Thinking out Loud: A UK Anime Streaming Solution

Let me get this out of the way first, I’m not any sort of Business Mind. This is just something I want to explore “out loud”.

Having said that, there’s been a lot of talk around the UK anime fandom over the past few months with regards to streaming services. We don’t really have a UK-based streaming solution for anime simulcasts over here. Over the recent years, we’ve had:

  • Crunchyroll: Probably the strongest option available so far but they’re an American company and are not always able to acquire English-speaking rights for areas outside of the US and Canada. Plus, as we’re not their primary audience, trying to get the UK rights isn’t exactly a priority for them.
  • Animax UK: A UK-focused arm and Sony-backed, theoretically Animax should be able to do well over here. So far, they’ve not quite seemed to grab the fandom the way that Crunchyroll has. And, despite being a UK arm, they’re still part of a multinational brand.
  • Viewster: A European-based streaming video platform that branched out to really embrace Anime. However, after a really strong start at treating the UK market better than it’s been treated in a while, they also branched out to really embrace the American market. Or, to be fair, a more global market from a US subsidiary. Then when the OMAKASE experiment failed, the American arm closed and it was back to only having an ad-supported SD-only offering.
  • Wakanim UK: Short-lived venture from a French VOD platform. Website and social media presences now defunct.
  • Daisuki: Japanese operation streaming anime globally. Obviously, not a strong contender to full a UK-focused niche but having a Japanese company trying to provide a worldwide legal method of online distribution is not bad thing.
  • Funimation: A formerly American-only streaming service, and home video distributor, who brought their newly-revamped “Funimation Now” to the UK earlier this year.

So, long story short, we do seem to have a fair few alternatives that either offer a really strong service or who at least have the unrealised potential to do so. None of them have a real UK focus, though.

UK-based

What we don’t have is a streaming solution with a strong UK focus and a desire to really provide a service that is comparable to that provided by Crunchyroll. So, I’ve found myself wondering what would be needed to put one together.

There are several factors that would have to be considered. The impact of these, and the solutions to them, would vary depending on whether it was a brand new venture or, otherwise, what kind of company it originated from. As a whole, however, these are the things that (as a viewer) I suspect would need to be dealt with.

Content

So, yeah, an anime streaming service would require anime to stream. That would probably make a good start.

Joking aside, though, content is key to a streaming video service. The natural starting place for this would probably be to work alongside the current UK-based home distributors, where they hold the streaming rights.
For simulcasts, this would be a case of making the service known to the companies, such as Anime Limited, who pick up streaming rights but don’t have a streaming platform of their own.

Going forward, there would also be the option to bid for the rights directly from Japan. I get the feeling, however, that this would probably require deeper pockets and/or a proven track record, both of which would be easier after getting some successful seasons under your belt.

For back-catalogue titles, these would probably always come directly from whoever already held the UK rights. This would then depend on whether they thought a streaming outlet would raise awareness of the show or cannibalise potential sales.

One important factor here would be to ensure that any deal is mutually beneficial. Yes, UK distributors are going to be happy if people are watching through legal means as opposed to illegal ones, but they’re still going to be concerned if people stream their shows instead of buying the DVD or Blu-ray. Having any deal make it financially worthwhile would be important, obviously. Cross-promotion would probably help, too. Also/Soon-to-be Available From __ on Home Video on a show page could be useful. Possibly even with affiliate links to various online retailers.

Exclusivity Not (Necessarily) Required

This may sound backwards to business-minded people but, from a viewer’s perspective, having exclusive rights to a title runs the risk of annoying/alienating the fanbase. Permanent exclusivity does, anyway.

It’s the flip-side of the coin regarding monopolies. Competition is good but, when combined with exclusivity, fragmentation is bad. People resent feeling forced to subscribe to multiple different services for what is basically the same content. Especially if other regions have the same shows all available in one place. Even putting the costs aside, having to switch apps or websites (or even hardware platforms, more on that below) just because you want to watch a different show can be very off-putting. Complementing current services will get people wanting your operation to grow and improve. Competing with an inferior or untried service, however, risks people wanting you to pack up and leave.

A useful service over here would be one that shared rights with other platforms. In the beginning, at least. When trying to build up a user base, you want to get some credibility behind you before even thinking of becoming the Only Place To Go for too many titles.

Obviously, having some sort of must-watch show would be useful and there will always be titles that simply don’t/won’t/can’t get picked up for the UK by one of the current platforms. Where possible, these would be a good starting place. “Sniping” the local rights for something that an existing service like Crunchyroll has (or is likely to have) in another region doesn’t usually go down well. Bringing over a show that CR would almost definitely have no chance of bringing to the UK, though, tends to leave people with a more favourable opinion of your operation.

Taking this further, picking up catalogue rights to a show you couldn’t simulcast can still be useful. Even if a show has a very limited first-run somewhere else, adding it to your back catalogue later will likely prove useful. More accurately, not doing so could prove problematics as people may ask “Why would I want to subscribe to a service that doesn’t even carry Titanic Ninja Deathgods as back catalogue?”

If you can’t pick up a show as a simulcast, try to get the rights later. It will help. Similarly, if you have the main license rights to a show and want to be the exclusive simulcast, offer out the sublicense to other services once the season run is complete.

Website and Apps

This is probably the first visible technical hurdle to overcome. People don’t see your data centre, content delivery network or traffic stats. They do see your website and any apps you have. It’s not that the infrastructure side of things isn’t important (see below) but it’s all wasted if your site looks amateur and your apps are either buggy or missing on key platforms.

Look at other legal streaming sites. Don’t rip of their designs, that would clearly be a bad thing. However, try to aim for a similar level of polish where possible. Also, look at illegal streaming sites. Try to look more professional than them, otherwise people may not realise you’re a legit service at first. I have seen “The site looks a bit dodgy, so I didn’t realise they were legal” a few times about more than one service.

Basic things like a queue, decent listings pages and a competent search function are a must. They may not seem like much but, for a user perspective, convenience and ease-of-use is key. Legal streams haven’t totally eliminated illegal downloads but there are many people who now favour sites like Crunchyroll or Netflix over torrenting shows because it’s just so much easier. If the illegal streaming sites, or competitor’s legal sites, are more convenient than your then people aren’t going to use your service.

