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The Case for Individual Disks
By Steve Brandon
Now that the DVD format has essentially buried the endless subtitle vs. dub flame-war among die-hard Internet anime fans, I predict that the next great Otaku debate will be about the pros-and-cons of big box sets. (My own threshold for "big box sets" is anything over thirteen episodes and/or $120 (U.S.) suggested retail price, but your opinions of what constitutes a "big box set" will no doubt vary.) Personally, I prefer individual disks and I will explain my reasons in this article. For those of you who prefer to buy box sets over individual disks, please keep in mind that this article is "The Case FOR Individual Disks" and not "The Case AGAINST Box Sets". I have nothing against box sets; I just would like to have a choice between whether I can buy a particular series as a box set or as individual disks. Just in case you were wondering, yes, the instigator for this article was Pioneer's decision to release Fushigi Yuugi on DVD only as 2 26-episode boxes, but I want this article to apply equally to any other large companies who are considering releasing long running TV series only in similar formats of 26 episodes or more.
(Please note that by "large companies", I am referring especially to those companies that are North American subsidiaries of major Japanese corporations: Pioneer, Viz (Shogakukan) and Anime Village (Bandai). I'm exempting small companies, like AnimEigo and Media Blasters, whom may not have the financial resources to distribute TV series on DVD in multiple release formats, from criticism. While I wish that AnimEigo would just sell individual disks retail, the truth is that the ONLY way that AnimEigo can bring tough-sell series' like Kimagure Orange Road (hint hint Robert) out domestically is by having the fans paying directly for the rights through sign-ups. (Though I'd think that Macross would sell well, even subtitled only, through the traditional retail route.) I applaud Mr. Woodhead for keeping the price of the first Urusei Yatsura box below $125 (U.S.), which is a pretty sweet deal compared to their old $300 plus monster LD box sets, and I would hope that ALL of AnimEigo's future DVD boxes would be in a similar 5 or 6 disk format with a ceiling of $150 (U.S.) per chunk. As for Media Blasters, I'd just like to see them get off their a**es and put Magic Knight Rayearth on DVD, period. (Personally, I don't care about Kite either way so I would definitely NOT support a Media Blasters boycott.) The first season is only 20 episodes, so as long as they keep the price down to about $100 (U.S.) SRP. I'm sold.)
The argument that I hear most often about the benefits of box sets over individual disks is that "if you can afford the individual volumes, you can afford the box set." Yes and no. For the price of what I've spent on the first seven volumes of Tenchi in Tokyo I could have easily bought a hypothetical Tenchi in Tokyo box set. The problem is for a box set you have pay for it all up front (or put it on credit and pay interest). Sometimes ya just don't have the money for a complete box set! And some people are not willing, or even able, to put a $120+ charge on their credit card. With individual volumes, your payments are spread out over a period of time. The difference is also psychological. Do you ever drink too much Tornade (lemon beer from Quebec) taken with Benadryl and wake up in front of the television in the wee hours of the morning? Frequently, there are infomercials for CD box sets that offer hundreds of songs. You'll notice that they'll never advertise the sets as 1 payment of $300; it's always something like 10 easy payments of $30. The advertisers know that if they advertise the actual price of the set, there will be very few takers. Even if you end up paying the same (or more), when it's spread out over time, it seems like you're paying less. The same thing goes for anime box sets; you'll get a number of anime fans who would buy a box set, but, at $200 SRP., I'm afraid that Pioneer has pretty much froze out the mainstream market. If Pioneer had gone the box set route with Tenchi in Tokyo, while I'm sure that I would have bought it eventually, it might have been quite a while after it was initially released (and I HATE waiting for Tenchi!).
