A UK anime market that can no longer support physical releases of ‘average’ shows?

This past week I saw an interesting statement from Manga UK’s Jerome Mazandarani where he pondered the ‘worth’ of a UK anime disc sales market where a ‘big’ top tier show like My Hero Academia only sells 200 copies in its first week on sale. To give a little more context to this statement, I’d preface this with a couple of further notes:

The UK anime market is small to begin with – most shows struggle to sell over 1000 copies these days.

Said market (and physical disc sales as a whole) have been falling for a while now, and this is only accelerating – with the last couple of years seeing a major hit as more and more people shift to streaming services (either pay/rent-on-demand or subscription)

This particular release of My Hero Academia was potentially hampered by the fact it was only available as an incredibly expensive £54.99 Blu-Ray / DVD collectors combo pack – well over the price most would be willing to pay for a one-season show like this. Particularly one that is geared more toward a populist, casual audience – the kind of people who normally buy cheap installments of Naruto etc.

Warning bells – does this spell the gradual end of physical disc releases of anime in the UK?

In short, no – or at least, that’d be my initial gut feeling. While 200 sales week 1 are terrible for a show of My Hero Academia’s calibre, I’m of no doubt that – like many shows when released in the UK – this will continue to recoup sales for a long time to comb, particularly if the price point is reduced later down the line.

The physical anime market is one defined by a broad, deep catalogue – one in which, five years down the line – unless a show goes out of print – people will probably still be buying it on Amazon and at conventions.

Think of the sheer volume of output released into the UK market – and this is already only a targeted fraction of what gets released in the States. It stands to mind that fans only have x amount to spend on shows each month – and this will inevitably mean that some shows take a hit while others do better.

What is more worrying is the thinking that if even My Hero Academia can only imagine 200 sales, how bad must sales be for ‘average’ or ‘bargain bin’ shows – the kind of stuff with sub-7 out of 10 scores on MAL, the shows that weren’t even overly popular when they first streamed. Sub 100 sales figures? Sub 50? Sales this low would be exceptionally worrying – and almost beg the question whether they’re worth releasing in the first place – in terms of both acquisition costs for the license, and fees to get a BBFC rating (an unfortunate and frustrating legal requirement in the UK, much-touted as prevented long series from being released, as the fees are charged per-minute of content)

Are we ready to let go of physical releases?

Many fans would lament the loss of physical releases in the UK. For starters, I have long complained that the kinds of shows not released in the UK on disc – namely the bulk of Discotek’s excellent US catalogue of ‘retro’ anime (pre 00s/90s material) is exactly the stuff that *needs* releasing for archival purposes because it is not available on streaming services.

But what about ‘normal’ shows – the bread and butter stuff that most people have already watched a year prior to its physical release on services like Crunchyroll? Here, we see a source of notable friction within the anime community. Some are already sliding in line with wider media consumption habits – going ‘all digital’, selling off their discs and watching everything purely via streaming services. A minimalist outlook that prioritises the ‘experience’ of watching over the cautious ‘But what if it disappears’ collector ‘gotta own it all’ mindset of amassing ‘value’ in physical product – packing out shelves with as many volumes of discs as possible.

The utter convenience and cost-effectiveness of services like Crunchyroll and the mainstream gloss of Netflix lifestyles has certainly entailed a wholesale shift in the market – but anime’s inherent nature to tend toward ‘hardcore’ fans for who collecting will always be a priority sees this inherent friction continuing, at least for the foreseeable future.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t see the UK physical market shutting up shop overnight. Companies like Anime Ltd have made a name for themselves with attractive, ‘limited’ editions in chipboard cases, packaged up with glossy booklets. With relatively high price markups, even if sales numbers are low – the overall monetary return is equal or higher than a ‘regular’ edition.

But what about ‘basic’ editions released by companies like MVM or Manga UK? Can we envision a situation where these B-tier shows disappear from the market altogether because they would attract sub-100 sales figures? Will licensing costs for the shows come down because licensors start becoming more hesitant to pick them up – ie. ‘take it off our hands for any price!’ mindsets where shows are flogged off to the lowest bidder because literally no-one else wants it. Then shoved onto a disc because any sales are better than no sales? This would be a sad outlook, but one it’s hard to avoid imagining in a world where even big shows like My Hero Academia sell poorly week 1.

Missing the boat – the role of UK licensors? Toward a digital/cinema future…

I’ve long pondered the question of whether UK licensors missed the boat to some respect. Just as many often site the case of UK music labels not developing a service like Spotify or iTunes in-house, and now having to rely on these third part services because they are so overwhelmingly popular – we are now left with a situation where anime licensors are now arguably ‘at the mercy’ of the consensus viewing habit of subscription streaming services like Crunchyroll – hence the frustration amongst fans if licensors are perceived to be ‘blocking’ a show from appearing on these services if it is not in their financial interest to do so. Did companies like Manga UK ‘miss the boat’ by not setting up digital infrastructure earlier for their catalogues?

The matter of fact now is that we’re presented with a situation where UK licensors are having to adapt to the times, and fast. We’re already seeing this with interesting new strategies like A Silent Voice being made available via iTunes VOD (a major plus in my eyes, as the anime movie market is arguably underserved by Crunchyroll), while Manga UK is heavily promoting In This Corner of the World as a far more comprehensive viewing experience and proposition than say, a TV show might get. In a way, this harks back to the early days of licensors becoming ‘defined’ by the cinema circuit and arthouse scene, with titles like Akira and Ghost In The Shell become ‘name’ products aligned to certain distributors.

I one wondered whether we’d actually see a complete loss of one or more licensors from the UK market – a grim reminder of the days when ADV UK and Beez shut up shop in the days after the anime bubble burst – leaving an immense vacuum of out of print back-catalogue. Thankfully though, we haven’t – and the main UK licensors are all still ‘in the game’ so to speak. But one thing is certain – change is the flavour of the moment, and it remains to be seen at what ‘stage’ of transferal from primarily physical to primarily digital models of release and consumption we are at right now. As distributor and viewer desires align amidst frictions of what disparate parties want and prioritise, it’s certainly not all plain sailing, but I remain optimistic for what the future might offer…




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