Anime Industry Reality Check: The Long End of Licensing

In all the hustle and bustle of movie reviews, conventions and whatnot, I haven’t had much time to espouse on what it’s like to actually be part of the anime industry as a sub and dub script writer. Not that I really know that much more than the average anime fan, what with sitting in my house all day writing about psychopathic college students with murderous stationery and dramatic potato chip consumption, but I do pick up a few things here and there, and I’ve certainly come to realize that a lot of the “knowledge” I took for granted as a fan was only a small part of the whole picture.

As such, I’m going to try my hand at a new semi-regular (read: whenever I feel like it) column called Reality Check, where I contrast what we fans think about how the anime industry works (or how it SHOULD work) and what the reality tends to be. In an ideal world, you will all close your browser windows with a sense of having been entertained and informed. That’s MY fantasy; the reality is that you’ll probably all get bored and go read more of c’s awesome posts on romance in RPGs!

We’ll begin my attempt at vaguely amusing instruction with a look at the licensing process. For those that may be unaware for some reason, one of the first steps in getting an anime or manga series released in English is for a company (usually American) such as Viz or Funimation to acquire the license to release and distribute the series outside of Japan; this license must be agreed upon between the translating company and the Japanese company that originally produced the anime (e.g. a television or animation studio).

Sounds easy, right? Well….

The Fantasy

The Japanese studio that produced the original anime and the American company that wants to release it in English are of one mind and one soul. Both parties are eager to get the anime released as quickly as possible in the West, ideally with a simultaneous release on television. After all, the series is guaranteed to be a smash hit, and there will always be enough fans who love the anime medium and will buy the DVDs, right? Both parties sit down while the series is still in production and in a few short weeks hammer out a licensing agreement that ensures a quick and high quality translation and gives everyone a pony. Hooray!

The Reality

Unfortunately, no one on either side of the Pacific pond exactly falls over themselves to translate or release an anime that isn’t guaranteed to find an audience and turn a profit. Hence why American companies are not chomping at the bit to start forking over money for Yosh! Happy Hyper Tentei Bed Making Maids! six months in advance. A lot of anime can be an acquired taste or just isn’t that good, which isn’t good news for American companies. How do they know if anyone in the West will give a damn about it when they don’t even know whether it’s going to be a success in Japan? Obviously there are some exceptions to this attitude – major titles like Hetalia and Death Note are nearly guaranteed to have a pre-existing audience salivating for a release – but for a lot of the lesser known anime, American companies prefer to hold off a little longer to see what the response is before flinging large amounts of cash at it.

Which means they then come afoul of the other and arguably the major source of licensing delay; the glacial pace of the licensing process. A lot of Japanese anime companies seem to take the lesson of The Tortoise and the Hare a bit too much to heart, and the result is all the speed and hurry of a geriatric sloth. Stories differ as to why the Japanese companies in particular drag their heels so much. Some of it, to be fair, may just be the result of having to deal with many different licensing companies competing for the same shows and having to wade through a variety of financial offers as well as figuring out which will do the best job. There can also be distribution agreements, merchandising rights, and who knows what else. It’s not just as easy as sticking an English label on the front and calling it a day; who gets what cut of the profits? Who is going to get the DVDs into stores? Who has the American trademark?  In the end, there is a HUGE amount of legal red tape and international trade issues that need to be worked out.

Another possible explanation is that, when it comes down to it, the Western market may not be that much of a priority compared to the Japanese market. Depending on the genre, the Japanese company might have better use of their time working on life-sized body pillows of the cute heroine to sell to certain types of Japanese fan than deal with the shenanigans of an American company complaining about the sexual content in episode 2. But really, a lot of it can be chalked up to genuine differences in culture. Japan has a rather different concept of business than we do, as well as issues like intellectual property, and for whatever reason this results in a very slow and measured pace when it comes to licensing agreements. I’ve heard more than a few tales of a rabidly eager American company rep almost begging for the rights to a series only to meet with a wall of calm, orderly, and utterly inescapable bureaucracy.

Between the reluctance to jump on board a series that has yet to prove itself and the almost microscopic pace of the licensing process, the delays between Japanese and Western release can get pretty darned sizeable. Generations live and die before we get to hear so much as a single dubbed word. From start to finish, the legalities of the licensing process can sometimes take up to six months or more… and that’s not even beginning the translating, scripting, dubbing and marketing for once it finally gets the go-ahead.

When Reality and Fantasy Collide

The gap between what fans think the process SHOULD be like and what it actually is… well, it’s rather large, to put it politely. Unfortunately, a lot of the more vocal fans don’t realize this and end up focusing their rage on the American companies, figuring that they’re too lazy or disinterested to bother licensing the anime series in question. Obviously if the American companies were OMG DOING THEIR JERB, the legalities would be finished quickly and the series would be out tomorrow! Few of them stop to think that the slowdown might be coming from the Japanese end or that it’s an inescapable part of the business.

Things get even trickier when fansubs enter the picture. I could write at least five whole articles on the fansub issue (and I probably will!) but the longer a series takes to get licensed, the more people will get impatient, want to watch the series NOW, and resort to fansubs. To some degree, this can help drum up popularity for a series and give American companies a better barometer for what’s hot, but on the flip side, by the time the series finally gets released on DVD a year later, everyone has already seen it and may not be willing to sit through it again. It almost becomes a vicious cycle; Japanese companies drag their feet over the Western market only to finally magnanimously allow a series to be translated… only to find no one is buying it (since everyone got bored of waiting and got their fix via fansubs) and get the impression that, well, maybe no one in the West is interested and it’s not worth getting excited about foreign licensing after all. It’s like the Circle of Life, only with short skirted magical girls and big mechs instead of lions and monkeys.

Can Fantasy Become Reality?

The good news is that, at last, a lot of these issues are changing, and the licensing process is becoming a lot more like what we wish it was. A lot of this is due to digital distribution, where a series can be subtitled and streamed quickly without having to worry about shipping DVDs, dubbing, etc. Also, both American and Japanese companies seem to be wrapping their heads around the concept that sooner is better and are beginning to sign agreements accordingly. Funimation in particular tries to get involved as early in the series creation as possible, while Japanese companies like TV Tokyo and Gonzo have agreements with CrunchyRoll for perpetual digital streaming of their productions. Things are definitely getting better.

Having said that, there are still going to be delays and hiccups and intricate legalities in the licensing process. But next time there’s a series you want to watch that is taking a million years to be released,  don’t rush to blame the American companies, and remember that licensing, believe it or not, can be very, very srz bzns.

What’s your take on licensing delays and the companies involved? Do you just shrug and put up with them, or do they frustrate you? Any series in particular that had you waiting… and waiting… and waiting?

Also, feel free to post your questions about the anime industry or dubbing/subbing in general. You might end up inspiring a future column!

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