Which leads me to the next point cited almost as much by box set fans: "the advantage of box sets is that you pay less per episode." Generally speaking, that is usually the case. For example Pioneer sold Tenchi in Tokyo as 8 volumes at $30 (U.S.) SRP. If you bought all eight disks at a retail location at the suggested retail price, you would have paid $240. (I'll ignore sales tax for the time being since, in the United States and Canada, it varies from 0% in some states to 15.56% right here in Quebec.) Divided by 26 episodes, it comes out to about $9.23 per episode. Pioneer's 26-episode box set of Fushigi Yuugi costs $200 SRP. or $7.69 per episode, a savings of $1.54 per episode. But who here pays the suggested retail price for anything anymore? If you're like me, you often buy anime DVDs heavily discounted off the Internet. One on-line store where many Anime on DVD fans buy their disks offers a 40% discount on all new anime disks. You have to pay postage, but it doesn't come close to what you save per disk. Now, since postage varies depending on where you are in North America, for simplicity's sake, I'll use $2 as the postage per shipment for this example. All eight Tenchi in Tokyo DVDs, at $18 each, come to $144 together, for an average of $5.54 per episode. Add to this the postage at my hypothetical rate of $2 per shipment, or $16 altogether, and you pay about $6.15. Fushigi Yuugi is $120 discounted, or about $4.61 per episode. Since you'd only pay the shipping once, in my hypothetical scenario you'd pay about $4.69 per episode, $1.49 less than each Tenchi in Tokyo episode. This is all fine and dandy, but for some of us, while we don't want to pay too much per episode, we are perfectly willing to pay the extra buck or so per episode as a premium. We'd rather pay less per installment than less per episode. As I said before, sometimes ya just don't have all of the money at once! (Of course, I would point out that Software Sculptors' release of the first 13 episodes of Utena on 2 disks at $40 SRP. per disk ($6.15 per episode) or $24 post-discount (an even $4 per episode if you assume $2 postage per volume) blows away the theory that box sets always have the lowest price per episode, but I've been told on several occasions that you can't compare Software Sculptors' prices to those of other companies. We all know that the Japanese license holders gave away the rights to Utena and Slayers for free, that the production costs of the disks are negligible because Software Sculptors' disks grow on trees, and that Software Sculptors' distributes the disks to retail locations through a system of unpaid magical fairy interns, so I guess that it really isn't fair to make the comparison!*)
If you're the type of fan who cares only about one particular series (or who cares about one series very strongly above all others), than I can appreciate the appeal of box sets. You'd get the entire series at once. However, if you're the same type of anime fan that I am who has a long list of "favorite" series', finding out that several of your favorites are coming out ONLY as box sets can result in some pretty agonizing choices. With single disks, I can afford to collect several series' simultaneously as they come out.
Now the obvious counterpoint would be "Steve, I agree with you that anime companies should offer consumers a choice in how many episodes they want to buy at one given time, but turning your argument back on itself, why didn't Pioneer give me the choice to buy Tenchi in Tokyo as one big box last year?" I agree with that point in theory, and I think that a box set of Tenchi in Tokyo released now would be a fine idea. Unfortunately, when a company imports any given anime series from Japan, there's one big hurdle that would keep a series from becoming popular with a mainstream audience: it's in Japanese! It takes time for an anime company to "make it English"; as I don't work for Pioneer, I couldn't tell you how long it took to dub the first four episodes of Tenchi in Tokyo. I can say one thing with some degree of certainty: it took about 4/26 of the amount of time that it would have taken to translate and dub the entire series. When an anime company starts to dub a series, would you rather have them release the individual volumes as they're completed, or wait for them to do the whole thing before putting it on the market as one big box? I'm impatient! I'll take the former, not the latter. That's another reason that I can't understand why Pioneer waited until now to release Fushigi Yuugi on DVD; the first volume was released dubbed on VHS over a year ago, so why are they only now bringing it out on DVD? If it was a series that they weren't originally planning to put on DVD but then changed their minds when they saw how well it sold on VHS, I could see the logic, but we've known since before they released volume one on VHS that they were intending to release it on DVD. Another problem with the way that they are releasing Fushigi Yuugi on DVD is that, should you watch the first 26 episodes and get really pumped for more, you'll have to wait who knows how long for them to release the other 26 TV episodes. In short, I'd rather have a few episodes many times a year than a huge number of episodes once a year.
