New to the Site? Click Here for a Primer!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Theory Musing: The Anime Kickstarter Konundrum

At Otakon this year, one of my favorite panels I attended was the Right Stuf panel, and one of the most interesting announcements made there was that Aria the Animation would receive an English dub if a Kickstarter drive for the new Blu-Ray release was to succeed. I knew that Aria in general had a fervent fanbase, so my immediate feeling upon hearing "Dark Lord" Shawne Kleckner announce this drive was, "Oh, this is going to succeed, easily."

That being said, even I couldn't imagine it earning nearly four times its initial goal, resulting in every season of the Aria anime, including the previously unlicensed Aria the Avvenire OVA from 2015, receiving an English dub. I have nothing but happiness for the fans of this anime series (I'm personally fine with the DVDs I have yet to watch), but at the same time it started to make me think. Are anime crowdfunding successes like Aria an indicator that there is potential for smaller name & niche anime to be given chances that they would normally never be given outside of Japan, or is this just more proof that these can only reliably succeed for titles that already have existing fanbases to support them in the first place? Before all of that, though, let's start at the beginning...

If you somehow aren't familiar with Kickstarter, it's a site where people & companies can start drives that requires the general public to pledge funding to in order to achieve a required goal. While there are other sites like it, such as IndieGoGo or Fig, KS has the most notoriety behind it, and even recently has started allowing drives based in Asia. Eventually, the Japanese anime industry would come to notice the potential of crowdfunding, & on October 1, 2012 Production I.G. teamed with director Masaaki Yuasa to crowdfund an original OVA short titled Kick-Heart. With a goal of $150,000, the OVA would earn over $200,000, which resulted in it being two minutes longer than initially planned & even receiving two English dubs (one professional & with one with backers voicing the cast); I not only supported this drive but also reviewed it back in July of 2013. The success of this drive has since opened up the gates for anime crowdfunding, with successes like Santa Company, Under the Dog, Mecha-Ude, Nekopara, Cannon Busters, & others which were done via Japan-exclusive sites, but I'll only be focusing on Kickstarter campaigns here.

Still, these examples are all original creations, & all of them are single OVAs & the like. How about using Kickstarter for already existing anime, maybe to give them bigger & better releases than before? Eventually, those came about as well, with the first modern example being AnimEigo's "Ultimate Edition" Blu-Ray release for Bubblegum Crisis in 2013. Compared to the likes of Kick-Heart & Under the Dog, BGC's BD release was a smaller success, but it was still more than double what Robert Woodhead & company expected, showing that not only was there still a fanbase for the classic OVA series, but there were also newcomers who wanted to support a new release; I was certainly in the latter category & supported it. This was also a way for AnimEigo to return to anime, as it hadn't released anything since finishing up Urusei Yatsura in 2006, seven years prior. Since then, AE has followed this crowdfunding model, putting out really sweet BD re-releases of Otaku no Video &, most recently, Riding Bean (the latter of which I also supported).

AnimEigo's use is only one method to do better with older properties, though. There was also FUNimation using this method to judge whether or not it should produce a brand new English dub for Vision of Escaflowne, as Bandai's old dub used the TV masters, whereas the home video release featured some extra scenes in the first seven episodes. Now, to be fair, FUNimation did infamously bungle some aspects of the post-campaign follow-through, not to mention the general feeling that FUNi didn't even need to crowdfund for a title as classic as Escalfowne, but the company did manage to score over $300,000, including my support (hey, full disclosure is the right thing to do). Still, the Escaflowne Kickstarter is a perfect example of what I think has become the de facto concept behind anime crowdfunding campaigns of this second ilk. Let's face facts here, because it's impossible to deny... Bubblegum Crisis, Otaku no Video, Escaflowne, & Aria the Animation are all generally considered anime classics today (with Riding Bean being a strong cult-classic), and while AnimEigo, FUNimation (arguably), & Right Stuf doubted whether or not they would succeed, every single time these drives were announced, my immediate thought was constantly, "That's cool. It's going to succeed, no doubt." Maybe it's just me, but I've come to learn to never underestimate the fanaticism of people, because if they want it enough they will spend insane amounts to make it possible. Another thing to consider is that every single one of these second category campaigns succeeded within literally days of them starting, making it more about achieving stretch goals &, in turn, creating a better release.

