The easy interpretation of the news that Funimation is holding a Kickstarter to partly finance a new English dub track for their HD re-release of the '90s anime The Vision of Escaflowne is that crowdfunding for anime re-releases is becoming the new normal. It's not the future of anime re-releases in the U.S., but it's indisputably part of that future from now on.
Some folks I've spoken to about this state of affairs have wrinkled their noses and pursed their lips, and repeated some variant of the line that a company of Funimation's stature hardly needs to resort to crowdfunding to make something like this happen. I have to wonder how much of that is because established, well-financed companies that launched Kickstarters in this vein have not always done the best job of it. It's not the fact they do it, but that they've handled it badly. The way Funimation has handled this one so far has been an encouraging sign for how Kickstarter and crowdfunding generally are being integrated into the Western experience of licensing, distributing, and maybe even producing anime.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I'm a supporter of this Kickstarter, and that I've previously backed other Kickstarter projects as well: AnimEigo's Bubblegum Crisis and Otaku no Video releases, and the still-in-the-works Under the Dog.)
The biggest bad-Kickstarter culprit that comes to mind — one from a company with a legitimate reputation, that is — is Digital Manga Publishing and their attempts to reissue a number of classic Osamu Tezuka titles never before released in English. It wasn't the choice of titles that was poor, but the pacing and tiering of the project that had many, me included, scratching their heads. Good news: DMP since gave it all another shot with a more realistic set of goals.
Escaflowne, though, had realistic goals from the outset. The minimum amount of money you'd need to kick in to receive a copy of the finished project is no more than you'd expect to spend on it at retail — about $60. All the price tiers above that are gravy, which is as it should be.
The other objection that's been launched in the past over projects like this is one of need. If Funimation can already afford to launch a project like this — and all the signs point to them being handily able to do so — why do it at all? Isn't the Kickstarter approach best saved for folks who have nothing but a dream and a pitch? Again, I think this has more to do with former Kickstarter campaigns being organized badly — incompetently, cynically, what have you — than because Kickstarter is the kind of tool that should only be employed in certain ways by certain people.
The Kickstarter brand is as useful to outfits of all sizes as platforms like Twitter and Facebook are. Through them an individual or company can connect with an audience, gauge the possible size for a given project, and have people put their money very directly where their mouths are. Small companies are not the only ones who benefit from that kind of market research and consumer feedback. Big ones — especially big ones with the impression of being out of touch with consumers — can be aided by this too.
In their FAQ about the Kickstarter, Funimation owned up to using Kickstarter as a way to partly defray the cost of a new dub and operate as a kind of pre-order campaign. That, in turn, indicated an industry-specific reason why the campaign was worth conducting, and one far more important than just bankrolling the new dub. It's a way of serving notice to Funimation's industry partners overseas that this is a viable way to drum up interest in a project. Japanese licensors are not known for their eagerness to embrace new and exotic business models; look how long it took, and how much arm-twisting was required, to have legal streaming portals become a standard-issue thing. (I have to wonder if that's something that can be blamed exclusively on Japan or if that's just a stance common to media companies generally, though.)
Another positive side effect, I think, is that it gives fans some insight into what the costs are like when it comes to projects of this magnitude. Entertainment industries of all sizes don't break down their costs for laymen, in big part because some of those costs amount to trade secrets, and I suspect that contributes to the unrealistic expectations fans sometimes have about what can be picked up, how it can be produced, and on what kind of schedule. Once, some moons ago, I took in a panel chaired by roleplaying game maven Mike Pondsmith (Cyberpunk 2020, the anime-influenced Teenagers from Outer Space) about the costs of producing and releasing your own RPG. Once he started breaking down the costs of production, fulfillment, shipping, and so on, people saw why charging $30 for a hardback game supplement sometimes meant barely breaking even. I lost count of the number of crestfallen faces I saw in that crowd.
What I'm still wrestling with is the question of what this means for the "classic" model of niche entertainment distribution. The entire slice of the anime sales pie in the U.S. has historically been very small — smaller than the entire Spanish-language video market, according to one market breakout I read on the subject. I suspect those numbers are not a good way to determine anime's real popularity, though, now that legitimate streaming (like more robust TV distribution before it) means people aren't obliged to buy something just to be able to watch it. And those that do want to buy are not necessarily interested in having the most absolute high-end deluxe version of something; that in turn is a niche of a niche. But a whole generation of fans are coming into being for whom the ephemeral experience — the stream, the rental, the TV airing — is taking precedence over the artifact, and so it's only going to get tougher to bring back reissues of older titles. Campaigns like this make it easier not only to cover the costs, but justify the effort.
Of the other folks in the anime space who are either executing Kickstarters or considering it, two names stand out. The first is AnimEigo, both because of their willingness to reach deep into the catalog and pull out titles that might otherwise never pass under the noses of current fans (Otaku no Video). The other is Discotek, which mentioned the possibility of doing crowdfunding last year, but hasn't yet followed through on the idea. Both of those outfits have a good nose for what to bring back, and I would dearly love to see what they decide to roll the dice on. I suspect they will try and pick up recent titles that have strong followings but have thus far fallen through the cracks (e.g., Hyouka), but my own preference would be for them to showcase some of the real lost gems out there — e.g., The Sensualist, or Spring and Chaos, or the legendarily unavailable Midori.
As far as Escaflowne goes, so far it's been received with rapturous enthusiam. The base funding goal of $150,000 was met in barely two days, and it looks like the first stretch goal — some behind-the-scenes goodies — will also be met in short order. A top-level $5,000 pledge, which includes a tour of the Funimation studios where the new dub will be performed, is already sold out. (I wonder who grabbed it.) It'll be worth circling back in a month to see how far this particular rocket has climbed — and what others might follow from the same launchpad. I would be curious even if my money wasn't in it.