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    Movies: Japanese Animation
    “Fansubbers” are Anime fanatics that take Japanese cartoons, translate and subtitle them in English, and release them to be freely on the Net. The Fansubbers believe they are doing a good deed by making heretofore unavailable and incomprehensible material available to an audience that could now appreciate them.

    From the News.com article: “For years this "fan subbing" community has believed that Japanese animation studios tacitly condoned their online activities, at least as long as the shows hadn't yet been released in the United States. But in early December, a studio called Media Factory began sending letters to a handful of big anime fan sites ordering them to stop distributing or linking to copies of its works online.”

    If one is a diehard anime fan, like the Fansubbers are, then this seems like a great to introduce anime titles to an untapped audience. However, now you are crossing over into an area where you are making a value-add change and then redistributing someone else’s work without their permission. Suppose you reverse the situation and take some obscure unavailable English Language cartoons like Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and then have a Japanese translator place subtitles on them and distribute them in the Japanese Islands.

    Then on top of that, take another group that burns the Fansubbers work onto VHS tapes or DVDs and then sells them. Obviously the Fansubbers in either situation would have entered the packaging-and-distribution-for-money business, without any payment to the original production company. Whether or not the original Fansubbers made any money is irrelevant. They have made the work available.

    Separating what the Fansubbers and sellers do is difficult. Fansubbers are filling a void that regular distributors fill with "screeners". But these copies are supposed to be used promote regular retail distribution. However, they are being distributed to the world at large. And then the sellers come in to capitalize on the market void. There are many people without bandwidth or other means to obtain peer to peer shared copies. So they turn to a seller to obtain a copy. And it is not just outfits in Hong Kong, Korea, or Malaysia creating DVDs. There are people in the U.S. doing this too.

    Would it make more sense to send some money to the studios and have them produce more “cool” anime instead of seeing someone else make money purely on the distribution of their work? Some Fansubbers should form a for-profit corporation and enter into a distribution agreement with Anime studios to become a distributor. And who would not like to be paid to pursue their hobby? They would only have to carry minimal inventories if they ran a catalog store. Couple the online store with a review periodical, and see what kind of money there really is in the business. Anime studios should leverage the Fansubbers as U.S. distributors, with a full catalog store instead of P2P downloads lurking in the ether. Surely there must be one or two Fansubbers that want to go big time and fill a market void.

    Fan subbing is not free. One still pays for fan-subtitled movies in terms of bandwidth, storage, and burning. The peer-to-peer network sharing costs money in terms of bandwidth. You could chalk that up to fan/hobby overhead to obtain movies. The same goes with the translation and subtitling. It is all a part of the hobby and does not seem to count as a cost. It is still a cost and there must be some price point at which people would actually pay for these movies.

    There are Fansubbers out there with varying degrees of ethics on the subject. There is a lot of money out there to be made. Not all of this is free and good. One could take the high road and sub their own Anime as a hobby to show their friends. But, not everyone is taking the high road?

    Fansubbers argue that these movies will never make it out of the Japanese market. That is not true. You can have lost sales due to a barrier to entry into a market. In this case the barrier to entry is several factors. Easily accessed available Fansubber titles are one problem. Lack of distribution is another. Retail markup combined with currency conversion is another BIG problem. Many titles cost YEN3000-4000 in the Islands (Roughly exchanges for US$30-$40). That can be prohibitively expensive where the typical consumer DVD price point is less than $20. Then add shipping and possible customs duties.

    Fansubbers argue that they are not doing it for the money or business reasons. They say that they care more about sharing their experience than the business end of anything. They buy the DVDs of works they dub to keep the studios bringing anime to the US. I do understand the hobbyist Fansubbers, and appreciate the time and energy they take to create an audience where one might not otherwise exist. I certainly like Anime, ever since realizing that these were animated features in which protagonists could be killed. But separating what the Fansubbers and media pirates do is difficult. Also, their works are being distributed to the world at large.

    Most likely, once you enter a distribution agreement with a studio, it would involve licensing. But that cost can be negotiated. It could be prohibitively expensive to distribute top selling titles. But to enter a low volume agreement could be in reach of a group of Fansubbers. Maybe it would support the hobby, maybe it would be a money pit, maybe it would be a cash cow. But that is a business risk, and my opinion is that someone who understands it and loves it should take that risk.

    Allowing the underground to operate is handing over their work for nothing. I fail to see how the studios can count on a profitable market to open up where freely available movies are already present. In fact, I see that the good intentions of the Fansubbers could backfire as some of the barely solvent studios with great titles end up going bankrupt.

    Fansubbers believe that there are implicit "rules" to the underground that at least the people doing the subbing tend to follow. And they also believe that allowing the underground to operate within these parameters has not hurt the Japanese Studios in the past. That statement is unsubstantiated. There is a market for which product could be distributed, that is already stocked with freely available versions.

    For example, there exists a market for the network broadcast series DVDs. Clearly network shows ran on TV for free before DVD distribution and people could tape them. But, you cannot call network TV broadcasts free. A thirty-minute situation comedy episode actually contains 8 minutes of advertisements and promos on broadcast TV. Streaming media and/or DVDs are viewed at your convenience. A taped/Tivo'ed TV episode is more convenient than the live broadcast, but not as convenient as a DVD. From my perspective, I have very little free time to search and download, even with a high speed connection. The time spent to find, download, classify, store and recall is wasted, if I could just click and order. At a certain price point, there is no way I would watch the free version if I could buy the real one. I am middle class and not snooty. But every 15 minutes is worth a certain amount of money to me. Taping and finding the episode later, adding labels or notes also takes time. Yes, you can fast forward through commercials, but that is work too. Watching a professionally prepared DVD is much more relaxing.

    The market for network TV shows is not the same market segment for Anime. Who could have predicted in the 1980's that by the late 90's you could purchase over 100 of the most popular Anime feature titles at Best Buy or Suncoast? Comparison to adult video title availability might be closer to the market dynamics within which Anime distribution operates. (I am not comparing content necessarily, although there is plenty of "Pornime").

    There is already a willingness to pay on many people's parts once it arrives, as evidenced by the growing retail selection. The real fans just do not have enough. That is the problem in a nutshell. We want more now. Threatening Fansubbers is a cop-out. The real answer is that the Anime studios have to pull their own weight in the United States. They are getting a free lunch with translations by fans. They should figure out a way to supply the demand and capitalize on the huge opportunity in what is assumed to be a niche.

    Americans do have a taste for adult animation. While not Anime, shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, and even the ancient Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, Flintstones and Jetsons, have all set the stage to enjoy animated adult comedy at least. The cultural differences are what makes Anime interesting. And not everyone can appreciate that different point of view. And while Anime has made great strides, it is going to be a long time before you see American businessmen buying graphic novels for the commuter train with the same frequency Japanese businessmen purchase manga.
      
    Posted on Monday, February 07, 2005 @ 06:48:37 UTC by BB
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