The CEO of television dubbing studio Bang-Zoom Entertainment, Eric Sherman, posted a strongly worded article on Tuesday claiming that, solely due to the download of fan-subtitled anime, the studio would likely shut down within twelve months. His reasoning is that the existence of a free source for an anime not legally available in North America intrinsically and irrevocably cuts into the profits of a dubbing studio such as his. Mr. Sherman goes on to say that “anime is going to die”.
There’s more than a few holes in his argument. However, let’s start with what he’s got right. (It’s a shorter paragraph, for one thing.)
Yes, the NA anime industry has fallen on hard times in the past two years. And yes, certain companies are scaling back operations or not releasing English-language audio tracks for their series. Sentai Filmworks’ releases of late, in particular Clannad and Hidamari Sketch, come to mind: series which, if ADV of old were still around, would have had their dub casts announced months before a disc hit the shelves. With studios dropping out of the game left and right (seemingly) and fewer current shows making it to store shelves (promptly), it gives a pretty strong appearance of being grim.
However, reality is not nearly so cut and dried. If anything, I think Mr. Sherman is perhaps projecting the fate of his company on the industry as a whole, which sadly is an inaccurate barometer.
Let’s start with an analogy. Cars have two ways of mixing the gasoline with air to produce a combustible mix: they can use a carburetor, which is how it was done originally, or they can use fuel-injection systems, which were developed later. When fuel-injection was first invented, do you think carburetor manufacturers started complaining? Probably, but I can guarantee you that not one of them claimed that fuel-injection would spell the death of the entire automobile industry.
With anime, it’s slightly different. It’s important to note what role Bang-Zoom plays in the overall industry: they’re a dubbing studio. Not a licensor, not a talent agency, not a distributor, but a single part of the chain. Now, granted, they’ve been an important part of that chain for a long time now, because without high-quality English-language tracks, anime could not have made the inroads it has. But the fact remains that they’re just one part of that chain, and not even a unique part– other dubbing studios haven’t complained at all to this point, and if I were to go by what I’ve heard Robert Axelrod, Barbara Goodson, Carrie Savage, and other somewhat notable North American voice talent say, I’d guess this is probably one of the better times for them. There are other studios flourishing. Mr. Sherman just happens to run one that isn’t.
Moving on to some of the claims that Mr. Sherman has in his post:
“There are only a few places left still able to bring titles to our shores.” This is technically accurate, but neglects to mention that one of them– Funimation– has grown dramatically in the past two years while other studios have fallen.
“Japan is […] struggling to bring out quality titles.” This isn’t anything that NA anime fans can control, and worse, it directly contradicts his anti-fansub stance– after all, how can the NA fans know what they want to watch in English if they don’t know it exists?
“They [Japanese studios] can’t rely on everything being picked up by US distributors anymore.” Maybe because some of it is unmarketable in NA, or just didn’t get any fanbase behind it, or wound up being utter crap? It happens. This neglects the fact that North America got Sgt. Frog, Kashimashi, and Kannagi: three series that would likely never have been made, or made it to NA, if the market hadn’t been previously established.
“You can’t find much anime at Best Buy now. […] where can you find it for sale?” Let’s see, Wal-Mart, Target, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Bob Johnson’s Shop o’ Shopness… Granted, those might only have some of the more popular titles, but allow me to give an anecdotal example: I found copies of Hayate the Combat Butler‘s part 3 and 4 DVDs on the shelves at Borders. If you want to blame anyone for this, blame Best Buy for being short-sighted, particularly in light of…
“DVD may be on the way out forever[.]” No way. The concept of a physical medium to store content is not going to go away for a long time. What is going to go away, and what has, is the idea that a three-episode disc can be sold for $30. More to the point, while online television is certainly on the rise, it has its drawbacks: namely, so-called “on-demand” content is still time-limited. Missed seeing an episode for a while due to life? Too bad, it’s not going to be back for weeks/months, if ever. A physical medium allows the freedom to put the viewing on hold truly indefinitely.
“There are no successful ways to monetize online entertainment.” This is also a pretty bold statement, but the honest truth is it’s not something that the fans can control, and it’s not like there’s not opportunities. To take an example, Precure and Mermaid Melody were to be brought out in North America at one point, but the licenses were dropped once the studios involved (4Kids and ADV, respectively) couldn’t get television broadcast deals for the series. Now, take a look at recently-released online TV services like Hulu or Crunchyroll, who are dying for content. Anyone else see two perfectly-matched puzzle pieces, or is it just me?
The rest of the article goes on to his call to action about not downloading fansubs, which is still a legal gray area I don’t want to get into. (Short version: it’s technically illegal, nobody’s complained before, companies are complaining now, and most of the people downloading fansubs nowadays are doing so because they can’t/wouldn’t buy legit versions anyway.) But, there is one important thing to note about his article that is a pretty big indicator of where his bias lies.