So is there an example of an anime Kickstarter actually feeling like it needed it? Why yes there is...

Ann Yamamoto is the sole operator of Pied Piper, which made a name for itself by crowdfunding the release of the movie edit of an ONA titled Time of Eve, succeeding enough to produce an English dub that wasn't initially planned. For her second title, Yamamoto wanted to release an anime that once had its chance in the sun, but was no longer available legally in any way, 2008-2009's Skip Beat!, based on the shojo manga by Yoshiki Nakamura. Back when it debuted, the anime was actually one of the very first titles CrunchyRoll ever legally simulcasted after going legit, but eventually the license expired & the show left the site. Unlike the physical-focused days of old, SB!'s license expiration meant that no one could legally watch the show anymore; there was no physical release to grab on the second-hand market. Pied Piper decided to save the anime from purgatory, but there was a twist: By requirement of the Japanese licensors, the anime couldn't be released outside of Japan unless there was an English dub made to go with it.

Anime dubbing isn't cheap, especially if you want it to be at least decent, and that detail actually screwed the crowdfunding over at first. You see, Ann initially went with IndieGoGo, but that site's smaller name recognition (combined with other details) effectively killed the campaign instantly. Luckily, she was given a second chance by the Japanese licensors & decided to go with Kickstarter instead, and with a smaller goal to be safe. In the end, SB! not only made its goal, but wound up earning a little over the original IGG goal... But it needed nearly the entire length of the drive to succeed in the first place. The drive was scheduled to end on April 16, 2016, but it didn't make the smaller KS goal until April 12. Unlike the anime that AnimEigo, FUNimation, & Right Stuf were offering, which all had pre-existing notoriety for years & also had prior home video releases, Skip Beat! was only available on CrunchyRoll, back when it was still making a legal name for itself, & by the time that site started becoming the force it is now the anime was gone from its catalog. That's proven by how many backers supported these drives:
Aria? 2,648
Bubblegum Crisis? 2,175
Escaflowne? 2,058
Mai Mai Miracle? 1,903
Riding Bean? 1,752
Skip Beat!? 1,646... Only Otaku no Video had less than it at 1,509 backers.

That is fairly good proof that for anime crowdfunding to succeed at its most reliable & impressive, it needs to be for something that already has a notable following, and it's arguable that Skip Beat! barely had that; Mai Mai Miracle's situation was similar to it, but that's a movie, which is an easier sell. Therefore, is it fair to say that "NBS Anime" is effectively screwed over with this method of support & potential release, even when it seems to be the most possible way for them to succeed? For those unfamiliar with the term, it was something I coined back in 2014, when I asked aloud if introducing "Never Before Seen Anime" via licensing was a dead concept. I'm talking about titles that missed the licensing boat, or were even never fansubbed, for a variety of reasons, and therefore have never seen an official release outside of Japan (or at least North America) before. Back then, if a title was missed, you'd have to hope that a company would just come across it & decide to give it a chance, but there aren't enough companies like Anime Midstream out there for that now. In concept, a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter is perfect for a company (or individual, like Ann) to take a risk on putting out a hyper-niche anime & see if there might be an audience that likes to try new & different things out. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that have seemingly killed that concept before it could truly be tried out.

First, & foremost, you have no choice but to use Kickstarter, because it's the biggest name out there. Sam Pinansky's Anime Sols found that out the hard way when it tried to crowdfund on its own terms, though the initial concept for that site was conceived of before KS debuted, so that couldn't be helped. Ann Yamamoto realized that IndieGoGo, though having its own notable successes, just didn't have the name cachet that anime fans seemingly wanted in order to trust it. Second, anime fans can be a very hesitant lot, depending on the circumstances. Skip Beat! had a hard time succeeding, due to its content (a shojo-styled story about becoming a pop idol isn't exactly an instantly hooking concept for most people), lack of notoriety due to lack of availability at the moment (it's since returned to CrunchyRoll's catalog after the drive ended), & a combination of requiring an English dub with its length (again, dubbing 25 episodes isn't cheap if you want it done well). Had SB! been able to remove any of those factors, whether it was being more instantly appealing, still being available for streaming, or simply not needing a dub to be allowed release, then it would have been a quick & easy success. Therefore, if an anime like that, which did have some things working in its favor, was barely able to succeed, then what chance would a "no-name" anime have? Unfortunately, it's the final factor that likely screws everything over the most: Japan.

