Last week, Sony announced its formation of a new joint venture combining several of its anime streaming businesses including Funimation, Wakamin, and Madman Anime Group under the Funimation name. What that means for the moment is that Funimation’s biggest license of the Fall anime season, Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, will stream exclusively on their website for a 30-day period. This marks a change from previous seasons, where Funimation’s titles were also simulcasted on Hulu.
It’s not certain what this will mean for the market in the long run. Anime fans have witnessed a number of upheavals during the streaming era: the dissolution of Funimation and Crunchyroll’s partnership has left Crunchyroll-owned licenses (like the modern masterpiece Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, not that I’m bitter) without recourse for a physical media release; production company Aniplex has been retracting their licenses as existing contracts expired (including the original Fullmetal Alchemist and Baccano!); and Netflix has made a habit of rejecting the simulcast model altogether, opting to purchase titles with their considerable capital and then sit on them until they’ve finished airing rather than compete with the rest of the streaming market.
That last fact is maybe the most salient as Sony enters the game. While platform exclusivity is nothing new, previous attempts by large corporations to enter the anime distribution market have been decidedly not in the interests of most viewers. Most infamous was Amazon’s “Anime Strike,” which required an Amazon Prime account plus an additional five dollar a month subscription and folded after barely a year of operation. Netflix’s exclusive rights purchasing of the Evangelion license has been lambasted for its stiff new translation and includes multiple technical glitches like only selectively showing subtitles for onscreen text. Nor have Netflix’s contributions to the production side of anime done anything to alleviate the industry’s literally fatal working conditions.
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This first announcement hasn’t stepped far outside the bounds of the platform-carving that Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Sentai engage with on a seasonal basis. More concerning is the fact that they now control the majority of physical distribution rights in English-speaking countries. Physical media occupies an unusual space for anime fans: while disc-collecting is on the wane across media, the possibility that a company might lose the right to distribute a title on streaming with little to no forewarning has led to some fans hoarding physical copies of beloved titles that would not otherwise be preserved. It maintains, in other words, a collector’s market.
While studios like Sentai and Discotek specialize in collector’s editions that include physical goods or creator commentary, Funimation is best known for its “Essentials” series, which are second-run releases of titles that lower or even halve the purchasing cost. These no-frills home releases are balanced out by their low prices, but Sony’s pursuit of a cross-nation monopoly might well change that approach. Regardless, this will be a situation to keep an eye on as Funimation enters the acquisition game for feature seasons; if Netflix has taught us anything – if video games have taught us anything – it’s that having more money to throw at the issue does not always result in a better end-user experience.