Make sure your website’s video player works well. Chances are that contractual obligations will lumber you with having to rely on Flash, to enforce content restrictions, so try not to make it any more of a hassle than it has to be. users these days really don’t like Flash. Also, browser developers seem to be making slow but constant progress away from using it. If trying to get it to work for your site is too much of a ballot, people won’t use your site.

Regarding apps, trying to hit the main hardware platforms fairly quickly would be a good move. AppleTV and Roku would probably be your best starting place for streaming-player apps. iOS and Android, for mobile viewing, are also pretty much compulsory. Similarly, games consoles are very important platforms to target, although these do seem to take longer to get released. Especially on Sony consoles. Despite this, though, they’re pretty common media-capable devices, and there is a fair bit of crossover between gamers and anime fans so a chunk of your potential audience already has them. And, really, who wants to sit at their computer desk to watch a half-hour show when their Playstation or Xbox is connected to the TV in form of their armchair or sofa?

A Windows 10 universal app would also be really useful. Not only does this target another mobile platform but it would also work on a Windows 10 Desktop/Laptop. Perfect for those people who really hate Flash. Also useful for those who have a Windows-based HTPC.

My personal thoughts would be to have apps for at least one streaming box, one mobile platform and one games console at launch, with the others already in late development or testing. Although some people are fine with streaming things directly to their computers, there are many people who really like to watch TV shows on a TV screen, or on the go. A lack of apps can be a real dealbreaker for some.

After that, things getting Kindle Fire, Chromecast and Smart TV apps would help round things out. These may be less popular than the other options, hence a lower priority, but they are still important platforms. Fire TV and Chromecast have very affordable options and some TV or Blu-ray players have Smart TV app support built in. Meaning that some people already have multimedia capability on their existing equipment. Buying extra gear sounds like an easy enough solution but people don’t always have the money, HDMI socket or space available to add to their AV setup. Being asked to spend money on this additional hardware as well as a potential subscription fee isn’t always going to go down well. Yes, it will involve additional development time and costs but it’s certainly worth looking into.

Now, obviously, any brand new service wouldn’t be able to get an app out on every platform immediately. However, any service that doesn’t seem to have many apps out, or even in the pipeline, will probably get ignored by armchair or mobile viewers.

Infrastructure

This is going to be the next important thing. How your site and service looks is the most important factor, how well is actually works is a very close second. Having your videos load up quickly and in a consistently good quality is essential to the experience. Delays, buffering and constant quality shifts tend to go down badly with viewers. Make sure that the CDN offering you use is up to the job. If you have a lot of simulcasts, making sure that the episodes propagate through the network (especially at the higher qualities) quickly is going to be key. Not everybody is going to want to watch the episodes at the exact moment of release but having them viewable and at good quality very shortly after your go-live time is going to matter to some. If nothing else, failure to do so tends to result in negative word-of-mouth. This will sour sour offering even to those who aren’t quite so bothered about immediacy.

Geographical Restrictions

This is something that comes with both pros and cons. Being a UK (and probably Ireland, going by most licensing bundles) specific service makes this a lot easier to deal with. If all of your members are supposed to be in the same region, you only need to set a single restriction. You won’t ave any problems trying to juggle which shows can be viewed in which regions. you can either show them or you can’t.

Another advantage is that if you’re only offering to a single region, your infrastructure (see above) only needs to be geared towards that area. It doesn’t matter how well your CDN operates on a global scale, just that it works really well at a national level.

There are still drawbacks. For one, you still need to lock it down to only work in the UK (and Ireland). Geographical filtering isn’t an exact science. Misidentification, although rare, isn’t impossible. Oh, and these things can be faked. So you’ll need try not to have people affected by false positives, as well as not wanting to sink too much time and resource into a solution that can never be 100% effective, all whilst doing enough to satisfy your contractual obligations from the licensor.

Not having to worry about multiple regions and differing restrictions across many different titles will make it a lot less of a headache, though.

Advertising and Subscription Tiers

Having an ad-supported “free” option is going to be essential for any anime streaming platform. It’s pretty much the standard operating procedure at this point. Both using advertising on the site and some sort of inline video adverts during the episodes. Although, in that latter point, trying to make sure they’re not too frequent or too repetitive is probably a good idea.

It doesn’t matter how much your free offering can’t survive without advertising, inflicting the same, single advert on your viewers, every show, every day is just going to piss them off. This is best avoided.

When it comes to what is available to free users and what is limited to paid subscribers, finding the right balance is going to be key. I don’t think there’s any one correct way to go about it but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Simulcasts

You’ll probably want some sort of limit on simulcasts for your free viewers but not something too restrictive. There has to be a some advantage for paid users, yet there’s still got to an incentive to favour the free streams over less legal solutions. Personally, I think Crunchyroll has the best idea i’ve seen. There’s a one week delay before free users can watch a current show but then once it’s up, it’s up. So if you miss a few weeks, there’s not locked out entirely like with the services that only have free episodes up for a few weeks.

It’s a bit different in Canada, where free users only get access to simulcasts and not catalogue shows. Even then, though, each episode is available for 13 weeks. Meaning that you can catch up at pretty much any time during a season.

Catalogue

This is a bit trickier to work out. Having the full back catalogue being an incentive for paid subscriptions is no bad thing. If nothing else, having most of the catalogue only being visible to paid subscribers means that your level of paid subscribers can help inform how much to spend on older licenses.

I’d say that having some of the catalogue available to ad-supported members will help draw interest in the service as a whole. People often need to try out something before knowing if they want to put money into it. And being able to marathon a few older shows may just be enough to hook people in.

At what point you limit it really depends on a combination of your costs, your income and how you want your offering to come across. Having some shows rotate in and out of the free library may be one way of doing it.

Marketing and PR

Being visible to the fandom is be pretty damned essential. Show up at events, even fairly small one-day conventions. Be visible on Anime forums. Do press releases and interviews with fandom websites. Be friendly, don’t come over as spamming, and be prepared to give honest answers to some pretty tough questions and criticism. The fandom tongue is sharp at times but there is often useful feedback if you’re able to tough it out.

