All told, 2011 was a stable year in the anime business. No anime company of any worth (so 4Kids doesn’t count) went bankrupt, although over in the manga world TokyoPop bit the bullet. The tsunami and resulting nuclear incident will unfortunately overshadow anything else that happened with anime this year. While there were no dramatic changes in the industry, a number of trends began or picked up steam in 2011. It is these trends, more than any anime production, that will be this year’s industry legacy.
Trend #1: Lawsuits
The anime industry had so many lawsuits this year that I’m surprised no one was inspired to make a Phoenix Wright anime. There were lawsuits between domestic and foreign companies (Gainax vs. ADV and TV Tokyo vs. 4Kids), a lawsuit between a domestic company and downloaders (Funimation vs. 1337 bit torrent users) and one between legal and illegal streamers (Crunchyroll vs. Youtube Uploaders).
Of the lawsuits, Funimation’s suit grabbed the biggest headlines and was the biggest head-scratcher. The popular strategy of media companies suing bit torrent users had lost steam around 2008 when the RIAA and MPAA stopped doing so. Apart from the publicity, Funimation’s decision to sue bit torrent users accomplished little on the surface. The whole event felt like a bad twilight zone episode in which we were transported back to the year 2000 when the RIAA sued Napster. Luckily, the trip ended quickly as the suit was dismissed. It remains to be seen whether the lack of courtroom success will dampen the enthusiasm for suits going forward.
Trend #2: Streaming
The two biggest streaming developments this year both involved Funimation. First, the company announced a partnership with NicoNico to create Funico. The partnership at first suggested the failure of the simulcast model, as it appeared that Funimation was exiting the market and letting NicoNico stream the shows Funimation licensed. But any suggestion that Funimation was abandoning streaming was put to rest when it announced its Elite Subscriber program. Not only was Funimation continuing to stream simulcasts (if only in standard definition) but it was also giving subscribers access to dubbed episodes, on the same day those shows were released at retail stores.
DVD sales continue to be the source of industry profits, as Funimation made clear in an interview with Zac Bertschy on ANN. But anime companies (at least in the US) realize that streaming is the future. The challenge going forward will be for the industry to monetize streaming in a way that replaces the profits from physical discs when the public’s appetite for DVDs finally runs out.
Trend #3: No more blockbusters
The most disappointing 2011 anime news was that this year lacked a blockbuster anime release. Great shows aired in 2011, and Durarara!! even made it on Cartoon Network, but nothing captivated audiences like past mega-hits Death Note, Bleach and Naruto. This poses the biggest threat to anime going forward. If the industry wants to expand its market share outside of Japan, it needs big shows that will draw in mainstream crowds. The distribution network is in place to deliver anime to the masses, online through Hulu and Netflix or on air at Cartoon Network and G4. But without a breakout show the market will continue to shrink, when we need it to grow.
Two out of three trends I listed above were negative, but I think the year as a whole has been good, at least for consumers. Anime continues to get cheaper and more accessible, with $30 box sets and free streaming becoming the norm. As the world economy slowly recovers and anime companies figure out how to make money in a digital world, the industry itself looks to be on stable footing. Now we just need a few blockbuster titles and maybe a Sailor Moon re-release to galvanize the masses, and 2012 could go from looking good to being great.