Exclusive interview with Someanithing.com: Anime DVD/BD Sales in Japan

Far  First of all, tell us a little about yourself and your hobby!

Someani My main interests are anime (of course) and Vocaloid. As far as anime goes my favorite show is Flip Flappers, but in general my preference leans very heavily toward slice of life shows. Think of Manga Time Kirara adaptations and similar series, like Sakura Trick, Hidamari Sketch, Urara Meirochou, or Flying Witch. I’ll try other types of shows if I hear good things from people I trust, but slice of life is what keeps me going as an anime fan.

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Far  How did you start someanithing?

Someani Some time in mid-2009, a friend started a thread on a now long-dead anime forum with a link to the weekly Oricon sales data. After a few weeks I took over the thread and started compiling the data. It became a habit, so I’ve kept at it. As the amount of data grew, the inconvenience of trying to display it all within the limitations of forum posts convinced me to set up my own website. Initially, I was interested in DVD/BD sales data because I liked having a concrete number to contextualize the success of a show. You’d see arguments all the time on anime forums about whether one show was more popular than another, but rarely did anyone try to back their claims up. “Popular” often means “I/my friends like it” and “unpopular” means “I/my friends don’t like it”. Data helps provides a reality check. But it became clear over time that video disc sales, as important as they may be, are still only part of the story. Success and failure are complex to measure, and this led me to get interested in the business of anime more broadly. In that, I’ve learned the most from @Ultimatemegax and @Yuyucow. These days I probably spend as much time on Someanithing (and moreso on Q&A sites like Curiouscat) talking about production committees and media-mix strategies as I do talking about DVD/BD sales.

Far What are, in your opinion, the most common misconceptions about anime sales data?

Someani The biggest misconception is that DVD/BD sales can, by themselves, tell you everything you need to know about a show. That is not and never has been true. The misconception probably stems from two sources:

1) Outside of Japan, or at least in North America, video discs were historically the only exposure most fans had to most shows. We didn’t (and largely still don’t) get the mobage, the live event discs, the themed cafes, the figures, and all that other stuff. So when ADV or Pioneer would go license a show back in the day, its success in the English-language market was very closely tied to its DVD sales. A lot of fans thus equate success and failure directly with DVD/BD sales and in doing so downplay the importance of other major factors.

2) DVD/BD sales are tracked more widely, because the data is easier to get a hold of. Oricon’s manga and novel reporting is awful, and the competitiveness of that market means the majority of series never rank. Finding data on revenue from sources like mobage or international licensing is nearly impossible. CD charts are handicapped by not tracking digital sales. Box office data is decent (and increasingly important), but only represents a small percentage of the anime industry’s output. So in large part, the focus on video discs is so strong simply because we have the data.

So no, DVD/BDs are not the be-all end-all! There’s so much more to consider. In theory, a show that sells 4,000 discs per volume can be more successful on the whole than a show that sells 8,000 discs per volume. It’d be usual, yes. But if that 4,000-seller also boosts manga sales a ton, promotes a profitable game, sells a lot of OP/ED singles, commands a strong viewership on streaming services and so on, it can be quite profitable. At the same time, as people have come to realize that video discs are not the only revenue source for most series, I’ve sometimes seen people over-correct in the other direction and imply disc sales don’t matter at all. That’s equally untrue, as every tweet/interview with show producers begging fans to buy the BDs implies. Video publishers are also still the biggest funding source for late night anime, often leading the production committee (i.e. investing the most money). The industry is doing its best to diversify, but discs still matter. A few other random things:

– The “Manabi Line” is obsolete (and was never particularly useful), and absolutely shouldn’t be interpreted as a universal “break-even” line. There is no single break-even point.

– In the vast majority of cases, animation studios don’t call the shots. Most get at best a small cut (or none at all) of BD sales, and if they’re not on the committee, they tend to get paid a flat fee for their production work and that’s it. So don’t yell at animation studios when you don’t get a sequel to your favorite show! They’re the most over-worked and under-compensated link in the whole production chain. Be gentle with them.

– I don’t see this come up as much anymore, but in the past I’ve often had to remind people that Oricon reports are really only intended for retailers and interested members of the general public. Publishers like Pony Canyon or Bandai Visual know exactly how many discs they’ve shipped, and they don’t need Oricon to tell them how they did. So you shouldn’t expect them to care all that much about what Oricon’s numbers show.

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Far What kind of problems does the Oricon sales chart have?

