Recently, or at least as the medium goes, there have been a number of major scale corporate mergers that have sent tremors through the anime industry. As anime and manga become larger brands in the entertainment industry, they are incredibly prone to buyouts and mergers from other big-name producers and distributors.
Let’s start with a really big one: Disney and Ghibli. Disney bought the complete distribution rights to Studio Ghibli, the animation studio that put Japan on the map for films, in 1996. the prominent animation studio was looking to broaden it’s international audience and was glad to accept the offer from Disney for partnership. The quality of voice actors that the American production house pulled for the English dubs gave Ghibli a running in international markets that it did not previously have access to. In 2013 GKIDS Bought the rights to distribute The Wind Rises and Grave of the Fireflies, so Disney no longer has sole distribution rights to Ghibli.
Many anime fans are familiar with the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. A majority of the shares for the online video distributor were bought up by Fullscreen, a subsidiary media outlet of American telecommunications company AT&T, and Ellation, a parent company for Crunchyroll, once it started to build steam. Recently, (2018) news channels have reported that the remaining minority stakeholders in Fullscreen and Ellation were formally bought out by Otter Media, which is an internet video joint-venture between AT&T and media giant The Chernin Group (TCG).
This has effectively transferred complete ownership of the anime distribution company to Otter Media although the joint-venture essentially owned the streaming service for years due to shareholding and stock buy-outs. As confirmed by an official representative of Otter Media: prior to buying out all existing shareholders of both companies, Otter had already owned more than 50% of each business.
Another example of this is Funimation. The production house sold a majority of its shares to Sony, as of October 2017 after relatively brief talks. The distribution of anime, which was once left to small, start-up companies with little gravity is now being taken over by huge, multi-million distributing firms for the profitability of such ventures. And with Aniplex being another subsidiary of Sony’s, that merger extremely focused the distribution of anime to almost one ultimate source, especially now that Disney has its eye on Sony properties.
Even relatively small companies such as Gonzo (Fullmetal Panic, Samurai 7, and Afro Samurai) are being bought up by larger companies in the hopes of being folded into another company, without much thought to the entertainment being distributed, but with only looks towards the future when it can be bought off their hands.
If I am allowed to talk from a subjective perspective for a moment, I am a fan of anime as well as having a bit of knowledge of the industry. More and more, it seems like there is becoming a middle ground for the production of anime. Small companies put out quality material because they are all passion projects, and large companies put out quality material because they can just throw money at weak spots until they are remedied.
Middle sized distribution companies, these days (it seems), are simply intermediary holders for the property rights of holdings they see as potentially profitable in the future. At the rate that mid-level distribution companies are being bought up, it will become soon the paradox of independent productions versus the machine of Hollywood.
Now let me make this clear: this is not an admonition of any of these moves, this is simply a reporter’s take on the quickly changing ground of the foundation of the anime/manga industry. Once again this is only an opinion, but the only solid investments are in the semi-big companies that own a good portfolio of rights, the big companies buying up these rights, or a long-shot indie project that you truly believe in. That last one was a semi-joke.
As demonstrated by the brief graph below the amount of sheer production cost major companies such as Disney or Sony can simply throw at entertainment absolutely dwarfs anything that could be imagined by even the largest of anime distribution companies. Even a major distributor such as Crunchyroll is only barley as visible on the scale of production as Sony.
As the popularity of anime/manga subculture grows, so too does the marketability of these properties. So what some might call “selling out” or “folding” to some larger entity, others can simply call “business.”
This is not really news. Breaking headline: “Big companies buy smaller properties to make profits.” That’s not even remotely new or interesting. What is news is something along the lines of, “Intellectual property trading like stocks.”
But conceptually, the idea is clear: titles and franchise logos are worth more than just about anything. There certainly is a market for fresh stories and ideas from unheard of production houses, but this must contend with the immediate fact that large companies are on the prowl for any up and coming independent properties.
Since this process is just really coming up, it is hard to see how the trend will play out. The two different opinions on the subject that have come about seem to be either this is selling out and all content will be dumbed down and corporatized or that this is an amazing opportunity for unknown titles to get proper recognition through distribution.
This kind of story typically follows the format of an underdog story as it is. Small, independent companies have their metaphorical souls sucked out due to their being bought out by the bigger entity. However, the examples of this listed above and countless other mergers haven’t drastically changed the quality of content.
Every year there are more and more fans of anime/manga franchises, and every year there are more and more anime/manga titles. This rapid growth in both supply and demand would necessitate larger structures of distribution, and why not employ systems already in place?
Looking back on the information presented in this article, this writer notices a trend towards this being a good thing, at least from my bias. Certainly there are many opinion pieces written against this trend for aforementioned reasons.
For instance, the 2016 breakout hit Your Name was aided in its success by the fact that it was distributed by Toho Co., which is a main distributor of Studio Ghibli movies and is such part of the Disney chain. Your Name was able to hit Western box offices before it was released on DVD/Blu-ray almost primarily die to the fact that it was linked to suck an avid an efficient distribution chain.
This is the fine line between these two clashing forces, fresh and new takes on the world versus the experienced entities that can make it all happen. A classic tale of the old guard versus the young guns, playing out in the world of corporate finance!