Simply put, Japanese companies can be very, VERY wary of the unknown & the potential failure inherent in it, so much so that they'll have no problems saying "No" & call it a day. To bring back Anime Sols, it took Pinansky a lot of time & effort just to find four companies that were willing to give the idea of crowdfunding DVD releases a try, and even then it was only accepted in a way that had the least amount of risk possible on their ends. In regards to the original projects that were funded via crowdfunding, they were all original OVAs, or at least pilots, because they could be fully produced & were infinitely cheaper to make than even a 12-episode TV series; again, lessening the risk of failure as much as possible. A perfect example is for Under the Dog, which was planned to lead into possibly making a TV series, but right now the team behind that OVA is planning another Kickstarter to simply extend it into a live-action/anime mixed-media movie, which has obviously annoyed some of the backers. If you approach a Japanese licensor (or, even worse, an entire production committee) with an idea that might result in nothing being done, like if a crowdfunding campaign was to fail, then the involved parties are likely to just pass on it. In fact, it's a bit of a miracle that Skip Beat!'s production committee even allowed a second chance after the IndieGoGo attempt bombed instantly. Of course, there are other factors to take into consideration, like what kind of materials exist for a potential release (masters, scripts, M&E tracks, etc.) and what condition they're in, but let's just say that those aren't an issue for the sake of keeping things focused.

For those who know me, I can bet they're thinking, "Well, George, you're just trying to think of any possible way for something like Ring ni Kakero 1 to see release in North America!"... And I won't deny that it makes up a very small part of why I decided to ruminate these thoughts (though, seriously, I've more or less given up on RnK1; I have all of the Japanese DVDs, so I'm good). Still, one of the most nagging aspects of doing a blog like this is that I wind up writing about anime that has never seen an official release in North America (let alone Europe & the like), and there are plenty of other anime that I've covered that I'd love to own on officially translated DVD or Blu-Ray. Titles like Blazing Transfer Student, Asura, Hareluya II BØY, Kamen no Maid Guy, Ozanari Dungeon, Violinist of Hameln, Shinken Legend Tight Road, Fuma no Kojirou, or even Zaizen Jotaro. Hell, I'll take a complete & translated release of Gundoh Musashi via crowndfunding, for all that is unholy! Are titles like these, among many others that are more championed that I'm sure plenty of anime fans can also mention, just meant to be left in Japan, if not (in essence) lost to time, even if there's a platform that can at least give them an opportunity to shine?

Or is crowdfunding just going to be reserved for the titles that already had their moments in the sun & earned an audience that could be relied upon to rally together once again? I'm not looking down the likes of Bubblegum Crisis, Aria, & Skip Beat! being supported via crowdfunding, because I'm all for their drives' ilk, but I feel that the idea of the "anime Kickstarer" may never truly reach its greatest potential by potentially giving us the stuff we never got before. I don't doubt that such an idea will actually happen at some point, Robert Woodhead has hinted that he'd love to do such a thing, but I doubt it will become more than a blip, a rare novelty, instead of being more of a likely possibility.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I've supported a lot of anime kickstarters, but I've been disappointed that their success hasn't led to more ambitious campaigns to release obscurer titles but rather fund higher-quality releases of known entities like Escaflowne and Aria. Ideally Kickstarter would be used be used to release properties that couldn't or wouldn't be released otherwise like those OVAs you mentioned. That's why I felt really satisfied with the Skip Beat kickstarter - not just because I'm a huge fan of the series, but because that was a show that genuinely could not be released over here unless a dub was made, and one of the only options they had was to fund it through a crowdfunding campaign. But Skip Beat was a popular show and still is a popular manga, so it had some fan support. Like you said, the real test for these Kickstarters will be when someone will be brave enough to take a chance on something with no measurable audience and try to distribute it to the english-speaking fandom through Kickstarter. But at the same time, it has to be something people will find interesting enough to support even if they haven't seen it before or have some kind of selling point. For instance, name cred is almost entirely why the Osamu Tezuka kickstarters DMP does get funded even though I'd wager most backers probably haven't read the manga they're funding beforehand. Exactly what could obscure anime could succeed with or without name cred or a preexisting reputation is an interesting thing to ponder.