Gather round, dear reader, for tonight we begin with Story Time! Before we delve into tonight’s discussion, we’re going to watch a short conversation from Anime Expo 2001, when an attendee asked Central Park Media Lead Editor Christopher Couch what type of animated title he would produce, given the proper financial resources. Couch quickly defers to CPM president John O’Donnell on the matter. O’Donnell, rather than give an answer that dances around the issue, cuts straight to the nuts and bolts, as he discusses the business side of anime in the west.

Now, before we begin, I’d like to established the following facts:

  1. This discussion was held at the height of the Anime Bubble, so the market as a whole was steadily growing.
  2. Economic conditions were vastly different from today
  3. Central Park Media was still a moderate competitor in the industry, with a large “adult” line and numerous “must-haves” of the time that included Utena and Slayers.

Basically we were on the cusp of the era of irrational exuberance. This was before licensing costs imploded, before Musicland filed bankruptcy, and before players began folding left and right. Nobody had the faintest inkling that we would see such changes come to the industry in just a few short years. Still, the core concepts that O’Donnell speaks of are relevant even in today’s market.

It may seem like O’Donnell’s stating the obvious when he states that a company should strive to sell products that:

  • contain content that people want to see, and
  • cost less than they can earn at market

After all, these are comments we hear from representatives at conventions and in interviews! They’re what gets parroted every time a niche wish-list title gets shot down! Still, as we’ve seen in the period leading up to the bursting of the anime bubble, these are easy concepts to forget. While we’ve seen visible efforts for the players in today’s market to maintain financial stability, the boom era saw a general loosening of the purse-strings. We saw storied establishments in the industry step into vicious cycles of bidding wars, which led to deficits that would eventually be the undoing of these very institutions. We saw titles that would sell no more than 200 copies being licensed for top dollar, and huge performers barely squeaking by in the margins.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is O’Donnell’s assessment of the three tiers of the greater industry. His comments are certainly a period of the time in which they were made – we no longer have the same broad interest from Hollywood in anime outside of the occasional live-action adaptation. At the time, though, they were indeed the ones with the potential to move mountains and reshape the industry. They were seen as the ones with the money and the means to bring about real, lasting change within the industry.

But that didn’t happen.

Ironically, it was the smaller players that brought real change. Crunchyroll disrupted digital distribution with their low-cost streaming model, and FUNimation that would change the way physical media was presented with lower-priced sets and combo packs. These products, which many perceived as “crappy” at their release, would change how many would consume and purchase anime in today’s market. The companies that brought them about would become establishments in today’s industry.

The larger companies would be restrained by a general conservatism that stifles entrepreneurial investment. While they did bring films like Cowboy Bebop and Millennium Actress to western shores, the general enthusiasm began to die with the downturn of the greater market.