Last, But Not Least, Money

Ultimately, this is the most important factor. It goes last on the list, though, because it is dependant on the previously identified factors. Once you have all of these identified, you can then figure out your expected costs versus income. This will probably then require shuffling around the priorities of those factors but you need to know what they are before you can start to figure this part out.

You’d also need to then figure out your initial investment. This will vary, depending on some other deciding factors, but there will be some up-front costs that need to be covered. This is also going to affect the priorities of what gets implemented when.

Variables

Many of the previously listed factors will depend on the nature of the company trying to build such a service.

New Entry

Whether it’s a brand new company or a subsidiary of a company who hasn’t branched into media distribution before, this is probably going to have the highest hurdles to overcome.

It is likely (although not certain) that you will have a lower level of starting resources than a company that is already involved in media distribution. You’re also likely to have fewer relevant professional connections. This doesn’t make things a complete non-starter but it will require starting smaller. Fewer platforms at launch. Fewer shows at launch. Few, if any, exclusives.

In some ways this could be the hardest sell to the fandom. An unknown name, a small catalogue. Not too many people would want to put down money for something like that. This would be where trying to grow connections and reputation would be essential.

Try to work alongside existing distributors, getting them on-side. As a general rule, the UK Anime Industry tends to be fairly close. Sure, thee are disagreements, different viewpoints and a certain level of mostly-friendly rivalry. On the whole, though, they’re all part of a fairly small niche market. What’s good for the market as a whole is going to benefit the specific companies. So if you can make a decent case for being a positive force father UK industry, you’ll likely be able to work with them.

Existing Company

Of course, if a UK-based service was to grow out of an existing VOD or physical distribution company, they may already have right level of funding or connections. They may even have some rights already. Unlike a brand new entry into the market, who would need to build all of these up.

Media Industry (general)

Whether or not a company specialises in anime or streaming video, already being in media creation or distribution would give them a decent headstart. They’d already have a decent amount of general knowledge about how things work. Also their legal and business mindsets would already be somewhat aligned to how things needed to be done. They’d also probably have some level of reputation attached to the company name that would help whilst getting set up.

Similarly, they’d already be likely to be using technology specific to the industry general. This would mean that they’d already have working relationships with and/or knowledge of companies that deal in the infrastructure and technology. Even when branching into something new, being able to already trust your suppliers to give you sound advice and decent service is pretty essential.

Anime Distributor

If one of the existing UK distributors were to step into the streaming ring, they’d already have a good grip on how anime licensing and marketing works. Also, as Japanese licensors seem to be more interested in trying to bundle the home and streaming rights together, being able to pick up both and already have something to do with them will be quite useful.

Besides, viewing habits are changing. For things like anime that don’t tend get onto traditional broadcast TV over here very often, the home release was as likely to be picked up by the “Watch Once” crowd, as opposed to those who wanted to watch repeatedly or who like physical copies/extras. Streaming takes a lot of that away, so why not benefit from it yourself? Keep your customers coming to you, regardless of how they consume media.

The other obvious advantage to an existing anime company going into streaming would be already have the relevant business contacts and probably already having the rights to some older shows. Or at least a good chance of being able to acquire them if they were still available.

One potential drawback to this route would be that such a company would probably be restricted to only being able to show “their” titles. There’s no guarantee that one of their rival companies in the home space would want to hand over the rights to stream a show. A the very least, I’d expect it to be the exception and not the rule. So we’d still end up with a UK service that was potentially limited in scope.

VOD Platform

If a UK-based company were already involved in streaming video on demand, whether already operating a general video service or being more involved in the backend/infrastructure side of things, a streaming company branching out into anime would also already have a good head-start over a complete new service.

They would already have a good grip on the technology involved and how to actually go about streaming video content. Even if they were a newcomer to the anime industry, they’d have a proven track record of video distribution which would certainly help with credibility.

In some ways, this would perhaps be the most likely way of making a successful entry. As long as they can get used to how anime licensing and fandom works, they’d already have a general knowledge of dealing with licensing agreements and customer feedback.

Conclusion

I think something like this is necessary. Yes, it’s nice that the international streaming companies seem to be taking the Uk seriously at the moment but they’re still going to be focused primarily elsewhere.

Besides, as streaming increasingly becomes the way to initially or primarily consume content, the UK-based companies are going to be increasingly restricted to the more collector-oriented side of the fandom. The more casual shopper just isn’t going to be quite as bothered as they were a decade or so ago.

If the UK anime industry is to continue to be a strong presence alongside the fandom, I think it is going to have to break into streaming. Otherwise, most of the custom from the casual viewers is going to head out via America.

Evangelion 3.33 -The Plot Thickens

All hell broke loose this afternoon when customers with open pre-orders through Amazon UK for the long-delayed and previously blogged about release of Evangelion 3.33 got cancellation notices claiming that “Manga UK were no longer releasing it”.

“Is it coming out at all?” ask some.

“Have Manga lost the license?” ask others.

“Do people even bother paying attention any more?” asked… well, me.
(I’m not exactly known for my sweet, tolerant and patient nature)

What we’ve actually heard, so far, from Manga’s social media feeds is that it is still coming out and that further details are coming. It also seems to be tied into the ongoing delay.

What people seem to forget that, especially with anime releases, cancelled-but-not-cancelled isn’t unheard of. It has happened before, especially with regards to Amazon.

The exact situation is still unknown and whether the news is good or bad is yet to be clarified. There are a few things that can be said for certain, though:

  • Amazon currently list Anime Limited’s upcoming DVD release of Durarara as being cancelled. This has been confirmed by Anime Limited as not being true.
  • Both properties have been suffering ongoing delays. My own personal speculation is that both titles have been communicated to Amazon as having their releases pushed back with no clear date in mind.
  • Last year’s Manga UK release of Psycho Pass, when changed from two parts to one part, was “cancelled” when the release pattern changed.
    They couldn’t just change “Part One” into “Complete Collection” because the price would go up and Amazon would be forced to apply their pre-order “lowest price” guarantee to a different product that actually cost more. That and it was likely a different SKU.

Eva’s mid-February release date was all-but-confirmed as being impossible at this point. Funimation still haven’t given concrete details of the American release. And I am pretty sure that theirs would have to have been out by now for Manga to be able to release in February.

