U.S. anime publisher Funimation debuted its videos on the iTunes Store earlier this year and has met with great success, according to a company spokesman at last weekend’s Anime Boston 2007 convention in Boston, Mass. The outreach via the iTunes Store is helping to introduce new viewers of anime, he said, which will in turn expand the market for product.
Funimation is so far the only publisher of Japanese animation — known to its fans as anime — that’s secured digital distribution rights on the iTunes Store. Adam Sheehan, senior events manager at Funimation Entertainment, said his company has seen enormous success with the iTunes Store since its introduction in February.
Sheehan, who hosted his presentation for Anime Boston attendees using a black MacBook connected to an enormous projector, told the audience that the Japanese studios that Funimation licenses their properties from are very reluctant to license content for distribution on the Internet.
“The Japanese in general ask a lot of questions to feel comfortable about what you’re doing on every project, and we’re very used to that,” Sheehan said.
American publishers of anime work closely with Japanese rightsholders to ready their content for distribution in the United States. When the American market was still in its infancy fifteen years ago, Japanese publishers saw the American market as a small niche, but those companies increasingly see it as a major opportunity, said A.D. Vision co-founder David Williams, who spoke during a separate panel on the state of the industry. Williams said that American anime producers must be very sensitive to the way the content is presented to American audiences, making sure that it’s consistent with the content creators’ original intent.
“So we’re very happy that Gonzo is letting us put up Desert Punk, Samurai 7 and Speed Grapher originally,” said Sheehan.
Funimation followed with two other popular series, Gunslinger Girl and Basilisk, and he said that sales of those titles have been very good indeed.
“We’re very happy to get up there,” said Sheehan, because it exposes the properties to people who may have been interested in them but might have been reluctant to spend $30 on a DVD to find out for sure. This way, they can download a single episode for $1.99 to test the waters, instead.
The American anime subculture is certainly a growing market — Anime Boston 2007 attracted more than 11,500 attendees — almost ten times as many as those who showed up for the first Anime Boston event five years ago. But it’s still largely relegated to niche status, although anime DVDs are now occupying shelf space in major retailers like Best Buy and FYE.
“iTunes is really into getting that new fan, that new person into it,” Sheehan added. It’s not so much for established anime enthusiasts, who buy DVDs to get extra content — people like those in the audience, Sheehan said.
That sentiment is shared by Chris Beveridge, founder of the popular anime information site AnimeonDVD.com. Beveridge sees the iTunes Store as complementary to other distribution methods, as opposed to competitive, and as a way of reaching out to consumers who otherwise not be interested in spending money on anime in regular brick and mortar retail stores because of the high cost of anime DVDs, which regularly retail for considerably more than many first-run major studio releases — often $30 or $40 each.
It’s that per-episode distribution model that interests other anime publishers, as well. Jim Yardley, VP of sales and marketing at Geneon, one of Funimation’s chief competitors, said that the company is very interested in digital distribution through the iTunes Store. But ultimately, he said, it’s what they’re delivering, not how they’re delivering it, that’s important.
“We want to focus on the content, content is key,” said Yardley. “We also want to get it into a a format that’s best for the consumer.”
Bandai Entertainment spokesman Larry Vong said that his company is working on partnerships with several digital distribution partners. The only one that’s been announced so far is Amazon.com’s PC-only Unboxed service, but Vong said that Bandai would like to bring content to the iTunes Store as well.
After the state of the industry panel, Macworld asked Williams about A.D. Vision’s plans to support digital distribution. The company already makes select content available for download through the Web, but it’s encoded using Windows Media Player and uses Windows Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, so the files can’t be played on the Mac.
“Ironically, I’m in the same boat you are,” said Williams. “I’m a Linux user at home so I can’t watch the files either.”