Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This is Not New

It seems to have reached a crisis level, and is the talk of the world of American anime economics, the notion that there is an impending collapse of the anime market in the U.S. in general, because of very poor DVD sales.

So fansubs can be seen to hurt a license, but also help it by creating brand awareness. “Brand awareness” however, is totally worthless if it can not be translated into sales of consumer goods of any kind. In many cases the ability of a property to make money in other fields of licensing is killed by fansub proliferation. It is a form of “bootlegging” in a way, not quite different from another segment of Asian entertainment that went through something similar over two decades ago in the 1980’s; Kung Fu.

One of the most pirated genres out there is the martial arts film. Now what’s important to realize that the audiences for anime and for martial arts films have only the slightest bit of overlapping (Fred Perry), and are mostly made up of groups that have nothing to do with each other. However a comparison of historical context is still worth something.

Like a combination of Adult Swim titles, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon set off a huge explosion in interest in martial arts both as an activity/sport and as entertainment. There was also a new technology coming out at that time as well, one that the industry said would ruin the viability of all video entertainment, and that was the brand spanking newfangled contraption known as the VCR. At the point that martial arts became popular, the primary delivery method for such media was shifting from the cinema to the home. By the early 80’s there are back rooms in small shops pumping out bootleg versions of every Gordon Liu and Chan Seng chop saki basher to be sold on the street, in mail order catalogues, or at conventions.

The result of this was a large market for such material, but a market with standards which would make legitimate operation of media companies almost impossible based on the levels of pricing and sales would support. At the same time, there was a little known phenomenon that got around the language barrier, and that was Hong Kong colonial law. It stated that any cinematic media made in Hong Kong had to have an English version made as well. This is why all those old English dubs of kung fu flicks are done by drunken Australian sailors. Without this, the spread of kung fu in America would have been seriously hampered by a need for subtitling and a general audience not ready to accept anything in a subtitled form. That, coupled with the ethics of a martial arts movie consumer making fansubbers look like media boy scouts, brought a rapid growth of material with an underdeveloped legitimate infrastructure.

After a while of legit and bootlegs warring with each other on the video shelves things seemed to collapse when production could no longer be sustained due to the inability of the money generated in the U.S. make it back to the studios to finance ever more expensive productions. Throw in a change in tastes in the domestic audience, and you have a dark age for the genre. We are now out of that dark age as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has become the Akira of a new era of martial arts as entertainment, but one that still has quite visible scars.

Now what does this remind you of? Let’s run down the list:
• Entertainment from Asia in high demand.
• New Technology circumventing the industrial infrastructure.
• Language barrier overcome without use of commercial means.
• Production of more original content stymied by lack of revenue.

The main difference is that the unlicensed copies of media in anime are being distributed for free, even further damaging the market since the information gathered about the market based on taking a free product is almost worthless and can not help companies make plans for the future.

The recent developments over at ADV are sending ripples throughout the industry and the questions about the future that are being raised now, are very different than those from just 6 months ago. Some questions are bleaker than before, others smack of the denial and ignorance running throughout fandom which simply serves to feed the burning anger and frustration of guys like me.

Like Ancient Rome, American fandom has sucked in the resources from the producers and have built a massive city, all without producing a single thing in return to help further that production. Simply “liking it” does not mean a thing if it operates outside the areas which provide economic subsistence. Like Ancient Rome, anime in America is surrounded on all sides and has no way to pay its own army. Like Ancient Rome, anime in America may see a long dark age before technology or a new method of international collaboration bring us into the light. We have seen it with martial-arts an era ago, and history may be about to repeat itself.


AWO used this incident in their latest episode in their news section, very cool. I can now declare victory, in that I have been mentioned twice in a row on AWO and not once has Daryl uttered "Apollo Smile" not even once, as my bluetooth deception master plan is finally complete!


Daryl Surat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daryl Surat said...

The audience for anime and martial arts films intersects perfectly, and at that intersection is ME. The comments don't lie:

You've omitted a critical difference between the anime situation and the kung fu one of long ago (and today), which as fate would have it was something I briefly alluded to in Otaku USA. Simply put, until the last few years it was almost completely impossible to get uncut versions of most of these movies short of ordering Region 0 DVDs from Hong Kong. In fact, it's still not easy; I have more than my share of VHS copies of kung fu movies that I had to get with Dutch subtitles because you either couldn't get the movie in the US, or--more often--the US release was/is beyond abysmal.

Cutting out footage. Replacing all the music in addition to the dialogue. Pan-and-scan. Changing the name of the film. Putting images and characters/actors on the box covers that don't have anything to do with what you get. Tapes recorded in 6-hour mode, or DVDs captured from same. Splicing together footage from one film with footage from another. Any one of these things would have anime fans up in arms, but all that stuff is par for the course when it comes to kung fu movies. Nothing else receives worse treatment on a routine basis.

Unlike anime, if you want to watch intact versions of kung fu movies you have no choice but to bootleg. It's only within the last few years that outfits such as BCI International and Dragon Dynasty have come around and done actual, PROPER releases of this stuff (widescreen, remastered, uncut, AND you can actually choose between the dub and the sub! What a concept!), but they can only produce so much. And good as the Dragon Dynasty releases are, don't get me started on how much damage the Weinsteins have done to kung fu movies over the years.

I would say the current state of kung fu movie fandom in the US is about where anime fandom was around the time Animeigo started releasing titles. If the rather small fandom subsists almost entirely by way of piracy and bootlegging, right now it's because there's just no other way to get a hold of the stuff because even to this day, the perception that all this stuff must be repackaged to better cater to what Steve Harrison always diplomatically refers to as "the urban market" still exists. Even Dragon Dynasty has to keep The RZA on speed dial.

The Angry Otaku said...

Apples and oranges. I am comparing the past history of martial arts consumer media to a history of anime that happened 15 years later. Not the state of martial arts today.

You look at martial arts today, and you have almost a reincarnated version of what is happening with anime today; The small flailing American labels fighting over that core DVD buyer in a downturned DVD market (that "urban" market that only buys dubs) while the hard core fans don't bother with domestic releases and go get the HK releases from over at HK Flix (or YesAsia if you're desperate), and argue about what Ric Meyers is doing wrong this time and whatever happened to Crash Cinema. Keep in mind that the early martial arts movement was carried by people who demanded dubbed fullscreen and lots of masters are stuck that way. But it's already gone through a cycle.

What is going to hold "new school" martial arts together (in terms of both ongoing production and being a viable American commodity) is that it doesn't need the foreign market to help finance actual production for its own domestic market. Anime may or may not be as immune to such paradoxes. "Old School" is just not cost effective for an indie label and can only operate as a loss leader for a big one.

If anything (technology aside) anime is about at the point in martial arts equation where Ocean Shores stepped off stage and George Tan's original partner hadn't been sawed in half by the Triads yet.

Martial arts is still light years ahead with companies like Warner and Paramount jumping in for whole collections, and there's a reason that Dragon Dynasty can still have RZA's and others on speed dial, and their name is Weinstein... nothing wrong with that really when you think about it, but it's a different level of business.