I suspect that the apparent “cancellation” is down to one of two things:

  • Amazon put their foot down after yet another pushback without being given a confirmed release date. Taking pre-orders for a product is difficult if you don’t know when, or even if, it is even coming out.
  • That particular SKU has been cancelled or drastically changed. Maybe to have a dual-format pack. Maybe to offer something else. If a specific release has been removed, though, with an upcoming-but-not-submitted SKU due to replace it, it is still “cancelled” from the point of view of that particular item.

Hopefully, time will tell regarding what’s actually going on. Hopefully, though, the movie is still coming out over here and the Blu-ray version (something Manga seems to be going through a phase of skipping) is still on the cards.

Personally, I just want the damn thing to come out already. I have no interest in buying it but I just want it off my damned blog stats. 😉
And between the first post about it being popular and events like today’s warranting followup posts, it continues to dominate why people visit here.

Evangelion Delay: Revisited

The Evangelion meta-saga goes ever onwards. Not being personally interested in the film series, it feels a bit strange wanted to write a followup to my first blog post about the holdups. However, over the intervening months, my web stats suggest that it is the most popular post on my blog. In addition to this, the most popular search terms leading to the blog are mostly people looking for information on when the damn film comes out, and the odd one or two people looking to download a torrent. People are desperate for information about it.
It also seems that, at the moment, a Google search for Evangelion 3.33 Australia will have my post at the top result. I even rank one place higher than Madman’s own post regarding this.

Not exactly what I wrote it for, as many other posts just don’t seem to garner that much interest. But it makes it as good a reason as any to touch on the subject again given some recent happenings.

Firstly, the Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Australia had its Adelaide/Brisbane tour. I am pretty sur that a lo of people were hoping for, and searching the web for, information regarding the Australian release as that is about the time my search results spiked.

Currently there still isn’t any concrete information out there, despite it being near-constantly asked of Funimation, Madman and Manga. From what I can gather (and interpret in my own somewhat blunt view of the world), it seems that the director is being a wee bit precious about how the English-language release is handled – apparently having both the dub and subtitles being revisited. The fans, though, don’t really care as much and just want to watch/buy the damn movie.

The other thing is that there’s a bit of a sad aspect from the UK side of things. This Autumn, the three public “faces” of Manga UK have left the company for pastures new. The three guys who were sat on the MCM Panel a year ago, who announced the titlle, who saw the great excitement (and watch the screen showing the trailer go tits-up) won’t see the release complete except as outside observers. It will be down to other people to finally schedule and announce the eventual release.

UK Anime and Release Delays

I was listening to the latest MangaUK Official podcast and I wanted to comment on Anime Limited‘s Andrew Partridge’s points on how the “release lag” is seen these days. He was meCALENDARntioning some of the (negative) feedback he’s been receiving over the Kill la Kill release strategy, explaining that we’re actually getting it significantly earlier than we usually get Anime TV shows.

In the case of Kill la Kill I’m not sure that it’s just the lack of initial half or full-season boxsets that some people struggle with, more that there’s no non-collector edition straight away. And, for me personally, my main issue with the breakup of the series is that it’s a three-part release of a show that really feels like it has two distinct halves.
On the one hand, it’s nice that they didn’t have to do the four-part split that Sword Art Online got. On the other hand, even though each SAO story arc got split in two, one arc finishes at the end of set 2 and the second arc picks up neatly at set 3. In Kill la Kill, episodes 1-12 and episodes 13-25 just seem like too natural and logical a split not to go with.

On the timing between broadcast/simulcast and UK home release, I think this is where industry realities and entertainment fandom realities can unfortunately diverge quite widely. The usual 17 month delay, although common, is just too long. As was mentioned in the podcast, the hype dies down. Home release announcements are for things people finished watching a year or more previously. And this is indicative of two different issues that stack up to a big problem.

Firstly, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, “To watch is to want”. If I enjoy something and find it has rewatch value, I am ready to buy it there and then. Western, Asian, animated, live action, anything. And this is all the more pronounced when it is something that benefits from multiple watches. I was ready to buy Inception the moment I left the cinema, and the several-months wait was difficult. And that was only about half a year.
Granted, shows being on Crunchyroll, Netflix, etc on demand is a good thing. But after streaming it the first (second, third…) time, I’m ready for something that doesn’t buffer, stutter, change bandwidth suddenly or glitch all to hell when I try to seek. (Streaming REALLY struggles with trying to rewatch or skip sections)

The other problem I think happens is that here in the UK people are already mightily sick of the lag it takes things reaching our shores. Yes, movies and TV shows tend to lag a lot less than they used to but people are basically fed up of non- simultaneous releases. And it’s not just Anime where people will import to get something earlier. (My GF is a huuuuge Supernatural fan. She buys the US BDs because WB don’t region lock them)
So having the US -> Aus -> UK lag doesn’t sit well with anyone who hates the lag in other things. We can’t switch off a pet peeve just because of something being a different medium or form a different market. People who strongly dislike a three-to-six month wait for a western TV show or movie to get a home release aren’t going to suddenly be OK with it just because it’s anime.

Put those two thing together and you get teh Kill la Kill situation. Where people were ready to buy it in April, have to wait all the way to november (initially December) and then have to buy a split release that only has a Collector Version so far. So people who just want the discs and are ready to re-marathon the series are completely out of luck. At best, they’ll have to collect over multiple months. And that’s just if they have the cash (and space) for the collector’s edition. Otherwise, it’s another year. And even then, it may still be split into multiple parts.

I don’t even know if there’s an easy answer for this. Non-Japanese releases don’t even get considered, as far as I know, until after a run is completely out in Japan. Then there’s the licensing negotiations, the dubbing, the OK-ing of materials. Even if there was no delay between the US and UK editions, these are still necessary steps before a home release can happen. They also aren’t things i can see the Japanese companies being in a hurry to change, either. From a fandom perspective, though, it is only going to get worse. Simulcasting means an increased amount of legal viewers catching shows as they first air in Japan. And the UK expectation of a same-year home release isn’t likely to go away any time soon, either.

Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Get a Straight Answer out of any Official Party

The tale of the third Evangelion Rebuild movie coming to the UK (or any English-speaking territory) is a woeful one at this point in time. It has been prompting outbursts from the fandEvaom for a bloody long time so far and, as of this week, also starting to get outbursts from more official channels.

This Wednesday, just before my last blog post, Jerome (Manga Entertainment UK’s Director Of Marketing And Acquisitions) was expressing a little bit of frustration at the latest official delay over Twitter, starting a thread of parody titles for the third movie. (The title of this post was my response)
And, yes, that was what got me to pull the trigger on actually releasing the last post.

The thing is, though, I completely understand where his frustration is coming from.

The Japanese theatrical release of Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo came out in November 2012. During 2013, one of the most frequent questions I saw on Manga UK’s Twitter and Facebook feeds was when Evangelion 3.33 was getting a UK home release. (Note: The theatrical releases have always been x.0, with the home version being x.xx)
Of course, being the UK release, it is dependant on the North American version as they are reliant upon that being complete. If I remember correctly, Manga UK sublicense these movies through Funimation (the NA publisher). If that is not correct then even if the license directly from Japan, they have licensed the English language localisation (dub and subtitles) from Funimation. So, either way, they can’t do anything until Funimation do. This doesn’t stop people, understandably, wanting to know when the next home release is out once the Japanese home release has started.

Fast-forward to October 2013 and the official Manga UK panel at MCM London Comic Con. They announced that Evangelion 3.33 was coming to UK DVD and Blu-ray in 2014. it got the biggest cheer for the panel. Even I was excited, and i don’t even care about the series. I just know that a lot of people have been avidly awaiting this. Even a technical screw-up (the screen went dead halfway through the trailer) didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

The rumblings started to come out from Funimation’s side of things that the North America release had been delayed. This had a knock-on effect on Manga’s UK release and Madman’s Australian release, as both were dependant on the aerials that Funimation would be supplying.

Then…

…nothing.

There were a few announcements about “Time for additional NA theatrical showings” but, generally, there hasn’t been any real news for quite a while until recently. There have been rumours that it was something to do with the English language version, as other languages have had their home releases, but nothing concrete. nothing official.
The most “real” information we have had so far was a Facebook comment by Funimation in June saying that they are “working very closely with the studio in Japan” – which is worrying, so many months after the initially scheduled release date.

Like I said, there are rumours. I’m not going to list them because the rumours themselves are besides the point. The point is that there are rumours, and no official word. All we get are variations on “No Comment”. And, especially form Manga UK’s side of things, this has the air of coming out from between gritted teeth. There is clearly A Story Behind This, but it isn’t something that can be publicly stated. However, the lack of official facts is pissing off the fan base something seriously.

Mix into all of this that all of the UK distributors have had several delays on titles over the past year or so. Whether it’s down to material delays or last-minute quality issues, a  fair few releases have been delayed. And the ones that go down the best are when the full story, or at least a clear reason, are related. Especially because when the delay is upstream, if you don’t state that it reflects badly on your company. I’ve seen this happen a lot where people who are less researched than myself (sorry, “people who don’t waste as much time as me looking into the public reasons behind things because they’re not at irritatingly knowledge-hungry as myself”) blame end-point company A for a delay when the problem is upstream supplier B has delayed it for everyone.

I think this is where Jerome’s latest outburst came from. He knows the story. He knows the only thing that will calm people down is explaining why there is a delay and at what point the delay is coming from. And he can’t say anything, instead having to take the flak from the fanbase. And, unlike some production issues, this one isn’t in any way Manga’s fault. But they’re taking the same criticisms as if it were.
(BTW, working in IT support I understand some of the pain of having to wait on the supply chain, and fending off customer queries when there is a delay. So I can’t help but empathise a bit.)

Manga UK spent much of 2013 fielding questions about this title. In October 2013, they finally thought they would be able to close the book on this chapter in 2014. Now their latest new is that they won’t be able receive the assets form Funimation until October 2014. And the production and BBFC certification processes basically mean that the release date is now Feburary 2015.
And, by the time that date arrives, fandom expectations will probably be impossibly high.

No wonder Jerome’s frustrated.

UK Anime Fandom: A Review

OK, well maybe not exactly a review but I do have a few things to say based on observations over the past year or so.

There are some attitudes within the UK fandom that seriously piss me off. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, which is exactly why I rant about stuff on here, but some people just seem incapable of looking outside of their particular pet peeve and just want things to work the way they want them to work. Yet they’ll state their ways as being sure-fire things with no risk to balance out the rewards. Which always seems a little short-sighted to me.

The UK fandom has preferences just as varied as our American and Australian counterparts; we’re just a damned sight smaller. And, yes, that sometimes means that what we really want (in my case, everything on Blu-ray) just isn’t viable.
Yes, I loudly lament that fact and, yes, I try to think of ways to try and fix this. But trying to state that things are as simple as making a different business decision and it being a guaranteed instant success? I, for one, am not that stupid. (Nearly, but not quite…)

One of the recent fandom explosions is based around a blog post that Jerome Mazandarani put out and linked from the official twitter feed. It also builds on things he’d said before, regarding some of the contractual obligations that the Japanese licensors have them work under.
And, suddenly, people are up in arms saying that Jerome’s just blaming the license holders for difficulties based around Manga’s preferred business model.

It’s not that I completely agree with all of Manga’s decisions, but here’s where I have a few issues with the current mob opinion.

Obligations

Firstly, a lot of what Jerome says with regards to what they’re allowed to do and when make a lot of sense. They tally with the way Manga and the other companies have had to release things in recent years. They also tally with things that the other distributors (in and out of the UK) have been saying for a while.

Granted, you have to do a lot of reading between the lines to get the same story out of other companies. But it all carries the same basic shape. It just seems that Jerome is the only person with the balls to say it in public.

I will say that as much as I respect honesty, information and even bluntness compared to corporate secrecy, I do accept that this doesn’t always go over well with standard business practices.
Then again, what I think about standard business practices is fairly blunt anyway.

Also, in my case, I loathe secrecy and favour as much information as I can get hold of. So when two companies have similar problems and one of them is brutally honest about the business realities, I actually respect that. Hell, I can actually tolerate and accept annoying decisions if I understand why they were made – even if I don’t actually agree with the reasons.

