ribbon, after all. I wish 'em well with it, but I don't know if it'll prove the general case - Haruhi's popular enough that it might sell plenty well, but a lot of second-rank titles won't move $60 -anything-.
In defense of the voice actors, okay, they're not union (here, anyway - it's Texas, we don't DO union here.) But I used to do the budgets for 'em, and let me tell you, I've never made anywhere near what they make by the hour. Sure, it's not steady work, but there's damned little that pays as well for the time you put in!
(Then again, contract subtitling ain't too bad either. ;p But hey, I didn't get that kind of money when I went in the booth...)
Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 15, 2007 10:52 PM (dlP4b)
Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 15, 2007 10:56 PM (dlP4b)
I do not think that expensive DVDs are out of question. I buy at R2 DVDs at Neowing. They just have to be worth it. Interestingly, Ledford talked about it, too. He said, that a few years ago everything was selling, and now it's just "A-list", and that's because of fansubbers. So, two problems are immediately apparent with his claims. First, the leap of faith. Yes, only A-list is selling, but who is at fault? I already answered it above: his B-list is more like F-list, like Samurai Gun. That's the real reason. And secondly, for the separation itself, well, people are more informed now. Before, all information I received about anime was pure marketing, what magazines printed. Now I can go to Chizumatic and learn all I want to know about Yumeria in one convenient capsule comment (no, I'm not buying that schtick). So why doesn't Ledford blame bloggers? Actually, I expect that in the endless quest to excuse his incompetence, he will. We will see liebel lawsuits, especially in the countries like the U.K. Heck, even in the U.S. Suzuki sued Consumer Reports.
Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at June 15, 2007 11:00 PM (9imyF)
Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 15, 2007 11:03 PM (+rSRq)
Sorry, Steven, didn't mean to conjure up an unwelcome mental image there.
And, sure, nothing could have saved Yumeria (or would want to, gawd.) But it's undeniable that there's been a definite shift in the patterns of what's selling and not selling... and as has been said before, there's a lot of shows which are worth watching but not necessarily rewatching. It's entirely possible that fansubbing does nothing to hurt, or indeed actually helps, great shows (because people will buy them even after they've watched them). But if the show wasn't absolutely fabulous, and you watched it already, are you going to buy it? Not so many people do, these days.
I won't comment on licensing choices, mostly because it's a topic I know enough non-public information about that I can't really address it properly and not bust the ol' NDA. ;p
Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 16, 2007 12:03 AM (dlP4b)
Posted by: Michael Brazier at June 16, 2007 12:14 AM (fNlux)
Posted by: Jim Burdo at June 16, 2007 12:20 AM (qk+He)
Posted by: Wonderduck at June 16, 2007 06:10 AM (GpR+s)
1) There are just some series that won't have an American market. They're either too old (Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Gundam ZZ, etc), too messy without getting a "kiss of death" level of editing or being put in the "too adult for kids" section, or they are just way too quirky (okay, how many people are going to watch a Judo anime? Seriously.). I would buy a legitimate copy of LoGH, three or four episodes to a DVD. Even more if they bought them and were able to clean them up.
2) You have to wonder sometimes if the American companies that bring anime over want to fail. For example, when 4Kids got the One Piece license, they pretty much cut about 30-40 episodes worth of material out. Did visual edits that made no sense, and after promising to do a "uncut" version, went back on their promise.
Example #2-Bandai Visual released Gunbuster as a subtitle-only product. I'm not complaining (too much)-from the rumors I heard, they couldn't make a dub without a hideously expensive process of redoing all the sound, as the master soundtrack was lost. Now, when they released Gunbuster 2-they HAD to have had the master soundtracks and could have made a dub. There wasn't a dub, the extras on the DVDs were anemic, and each DVD was TWO episodes for $39.95 a DVD. Which, scary enough, felt a lot like the bad old days of anime, when you got your subtitled VHS tape with two episodes for that much. Oh, I did get them-I loved the series and I know that a company that knows something that makes money will make more of it. But, even the Bandai Visual people have realized that "oops, we goofed".
This is not so much a "defense" of fansubs, more along the lines of "perceived intent" by fans. If the fans felt that they were getting a level of respect and decency from the studios, there would be fewer fansubbers. George Lucas and his treatment of "Star Wars" is a good example-I have been to a few sci-fi cons where people get out the LD (yes, LASER DISK) version of Star Wars and have showings, because they want to watch the movie they grew up with, not the most recent "George Lucas had a bowel movement" edit that he decided to send out to the public. You can't please everybody, but when you're in the media with an active fan community, you're riding the tiger as much as the tiger is riding you.
When doing a media that has been written in a second language, arguments about accuracy of translation is inevitable, and when AnimeEigo did it, they had good liner notes that pointed out "why we did it this way". Yes, that's more for the hard-core fans, but there is a market for the hard-core fan.
And, got nothing for the people that want to crash the commercial anime market in the United States. Damned free-lance socialists, all of them. I hope they fall off a cliff somewhere.
Posted by: Jonathan Souza at June 16, 2007 06:19 AM (yWPgT)
While translation adds further complication, I think the long term solution will involve abandoning the idea limited locale marketing. Set a price for the product ( or for a given translation of a product ), and thats it. Whether its sold in Japan, the US, Britain, or Zimbabwe, thats the price of it. Unfortunately, that still runs into the "some markets are cesspools with no money" problem, so "long term" might mean "when globalization finally kicks in". . .
Posted by: metaphysician at June 16, 2007 06:54 AM (lXszF)
Regarding the occasional bizarre chainsaw editing, I think thats due to the persistent bias that "cartoons = kids stuff". And by "kids stuff", they seem to be comparing it with the worst of the 80s dreck. So, the company has a pre-envisioned role for their new license, and if it doesn't fit? Cut out a few scenes. . . or episodes. . . or seasons. . . and make it fit.
As for pricing, I'd put that down to just plain greed. Somebody remembers what they used to be able to charge, and assumes the market will tolerate such these days,
Posted by: metaphysician at June 16, 2007 07:03 AM (lXszF)
Enclose all spoilers in spoiler tags:
[spoiler]your spoiler here[/spoiler]
Spoilers which are not properly tagged will be ruthlessly deleted on sight.
Also, I hate unsolicited suggestions and advice. (Even when you think you're being funny.)
At Chizumatic, we take pride in being incomplete, incorrect, inconsistent, and unfair. We do all of them deliberately.
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