I attended Anime Expo for the first time, earlier this year. What struck me most at the convention was the number of fans and their high level of enthusiasm. Fans crowded in to see industry panels, but they also embraced fan-run presentations like the Old School Anime panel. Based on the enthusiasm I saw, I’m not surprised that anime conventions are thriving right now. For example, Japan Expo is starting a new convention in California next year. Meanwhile, the industry is stagnating. Bandai folded last year. Media Blasters has canceled releases. Sentai and Funimation are battling in Federal Court. Why the disconnect between the health of the conventions and the industry as a whole? A cynic might say that you can pirate a DVD, but not a convention ticket. The real answer is that anime conventions give fans what they want, at the right price. It’s time for anime companies to learn to do the same.
The piracy argument, that cons are succeeding only because they are immune from piracy, is misleading. It is true that fans can’t download conventions off the internet. Still, conventions do depend financially on sales of media and merchandise at the events. The piracy argument also obscures the bigger issue, which is why anime fans aren’t buying DVDs. It’s not that anime fans have no money, otherwise fans wouldn’t buy convention tickets. The problem lies with what anime companies are selling.
People want to buy unique experiences. This applies to conventions. And it applies equally to DVDs. A DVD itself isn’t unique. It’s a mass produced, 50 cent piece of plastic. Something about the DVD needs to justify buying an object that will basically sit on a shelf collecting dust. How do anime fans justify buying a convention ticket? They are willing to buy tickers to have an amazing experience. For example, fans can meet famous Japanese directors and voice actors and ask them questions. Fans at conventions also learn before anyone else what new shows are getting licensed. These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities make the price of a convention ticket worthwhile.
NIS America and Rightstuff recognize the need to make releases special. NIS includes premium art books with its releases. Rightstuff provides books with interviews and liner notes to its Utena release. Those physical additions made the releases unique for me. I knew that the only way I could get the Utena booklets was to buy the box sets, so I bought them.
The additions don’t need to be physical products. BD-Live provides a way for purchasers to access unique content online. Companies could reward fans with unique experiences like an online Q&A with the anime director. Or they could provide codes for additional content (like Hollywood does with digital editions) where the code must be used before a certain date. Anime companies need to get creative. They need to find a way to make buying discs special and they can do so by leveraging the web just as easily as by including physical extras.
The industry needs to address the enthusiasm gap between con goers and DVD purchasers soon. Funimation, Sentai and the rest survive based on physical disc sales. Collectors drive those sales. Collectors, in turn, buy discs because they think they are valuable. That value comes from a secondary market for anime. Such a market might not exist, but the belief is enough to keep collectors buying anime.
In the near future content viewing will shift from disc to digital. Digital licenses can’t (currently) be resold, and this will hurt collector interest. Anime companies will need to change their business model and convince a larger number of fans to buy anime. They will need to find a way to make anime unique and desirable. Otherwise, anime conventions and streaming sites will be all that’s left of the industry.