Delays

The release order, as a general rule, will go Japan, America, Australia, UK. The order can vary a bit, except that Japan will naturally always be first, but this is the order things tend to be. And each release has a tendency to have a few months between them. You then add in the fairly common scenario where any English-language release doesn’t even start until the Japanese home release is finished. And as they tend to release things in multiple smaller chunks, this tends to add a significant perceived delay.

One of the obligations often referred to is the required window before they’re allowed to release in the UK. Manga (and other distributors) obviously want to ride the hype, ride interest from people having seen legal simulcasts and get their product out on shelves before people get bored and just grab a torrent.

This is where the fandom opinion begins to really get on my nerves, and where the commentators start to weaken their own otherwise sound arguments.

The “sell bare minimum releases for cheap” argument has merit. I agree with other fans that quite a lot of us would be fine paying a bit more for a more polished product. Saying that maybe publicly criticising the people you license from isn’t a great idea is also a valid point. As I said before, I personally find it refreshing. But people who don’t like this approach have valid reasons for doing so.
And then there’s always someone who says “And if they’d just get their releases out faster” at which point I realise that these people just have an axe to grind against Jerome and aren’t going to let little things like facts get in their way.

Fine, you don’t have to like someone complaining at restraints. Fine, you can blame some of the issues on a company’s own business model. But if they say that their hands are tied when it comes to how early they can release shows and you respond with “Stop complaining and release shows earlier” then you just come across as wilfully ignorant.

Mouthing off at your business partners is one thing. But purposefully breaking street-date would be a sure way of ensuring that there would be no future product to put out on the shelves.

Varied

The other main issue is that the fan base is very varied. You cannot please everybody; you can just cater to your chosen audience with your chosen business model. And inevitably, every fan will have some shows that they think were picked up by the wrong company simply because their type of show was picked up by someone that is not their type of distributor.

Here’s where tensions are running high, though. Manga tend to take the mass-market approach. Well, in as much as Anime can be classed as mass-market. They release affordable sets and tend to work down to a price point.  This is great for the more casual fan, or for people like me who have a lot of interests but somewhat limited funds. They don’t have many collector editions in fancy boxes or tins. Personally, I prefer this approach as I just like to be able to get the damned discs out of the damned case. But for some people, a release in a standard case is a total dealbreaker. Heck, for some people, choice of artwork of the exact placement of logos on the box can lead them to favour an imported release over a UK one, even if the actual disc is functionally identical.

Yes, the main variation we have in our fandom is that it’s not a simple case of “Collectors” versus “Casuals”. It is more that although all Collectors are Dedicated Fans, not all Dedicated Fans are Collectors.

You then get MVM, who tend towards slightly more niche releases at the expense of being less likely to release a Blu-ray. And you also get Anime Limited, who are primarily collector-oriented. And with the latter about to release their first non-classic series, it’s going to be interesting to see how their “Collector Box First, Cheaper Set After” works for recent shows.

I have a fair few Anime Limited releases, with some more to come courtesy of Kickstarters. They are very nice but damned if I’d want “fiddly box” editions for my entire collection. But there are some fans who’d love “high quality art box” editions for everything they bought.
(And I am purposefully using two very different descriptions here to refer to exactly the same type of box. Different people can, and do, see the same thing in very different ways.)

Similarly, I have a fair few MVM releases. And they do seem to maybe put a little more visible effort into their marketing push, likely because of their smaller catalogue. But they are also more likely to go DVD-only for some titles.

Manga may not be perfect but, for me personally, their tactic of getting a lot out (much of it being on Blu-ray) at a cheap-ish price in a simple box suits me down to the ground, simply because I don’t have the funds to buy as much as I do if it’s all collector boxes. But if I enjoy a show, or a genre, I want to have a physical copy of it. So I can watch when the internet’s down, in nice sharp quality with subtitles that aren’t crap.

Small Market

In an ideal world, every company would be able to release every series in their catalogue in both DVD and Blu-ray formats, as well as being able to offer standard and collector editions of the higher profile shows. Sadly, the UK market simply can’t handle that. So sometimes it is a case of releasing a slimmed-down version to get it out at all. Yes, they could just go for the collector-only release but would that really be any better?
Personally, I say no. I would (grudgingly) pay over the odds for the shows I really wanted but I’d be buying a whole lot less shows on impulse. Which would be a shame as they are some real gems (not available on streaming services) that I only picked up because the series set was fairly cheap.

Bringing it back to Jerome’s rants, it is clear that the UK distributors are basically stuck between the fans and the rights-holders. And of course he’s going to get annoyed when he feels like he’s being forced to agree to terms that means he can’t offer what he knows a significant chunk of his customer base really wants. All companies are often left fielding the same questions from irritated anime fans. And Manga, professional or not, are the only company who openly agree with things being “a major ball ache”.

And, in this day and age, delaying a physical release too far after initial broadcast is just a really dumb idea that has to die.

UK Market

The unfortunate, and simple, fact is that we aren’t the US market; we’re a lot smaller. The more casual side of anime fandom makes up a significant chunk of potential sales. And when you pay the licensors a minimum guarantee and have to fund a set minimum print run (and have to deal with the BBFC’s non-optional per-minute classification checks) you really can’t afford to alienate the more casual buyers.

The US, Canada and even Australia has the advantage of having a larger overall market so that the more dedicated fans are a significant number in themselves. Also the overall market size means they can work better on volume. Oh, and Anime seems to be a whole lot more successful on TV in those countries. Somehow, the execs and the audience over here just don’t take to it as well. Which also means that they can’t satisfy and/or stir interest from the casual audience anywhere near as much over here.

With a larger market size, maybe they would be able to manage standard-plus-limited edition dual-releases more often. That way they’d be able to satisfy all sides of the market a lot easier. The way things are, though, it’s often a bare-bones release or a super-shiny one. And although you’re not likely to get the casual audience to pick up a pricey collector edition, there is still a significant shank of the dedicated fandom who would avoid a collector release owing to price.