For back catalogue TV series where the dub is already available, I would agree: I'd love to see companies release the box set at the same time as the first individual volume, just so long as the time that it would take to press all the disks wouldn't significantly affect the release date of volume one. There's even a (non-DVD) anime precedent for this type of release: the complete VHS box set of the 2nd Patlabor OVA series (a.k.a. Patlabor: The New Files) went on sale at the same time as volume one, and that wasn't even "back catalogue"! (I think that this was easy for U.S. Manga Corps to do as, for some mysterious reason, they've never dubbed Patlabor. It's much quicker for an anime company to subtitle something than dub it. The only reason that you generally see more dubs than subs on stores shelves is that dubs sell better. I think that Patlabor would be a mainstream series if they'd only dub it and market it properly.) So now you'll say to me: "Steve, if there's one anime series that I've been waiting for in the two or so years since Chris Beveridge registered the domain name www.animeondvd.com, it's Neon Genesis Evangelion. While I'm glad that ADV. won't make the DVD volumes two episodes per disk as they did with the VHS volumes, I can't help but feel that ADV. dropped the ball by not offering it as a 26-episode box set." I agree; I think the potential market for a Evangelion box would be larger than most other anime series of a similar length (even though I wouldn't personally buy Evangelion on DVD unless they offered it as separate volumes, which is precisely how they're releasing it, as I prefer Nadia). The thing is, while the English dub was completed a long time ago, ADV., in a move that I wish other companies would emulate, has decided to include French and Spanish dialogue tracks as well. While they may (and I haven't spoken to anyone at ADV. about this; I'm just guessing) just use the same French dub that is already available in France, I'm guessing that they'll have to do the Spanish dub from scratch. So, even though they finished dubbing it a few years back, you'll have to wait for them to dub it again before they put it on the market!
One of the more odious arguments I've seen from people on anime message boards is that "true fans prefer box sets". Excuse me? I'm not a "true fan" if I prefer buying my favorite series one volume at a time? This is just the same old "true fans prefer subtitles" argument with the word "subtitles" crossed out and "box sets" written above in crayon. (I'll admit that I was guilty of that sort of thinking in the bad old days of "sub vs. dub".) What is a "true fan"? A "true fan" is anyone who likes a particular series, and nothing more. What if I were to say that "a true fan of Urusei Yatsura has to have the ¥100 000+ Japanese box set of all 49 volumes of the TV series"? This would be ridiculous. I'm not so arrogant as to determine who is and isn't a "true fan" by the amount of money that they're willing to spend on a series. I suspect that some anime companies also have a distorted view of how much fans are willing to spend as, when they send their representatives to anime conventions, they see the few big, big, big money fans (in their custom-made Anavel Gato uniforms; funny, I don't recall Anavel Gato being so chubby) going around the convention floor with shopping carts full of anime and anime related accessories. I'll admit that I'm better off than many of you, but there is still a limit on how much I would like to spend at once. It has absolutely nothing to do with my devotion towards a particular series.
I also would dispute the notion that anime on DVD fans are necessarily bigger spenders than those who still buy anime on VHS. Just because we've upgraded to a new format doesn't mean that we want to spend hundreds of dollars each time we buy anime. I thought that DVD was supposed to be (and in fact is fast becoming) the new VHS, the video format for the mass audience, as opposed to the new LD, the video format only for the elite videophile. I'm a great believer in the economics of scale, that is to say the larger the market, the cheaper the price (for an easily manufactured item like a DVD). Should a series only be offered as a box set, a certain number of fans (especially those who have already seen the series) would indeed buy it, but, for the most part, many other fans, and the larger general public would not. It's basic common sense: someone unfamiliar with a series would be more likely to take a chance on a $30 SRP. disk than a $200 SRP. box. Individual disks appeal to a wider audience outside of the anime "ghetto", increasing the market for anime on DVD, and, ultimately, bringing down the price.
