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Anime Suppliers Are Zapping VHS

29 Aug, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

Anime fans most certainly got an eyeful at the Big Apple Anime Fest in New York, but one thing was hardly in view: VHS cassettes and their marketing materials. Anime suppliers are the first to jettison the format in varying degrees.

“Everyone wants DVD, period. VHS is 'almost' over, but not 'quite' dead yet,” said Mike Egan, general manager and marketing director at Manga. “This I've heard from top retailers at this years VSDA. I think this holiday season will bring discounted sellthrough VHS product to retail from all of the movie companies.”

Bandai USA is selling through whatever VHS is on the shelves with no plans to replace it.

“Last year we announced we would go toward exclusively DVD, except for our Gundam titles. That's on Cartoon network so the demographic is skewed a little bit younger,” said Bandai marketing manager Jerry Chu. “As of this week, we announced we would discontinue VHS altogether.”

TokyoPop will discontinue new releases on VHS except by special order from large clients; the supplier may rerun existing VHS titles in the future. Manga will offer only ‘A' titles on VHS starting next year and ADV stopped reordering catalog titles on VHS about a year ago. (Central Park Media did not reply to interview requests by press time and Pioneer declined an interview.)

“Of our new releases, roughly 90 percent are DVD only. Only Kids and Sci-fi titles get VHS releases,” said ADV Director of Marketing Ken Wiatrek. “A while back we consciously decided that since the anime market is a very tech savvy group, that has totally embraced the DVD medium, we would cater to their needs. Instead of spending time working on something they didn't really want, we decided it was a better use of our resources to build better DVDs and focus our efforts on a growing, rather than dying, medium.”

But it's not just the popularity of DVD that's pushing VHS off the shelves -- and now even the production lines. Other demographic factors peculiar to anime are contributing to DVD demand and dispelling a few widespread myths about this genre and perhaps packaged entertainment in general.

The wild card here is DVD-playing video game consoles, which are helping push anime into ever-younger chubby little hands as well as those of more mobile adult consumers. Game consoles are a huge factor in the DVD uptake among military personnel, another key anime audience, said TokyoPop Sales and Marketing VP Steve Kleckner. That helped make the decision to go all DVD for TokyoPop.

“I had made an assumption that military was about half and half” VHS to DVD, he said. “After talking to a [base] buyer I found out that was all wet. They are 95 percent DVD because they are very mobile and they are watching them on their PlayStation 2 games.”

“Game consoles have definitely helped DVD sales by providing an outlet to view a DVD,” Egan said. “I'd guesstimate that at least half of our fans are watching anime DVD on game consoles.”

Content also helps make the match a natural: anime tends to appeal to an early adopter audience, people who are fascinated with technology and its possibilities. They enjoy the themes and gadgetry common to both media and enjoy extending their escape to game playing. That's not lost on the suppliers: The menu on TokyoPop's Real Bout High School was consciously designed to look like a fighting game.

Anime's path into American homes via the game console challenges the assumptions that parents have control of the DVD player and kids inherit the old VHS, or that DVD is too complicated for small children to operate.

“For the kids – 15, 16, 17 and younger – they have their Playstations ad Xboxes and they are watching them on the games,” Chu said.

But defying its reputation as a teen and college student niche, the comic art form also known as Japanimation is creating a long-range marketing bonanza that's barely been tapped in the United States.

Anime takes its fans from the cradle to the grave, in some cases literally. Themes that deal with death and afterlife are common to titles for older audiences. The variety and sophistication of product increases with the maturity of the target audience, to include Ninja sex assassins and other fantasy characters for adults along with the usual assortment of morphing, fighting, magical characters that populate juvenile-appropriate anime landscapes.

Most children start with the teething biscuit franchise of anime, Pokemon. From there kids progress to Digimon, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam and Cowboy Bebop. Many of the children's series are televised on Cartoon Network, a springboard to the broader market.

Once it got on [American] TV, that's where the age range really skewed down,” Chu said. “A lot of the kids watching Pokemon graduated to Dragonball and then to more serious fare like Cowboy Bebop.”

While anime suppliers aren't shy about bailing out on VHS, not all are embracing newer delivery forms. Wiatrek declined comment on his company's efforts. Although Pioneer released Armitage: Dual Matrix on CinemaNow.com day and date with the video release, most suppliers are still cautious.

“We are watching the new distribution technologies develop. We are sticking with traditional retail outlets for now,” said Egan. The entire movie business will be different in five years because of new electronic distribution and delivery systems. Because of these new technologies, everyone is watching the entertainment business change on a 'daily' basis. The digital age is here to stay and every day brings a new story.”

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