Going Forward

Do things need to change? Definitely! Eventually the more casual fans, and some of the space-limited dedicated fans, are going to go near-exclusively to digital anime. Maybe via streams, maybe via paid downloads. But eventually physical releases will be collector-only, and the distributors will have to adjust accordingly.

However, that time is not here yet. And if every company operated on the collector-only high-price route too soon, it would potentially kill the anime industry here in the UK. People just seem wilfully oblivious to that fact, though. It’s not the answer they want, so they’ll just pretend that it’s “wrong”. And I get enough of that crap working in IT Support.

And the other thing is that attitudes have to change on all sides. Manga’s strategy probably does have a limited lifespan and they will have to change eventually. But Jerome is right, too. Something has to give from the Japanese licensors’ side as well. And the customers also have to do a bit of meeting halfway. Sometimes you just have to deal with a higher price. Or a lack of art box. (Or a lack of simple Amaray Case). Sometimes you have to buy what’s out now in a hope that future releases will be closer to what you want. We currently have a UK anime industry. It would be bad if it fell apart. And although it could do a lot to improve, improvement requires customers and profits.

We have our own part to play.

Anime and Blu-ray in the UK (part 2)

In the previous post I looked at some of the challenges faced by UK Anime distributors in regards to Blu-ray releases. it ended up inspiring a week or so’s worth of Twitter conversation. And, yes, I suspect at least one of the UK Anime companies has been thinking “Oh God, not this lot again”.
I am going to look into what, in my opinion, the companies may want to look into going further. Firstly I am going to do a general look at where I think the attitude towards Blu-ray releases might want to go, followed by another post detailing what the current companies are currently doing. Alongside some improvements I, personally, would like to see.

I do maintain that, in general, Blu-ray is going to be an important factor going forward. Maybe not in a spectacular way, but important nonetheless. Especially as more and more fans begin to get Blu-ray players (or more Blu-ray owners get introduced to Anime), people will be looking to find nice shiny HD Anime for their nice shiny AV kit. Track record and available back catalogue will mean a great deal at that point. I know that’s a much harder factor to quantify but, despite that, it is a concern regarding future purchases.

Here are some ideas that I think might possibly help going forward. That’s not to say I think any of these methods are without risk, they all have potential drawbacks involved. As times goes on, though, having a limited Blu-ray catalogue will itself be a potential risk.

Blu-ray as an Incentive

Making Blu-ray an incentive to buy the title at all would be one way of trying to convince the fence-sitters to go for the BD release. Releasing dual packs (BD+DVD), without or without a future separate release, or releasing the Blu-ray version first with a DVD version down the line would effectively encourage people to consider the Blu-ray version if they want to get the show early.

The obvious drawback with this is that it doesn’t always sit well with customers. Dual-format releases don’t suit everyone. If you don’t need the second format, it feels like you’re paying extra for a component you neither need nor want. Also, people who do rely on DVDs (or just favour the lower prices) don’t usually like having to wait for their format to come out a month or more later. And, like it or not, DVDs still currently make up the bulk of sales as far as I know. And ticking off the larger segment of your customer-base never tends to work well.

All the Anime has been doing this with some of their releases,. In their case, some titles start off with a “bells and whistles” Collector’s Blu-ray, with a DVD set and a standard-edition BD to follow down the line. This does seem to be working out for them, although so far they have only done with classic re-releases where people may already have an older DVD version.

Blu-ray as a Loss Leader

Run BDs at a loss, as long as you expect the license to gain a profit overall. Or use the mass-appeal ones to cover niche/hardcore interest. And basically invest in future sales. Some titles simply aren’t going have a profitable BD run, but may sell well overall. And some are just incredibly niche. Looking after the fans, your potential customers, however will keep them coming back.

Games console companies basically do this. Selling the consoles themselves at a loss in the first few years, making their profits from the game releases and the later sales when the components cost a whole lot less. And I think this is how some shop’s special offers work.
Take a hit on Product A to raise interest in Product B. Or simply to keep your company name in a positive light. Or make an overall profit on a license, even if the Blu-rays make less than their production costs. Naturally, only when the overall sales across both formats will net an overall profit.

I’m not saying to run every title at a loss, as that would quite obviously be bad. But for every few Titanic Ninja Deathgods almost-mainstream titles you release, throw out the occasional Quirky Fan Favourite with a Die-hard Fanbase.

This ties directly into…

Blu-ray as a Future Investment

As well as just looking at how well a Blu-ray release would perform right now, it is also important to remember that Blu-ray availability is very likely to fuel future sales. Especially as, here in the UK, streaming video isn’t quite as prevalent yet as it is in America – mainly owing to infrastructure and bandwidth issues. Also some people, especially collectors, just prefer having a physical copy. So there will always be the need to have a physical release to some extent.

Granted, this then becomes a very fine balancing act. Without Blu-ray releases, a distributor might run into major problems in the future. Over-committing to a less profitable format too early, however, may lead to not being around long enough for Blu-ray to be the dominant format.

This Goes for Fans, Too

And this is where the fans as well as the distributors will want to lynch me…

Seriously. If you have a Blu-ray player and are at all interested in the format please do buy Blu-rays where the option is available. As a niche format, especially in the UK where every sale helps, choosing to buy the DVD instead only hurts the viability of Blu-ray as a format. If Blu-rays don’t sell, the distributors won’t sell Blu-rays. And if DVD is seen as “good enough”, the distributors are more likely to play it safe. Especially in the more niche titles.

Similarly, buy UK where possible. If a show gets a UK BD announcement (even if there’s no solid date) then it is worth holding out for unless it is a severely inferior version. Opinions may vary on what really classes as “inferior”, though. But unless an import is miles a head of the competition, at least put some though towards buying the local BD.

If you can play Blu-rays but don’t buy the UK Blu-ray (of shows you actually want, naturally) then it is only contributing to the problem. Yes, there is more that the UK companies could do but we really have to meet them halfway. After all, how can they work to do better if the format doesn’t sell well for them?

And the biggest problem is that it is very much a chicken-and-egg situation. Companies won’t sell what doesn’t sell. Customers won’t buy what doesn’t work for them. But to change the situation, one side has to make the first step.

