Saturday, August 11, 2007

:anime: Boo for Bandai Visual USA? One Year's Difference...

A little over a year ago, I made my first official full-fledged post on HardDoor on the emergence of Bandai Visual USA, the American arm of the revered Japanese production studio. Bandai Visual was known for helping create such seminal classics as Gunbuster, Macross, and The Wings of the Honneamise (of whom would lend its name to that of the U.S. firm's label), and as such, expectations were high of the type of series and impact they would make stateside. The high-end job done on their premiere offerings, the Limited Edition re-releases of the first two Patlabor movies, and the potential in creating a strong library of titles showed a great deal of optimism for what to expect from the young upstarts in the future.

Since then, Bandai Visual USA has moved away from the North American business model it initially followed and opted to go with one ingrained in their native land. The shift was made to better with the goals set by its president, Tatsunori Konno, of presenting products for their "customers in the US who are seeking real anime rooted authentically in the Japanese culture." In do so, future releases since Patlabor have eschewed the inclusion of an English dub, episode counts per disc are far more conservative (inline with the 1-2 ep. count in Japan), and the volumes themselves generally run for around $40, nearly $10 more than usual domestic releases. The discs themselves are essentially ported over from Japan, translated and given English subtitles, and packed with a multi-page informational booklet. Another major move saw the company sever its partnership with distributor and Honneamise label co-creator Image Entertainment and establish one with fellow Japanese subsidiary Geneon Entertainment [USA] Inc., who arguably had the greater experience in anime retail and distribution.

Along the way, BVU has released the aforementioned Gunbuster and its sequel, Diebuster (as "Gunbuster 2"), as well as little-known, yet well-reviewed titles Demon Prince Enma, a mature remake of a Go Nagai children's show from the 70s, and The Wings of Rean, the third animated property in Yoshiyuki Tomino's Aura Battler Dunbine mythology. Despite the pedigree and potential appeal of these, the questionable choices Bandai Visual USA has made since their Patlabor run has raised more than a few eyebrows. One such instance involved the premiere volume of Galaxy Angel Rune, which was comprised solely of the first episode and sold at a retail price of $19.99. The disappointing sales of the Patlabor movies undoubtedly played a role in their new plans which, like much of its own release plan, were rooted in the same flawed research that BVU brings up whenever criticized about its practices. Patlabor is nowhere near as popular of a title here as in Japan and its fanbase is dwarfed by that of other similar giant robot shows like Gundam and Macross. High-quality releases aside, research would have and should have given them an idea of what they were getting into by releasing such pricey products stateside. In addition, expecting those ten thousand Limited Edition copies, or at least close to that, to sell hard displays the sort of erroneous vision that the subsidiary has developed.

In spite of what they say, Business 101 would have told them that one country's business model will not necessarily guarantee success in another. Wal-Mart, for example, tried to instill an American-based model for their Germany stores, but was met with failure. Their main problem was that they thought that their model was universal and that it could work anywhere. Instead of prosperity, their lack of knowledge of how the native industry worked, what the German lifestyle was like, and especially, what the German consumer wanted badly worked against them, leading the company to sell off their stores to a domestic chain after their eight year odyssey began in 1998. As it stands today, BVU is heading down that same path. Bandai Visual set up shop in the United States looking to tap into the country's anime business, but is beginning to encounter similar dilemmas to Wal-Mart's German excursion. Like the big retailer, BVU is currently employing a strategy that has done them well for years in Japan in a country that has a decidedly different market. The anime market in the United States may be growing, but it holds nowhere near the sort of cultural or financial weight that it does across the ocean (the Patlabor example being one indicator of this). In addition, the DVD side of that market is vastly different, as consumers are accustomed to a $29.99 retail price, with around three to four episodes, per volume. A great majority of these already contain both the original Japanese track (with English subtitles) and an English dub, along with extras. BVU wishes to sell "real anime rooted authentically in the Japanese culture" to the consumer, but when compared to what other distributors offer, the average type would venture more to what they are comfortable with. The most likely of BVU's customers, the hardcore type that is comfortable with spending money on "authentic Japanese products" or purchasers of R2 (Japan's region) DVDs, make up a very small number of the overall pool of potential customers.

With the negative attention the company has garnered, Bandai Visual USA will be facing a steeper climb to the top of the North American industry if they continue to follow their domestic plan in the region. However high the prices per product are, they will not achieve a truly profitable level by only appealing to such a small group and will face difficulties in staying operational in the long run. This is due to their thinking in the short term, perhaps the most dangerous aspect of their problems. Their mindset, as observed during conferences and interviews, suggest that they are content with appealing to a small group while aspiring to be a major industry player. While BVU can very well earn a profit from their translated DVDs and not worry about too many extraneous costs in the beginning, one must question what they have done to secure a place in the N.A. market. Over time, potential customers from the untapped fanbase will continue to ignore their offerings, while they continue to gain revenue from those "hardcore" types, who mostly consist of older fans. With little growth and no real expansion, that kind of profit will be dwarfed by the likes of other industry players, who have the knowledge and experience to know what the N.A. consumer wants and knows how to properly tap into the new ones. Despite having to spend on additional costs, such as dubbing, licensing fees, and production operations, and selling discs at prices less than BVU's, they have still managed to build trust and a following, leading to them being able to stay in the game in the long run and still make a profit.

It is here that Bandai Visual USA is shooting themselves in the foot. As a subsidiary to a major Japanese distributor, they at least have some sort of backing and can possibly obtain licensing deals if handling titles from their parent company--something more than most companies could ask for. They also have adhered to a high standard of quality for their products, which is always a welcome attribute. When coupling this along with their advertising campaign, as well as the library they currently and potentially could have, BVU should stand to be the kind of leader they wish to be. I believed they had the potential to make it big a year, and despite their backtracking, I still believe they can make it today. In order to reach that level, they must realize that the Japanese model will only fail them here. The North American anime industry is where it is at today for a reason, and it wasn't because of expensive discs with no English dub and low episode counts. For the kind of "authentic Japanese products" they peddle, one could find similar products for lower prices and more episodes per disc, and in reality, the demand for something like that is very low and the average customer shies away from buying a sub-only title, as many do not like to read subtitles all the time. To get people to buy their titles, they have to spend the money on translation productions, price their discs at industry standard levels, and provide a sufficient episode count for each. Yes, it will cut into profit, but if they want to remain in business, they have to follow the ways of the land to survive. And If they had truly done the research, as they have long asserted, they should have known what would work and what would not. Just ask Wal-Mart.

Bandai Visual USA recently launched an English version of the Japanese video-on-demand and online store service .ANIME which, like the company itself, shows great potential. They also became the first North American anime distributor to release a title on a next-generation disc format (Freedom, on HD-DVD), as well as the first worldwide to offer downloadable content for HD-DVD players, and will finally be releasing their flagship title The Wings of Honneamise, along with the CGI Gundam series MS IGLOO, Engage Planet Kiss Dum, and the Super Robot Wars Original Generation - The Animation OVA, in the near future. Despite the advantages and the right steps they take, their imprudent practices are preventing them from reaching into the upper echelon. I continue to hold hope that they will change their plans and adhere more to the North American business model. Right now, however, I find it hard to compel myself to support them or the kind products they are putting out.

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