Someani The most important caveat to keep in mind is that Oricon’s number is always less than the true sales. While it doesn’t happen often, publishers sometimes announce the actual number of units they shipped, and in those cases the differences from the Oricon reports can be stark! While not every shipped copy will sell, publishers are paid on shipment, not on the eventual sale to the customer. So the shipped number is the most important number. I’ve compiled examples of the announced discrepancies that I’m aware of. It’s heavy on major hits, but that’s understandable since poor-selling series won’t be boasting about their sales in marketing PR. But when you see figures like only 49% of Aria The Animation/Aria the Natural’s shipment being accounted for in Oricon’s reports, or 46% of Shingeki no Kyojin’s, it’s a strong reminder that Oricon should be treated as helpful guide, not a perfectly accurate record of every disc sold. For a recent high-profile example, Touhou announced even before release date that they would be shipping 1.2 million copies of Kimi no Na wa. The first week sales reported by Oricon were 638,394. Part of the gap will be overseas sales, part will be discs that sell after the first week, part may be rental copies. But clearly, Touhou’s internal numbers are going to stay well ahead of whatever Oricon reports. And it’s their internal numbers that truly matter. Oricon is essentially the only company covering video disc sales in Japan, and I’m happy the data is being reported at all. But it has to be treated with care. You can be reasonably certain that a show reported as averaging 500/vol truly is selling much less than a show reported at 5,000, which truly is selling much less than a show reported at 15,000. But you cannot be certain that a show reported at 5,000 is selling less than one reported at 6,000. That difference is just too small to be meaningful, when you account for Oricon’s large margin of error. It’s also worth noting that Oricon does not report any sales made to non-Japanese addresses in their totals. It’s unlikely this has much effect on the reports we see, but it’s still good to keep in mind. Titles that sell a small number of discs per week over a long period of time can also be under-represented in Oricon’s reports, although this is not nearly as much of a problem with DVD/BD as it is with manga or novels.

Far  What’s the origin behind the high prices of anime BD and DVD?

Someani  I’m not an expert on this, but from what I understand media prices in Japan are simply high in general. That said, even by Japanese standards anime is pretty costly, particularly the niche late night series that make up the overwhelming number of shows. I think they’ve just chosen to pursue “less people paying more” over “more people paying less”. And as much as some foreign fans (American fans in particular) object to that idea, it honestly makes a lot of sense. Most late night shows appeal to very small audiences to begin with, so it’s smarter to get everything you can from a couple thousand devoted fans than to slash prices and hope, likely in vain, that a wider audience buys your show. People often forget that cutting prices in half requires more than doubling your units sold to be worth it, and there is no guarantee that there are even that many people out there willing to buy your show at any price. The rise of streaming as a revenue source more or less ends the debate over pricing, in my opinion. Hardcore fans can still buy the BDs (which are only becoming more of a collector’s item as physical media declines in popularity), while everyone else will hopefully watch the show on a service that sends a little money back to the show’s committee, either in ad revenue or paid subscriptions. The argument in favor of cutting prices on physical media just doesn’t work when the people you’d be targeting are the very people who probably prefer to watch to watch a cheap stream.

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Far  When you learned about the anime sales world, what was the most surprising thing?

Someani  The degree to which event tickets (lottery applications that give you priority for buying tickets to a live event) have become so ubiquitous. While they usually have a limited impact for shows with majority-male audiences, they can make a huge difference for shows with female-heavy audiences. It’s a sign of the ways productions have tried to diversify their revenue sources. Live events may be a fairly small source of revenue in the industry overall right now, but they’re one of the fastest growing.

Far Did you have some kind of message to send to anime fans?

Someani  Learn about production committees! They are vital to understanding why the anime industry works the way it does. I recommend Ultimatemegax’s primer on Sakuga Blog if you have no idea what they are. Understanding production committees can help you make sense of questions like “Why was this show made?” or “How did it get a sequel with such low disc sales?”. Our available data may be heavily tilted towards video disc sales, but understanding who is funding anime, and why, provides extremely useful context for understanding both the benefits and drawbacks of our video disc sales data. I’m glad so many people have come to enjoy discussing disc sales, but I’m even happier when they use disc sales as a starting point for learning about how the anime industry works more broadly. And if part of that transition means I spend a lot of time explaining the *limitations* of what disc sales can tell us, I think that’s at least as important as reporting the disc sales themselves.

Far You can also follow Someanithing on Twitter.

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