Future Back Catalogue

At the time of writing this, of two of the UK distributors, Manga UK have a larger Blu-ray selection than MVM. Up until a few months back MVM have tended to err on the side of DVD-only releases. And even then, some of their more recent announcements (Mysterious Girlfriend X and Kokoro Connect) are currently slated to be DVD-only.

In future years, however, this risks that someone looking to buy Anime on Blu-ray is probably going to be sending more money in Manga’s direction. Both companies, however, do sometimes look into re-releasing older titles. This can be important as having too high of a DVD-only section of the back-catalogue, or having key titles in it, could lead to people either buying something from a competitor or importing the overseas version.

Future Reputation

Similar to the above points, releasing decent Blu-rays gets you a reputation of releasing decent Blu-rays. That’s a fairly obvious statement but the opposite is also true. Releasing badly mastered BDs or releasing the majority of your catalogue on DVD instead of taking a risk on Blu-ray gets you a reputation of not being trustworthy for future releases.

Although recent announcements have the chance of turning this around, MVM has been starting to get the reputation of “If they announce a title, just import it as they’ll never release the Blu-ray”. And even their recent announcements of a better production deal and several upcoming BD titles, I can easily imagine many people just continuing to buy the overseas versions to guarantee getting it. Which brings us to…

Announce Early

Where possible, release the format information when a title is announced. At the very least, announce the format when the release window is announced. Still umming and erring, or staying silent, about whether a BD version is coming out when the US or Australian version is already out (and compatible) is basically asking people to import instead of waiting. Sales are lost to people going for the dead-cert import instead of waiting for a maybe-it-won’t UK release.

And this then is further compounded when titles long-since importable on Blu-ray get slated for a DVD-only release in the UK. It just further convinces people that importing is the better route.

In Conclusion

I don’t think any one of these is a Silver Bullet solution, and none of them come without an element of risk and faith, but they’re all little things that could help the format gain traction that will be much needed going forward.

DVD-only will hurt in the long-run and it is on the heads of the companies and fans to ensure that Blu-ray succeeds in future years. It will require walking a very fine line, though, as too much short-term risk could be equally bad.

Anime and Blu-ray in the UK (part 1)

blu-ray-logo-2I’m a strong believer in recent Anime shows and movies being released on Blu-ray. Hell, I’m actually a believer in any recent material created in HD to get a decent Blu-ray release. I suspect that the PR people in the UK Anime distribution companies probably see my avatar in a thread and go, “Oh Gods, another one of those!” Those of us who are really interested in more UK Blu-ray releases can be a little bit… persistent about the matter.

Especially in my case as, after a period of not watching a great deal of Anime, it wasn’t the DVD backlog on my shelves that brought me back into the fandom. It was renting some shows on Blu-ray, and seeing the extra quality, that truly hooked me back in.

 
Niche^3
The problem regarding Blu-rays for Anime in the UK is the customer base being a niche within a niche within a niche. Or, more accurately, a niche (Blu-ray owners) within a niche (Anime fandom) within a relatively tiny market.

Compared to the US or even Australia, we are a much smaller customer base simply down to being a much smaller population. So when you then factor in Anime fandom and Blu-ray preference, it is a ridiculously tiny share. The problem, however, comes in when you realise that we probably make up about the same proportion of home entertainment customers. So, understandably, we get annoyed when we see how we are treated in comparison to the overseas customers. The problem, though, is business realities.

Costs
There are still the Blu-ray licensing fees, the authoring fees, the initial production run, the packaging costs, any required marketing, etc. These minimum costs exist regardless of location. Added to this, in the UK we have our own particular burden to bear. It is illegal to sell home video material that has not been passed by the BBFC. They charge per-minute to check the video content and the rating label has to not only be present in the packaging but on the disc itself. (No buying pre-pressed discs from Australia, America or even Japan, then.)

For a large population like America or (to a lesser extent) Australia, this isn’t too much of an issue. Population size means that the niche audience is still large enough to take the risk, as they can recoup the costs. Here, not so much. Apparently they need to sell at least 1000 copies on Blu-ray to make it worthwhile. It used to be closer to 3000.

In a recent podcast, Manga Entertainment stated that production costs are falling and it can be cheaper to produce the BDs than the DVDs. This requires an overseas partner to share in the production, though. Which requires an overseas partner to be willing to work around any potential delays and even changes that the BBFC rating process imposes. And, as noted above, they can’t necessarily share in the actual production run unless the BBFC rating process is complete. So the best they can do is to share in creation of the master and then do their own run.

Current State of Play
As things stand, even when an English-language Blu-ray exists (even a Region B one, courtesy of Australia), a Blu-ray release is far from certain. Mainly down to the reasons stated above.  Add to this the fact that even of the people who aren’t opposed to Blu-ray, many are still fine with picking up a DVD if that’s the only option. Or, in some cases, will pick the DVD as it saves a few quid over the Blu-ray. The drawback to this is that it means that some BD-capable customers are helping the DVD format flourish to the detriment of the Blu-ray sales figures. There are other reasons, too, that are a lot harder to argue against. Like people with only one Blu-ray player. Or people whose friends or family only have DVD players. Meaning that if they need a copy that can “play anywhere”, they are limited to the DVD release – unless there’s a double-play release.
One of the problems with this, though, is that the segment of the audience that prefers Blu-rays can be… quite vocal. And I can only see it getting more so, even if it doesn’t grow in size that fast.

Simply put, I can’t see a huge uptake in Blu-ray owners in the near future. There will be slow uptake as people replace older gear or buy the latest games consoles, but it’s not going to be a sudden explosion by any means. Also, as noted above, some people will still buy DVDs for various reasons. Again, these reasons will slowly shift, but it is not going to be an overnight process.
People will have multiple players. Their friends/family will have BD players. They’ll get more to the HD quality and more and more find themselves preferring that over DVD quality.

There are two different tipping-points, though. The first is the sheer number of people buying Blu-rays. The second is the section of the UK Anime Fandom who go exclusively Blu-ray only. And this is where things potentially get… interesting. As there’s no guarantee that the first one will happen before the second.

In future posts, I hope to comment a bit on what the current UK distributors are doing and also to speculate on how some some of crowd funding ideas may or may not help in regards to Blu-ray releases.