Not once does he mention manga.
Within the last twenty-four months, Yen Press, an imprint of French publishing conglomerate Hachette Livre, has grown from a completely unknown startup into one of the most celebrated and successful manga localizers and distributors on shelves. They did this through careful maneuvering and wise licensing, snapping up expired or dropped licenses (Yotsuba&! and Azumanga Daioh come to mind) and newer, popular series that would have been too risky to distribute if there wasn’t a lot of money backing them up (When They Cry and Nabari no Ou), not to mention balancing that with a joint venture that seems to have paid off (the manhwa version of Maximum Ride, which I’ll be the first to admit looks much better than the books it’s based on). That’s the last twenty-four months, as in “during the recession that killed off ADV and CPM”. Manga, if anything, has the potential to suffer far more from fan-translations being seen as piracy, and yet Yen has found, if not runaway success, then enough revenue in the business to keep going.
A side note, to address a point that I just know is going to come up: Yen Plus, the print magazine that the imprint started in late 2008, was recently announced to be ending its physical publication and shifting to an online subscription model. It’s easy to look at that as being “proof” that the business is unprofitable, but it’s my opinion that the magazine was nothing more than a purposeful sacrificial lamb. Yen needed a quick source of income to ensure its short-term profitability while it got some of its series books together, and a print magazine was the best way to do this. It also came out around the time that the English-language Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat were hitting their stride, and so it made sense to have something to “compete” with. But the magazine was never intended to be a going concern; I’m of the opinion that Hachette wanted to do the online site first, but didn’t have the cash to build out the infrastructure at the same time as they were putting together actual product. I’d call it a move straight out of Death Note, but that was published by Viz.
Which, actually, brings me to another point. Funimation’s parent company, the Navarre Group, is a fairly big conglomerate in its own right. Viz, the other major player in the manga game these days, is jointly owned by Shueisha and Shogakukan, two of the biggest publishers and content licensors in Japan. The thing that all three of these companies (including Yen) have in common is scads of money from other interests. Navarre’s other business is, ironically, gaming– they run Encore, Inc., which publishes casual games from developers like WildTangent and PlayFirst. Viz is vertically integrated with its Japanese co-owners to such a degree that it likely saves tons of money on licensing fees, thus keeping its costs down. And Hachette has always been in the book business, and thus is willing to take the occasional bath on a series that doesn’t perform as expected because it has six or seven other runaway hits to make up the difference. The problem isn’t piracy, it’s one of scale.
A related, though veering wildly off-track, point to consider is how Funimation has been keeping itself afloat these past few years as well. Over the last two years anime fans have seen a resurgence in older series being on shelves again, this time in value-priced boxed sets. This is a wild paradigm shift from the days when only new series were produced, and that once a show went out of print or sold through its print run, it was gone forever. Older series, or ones “rescued” from failed companies, are by definition cheaper to produce than new works, and are almost pure revenue for a company that can afford to keep the presses going. This has caused the market value of each license to go up, because a company can make more money out of one series now than they were expected to years ago. It also drives the secondary market prices of series down dramatically, cutting into resellers’ profits if they’re not able to offload sets purchased at fire-sale prices from market-egressing Best Buys or Suncoasts. More pertinent to the point, though, is the fact that the dubs for these series may have been produced with equally short-sighted contracts, offering flat fees based on the assumption that there would only be a limited print run, and no opportunities for “scaling” residuals for the studios or the actors. Maybe that’s a reason why Bang Zoom is in hot water…?
Getting back to Bang Zoom, then, the fact is that they are an unattached dubbing studio in a time when consolidation is rapidly becoming the norm. The reason Funimation seldom puts out subtitle-only releases these days is because they own their own dubbing studios, and they figuratively own their stable of actors as well. A cursory glance at Bang Zoom’s list of work on Wikipedia shows that they’ve been attached to a lot of Bandai series of late, in particular Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star (editor’s note: ugh), and Gurren Lagann. The wisest course of action Mr. Sherman could take to ensure the survival of his company is to pursue a buyout by Bandai. This has the double-effect of ensuring that Bang Zoom has a continual stream of revenue (it’s in Bandai’s best interests to keep those studios full, after all) and it gives Bang Zoom more inroads into game dubbing (they haven’t done too much work in that area, and, well, Bandai’s one half of Namco Bandai Games, who are positively overflowing with games that potentially need dub work).
To sum up, which I think by this point is hopelessly impossible, I don’t think that the anime industry is dying. Not by a long shot. What I think is happening, on the other hand, is that the anime industry in North America is shifting from its small-business, independent roots into the corporate environment that, like it or not, it needs to be in order to remain self-sustaining. Independence is one thing, and survival is another. Mr. Sherman was certainly entitled to his letter, but in my opinion, the fans aren’t the people he should be talking to. The suits are.