Now I'd like to think that AnimeOnDVD.com attracts an audience of billions (if just to read my alternate angle reviews). But, let's face it, only a fraction of people who buy anime on DVD visit AnimeOnDVD.com. And there are some people who don't frequent anime-related Websites, don't belong to a university anime club, don't read Animerica, yet still buy the occasional DVD of that "Japanimation" stuff. Pretty much every purchase to them is "buying blind" as they haven't read any reviews of anime. Even someone like me buys titles like Lain "blind" on occasion. If the choice is between a $30 disk and a $200 box, which title is the novice anime fan likely to choose? I can guarantee that the vast majority of people who will buy (or have already bought) the Fushigi Yuugi DVD box would already have seen it in one form or another. I just don't see someone who has never heard of Fushigi Yuugi buying a $200 box set on impulse, while they might just take a chance with a $30-$40 disk such as Utena.
Individual disks are also advantageous if you're the type of fan that I like to call a "dipper". What's a "dipper"? For episodic series, like Ranma 1/2, some people like to pick and choose which episodes they want to buy. For example, perhaps these people really like Ryoga (the ONLY sympathetic (major) male Ranma 1/2 character if you ask me) and only care about episodes featuring Ryoga. I think that the Ryoga "dippers" would be a lot more likely to buy a 4-episode disk than a season-length box of the Ranma 1/2 TV series (whenever Viz gets around to putting it on DVD, that is). (Personally, I doubt that I'd buy a box set of any season but the first of Ranma 1/2.)
I'm aware that some of you Americans don't care much to hear Canadians complain about sales tax related issues, so you might want to skip the next paragraph.
A Canadian box set fan might say to me: "Steve, as a Canadian shouldn't you prefer box sets as, in addition to shipping charges, G.S.T. and P.S.T., you have to pay Canada Post's $5 handling surcharge for each volume? At least with box sets you only pay for the handling once." In theory, yes. In practice however, depending on how well the package is labeled by the shipper, single disks frequently slip in under the radar of Canada Customs while large box sets do not. Out of the first seven volumes of Tenchi in Tokyo, I've only paid sales tax and handling twice. Another problem with box sets in Canada is that our low dollar makes an expensive box set seem even more expensive. Metro Video (Centre Eaton; Tunnel level), the only store in Montreal with a halfway decent selection of anime on DVD, finally has the Tenchi Muyo Ultimate Edition DVD box set for only $160 Canadian. Okay, that's actually less in Canadian dollars (before taxes) than the $120 U.S. suggested retail price, but it seems like more. At the same rate, the Fushigi Yuugi box set would cost $250 Canadian! Ouch!
AMERICANS PLEASE COME BACK TO THIS ARTICLE! I LOVE YOUR APPLE PIES, YOUR AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL, YOUR BIG GUNS AND YOUR CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERTARIAN RADIO TALK-SHOW HOSTS (EXCEPT WHEN MR. LIBERTARIAN HAS ENDLESS INTERN BEAUTY PAGEANTS)!
On a more personal note, another problem with big box sets is that they're a pain in the butt to review. The Tenchi Muyo box was only 13 episodes, and I made several errors in my initial review (seeing as how I didn't watch every minute of it before writing the review). I'll try and watch a little bit more of Fushigi Yuugi before submitting my review (no, I haven't thought of a cutesy title yet), but I doubt that I'll get through all 26 episodes in the two or three sittings that I usually take before writing (especially since I've seen it all before, fan-subbed, at our anime club, Montreal's Anime Central). Even I wasn't planning to write a review, 26 episodes is much too much for ONE installment of ANY series in my honest opinion. Hell, seven episodes of Utena was a little more than I am used to watching at one time!
In conclusion, I am not against companies selling anime TV series on DVD as huge expensive box sets; in fact, I encourage it whenever feasible. I am just against companies selling anime TV series on DVD ONLY as huge expensive box sets. Chris has a saying which goes something like "Anime isn't a right, it's a hobby. Hobbies are expensive." I have my own saying: "Talent on loan from Belldandy!" Unfortunately, this doesn't really have much relevance to my point. Fortunately, I have another saying (with which I fear that I berated poor Mr. Woodhead a few times too often on the AnimEigo mailing list last summer when I feared that he'd make his DVD box sets $300 monsters without giving us the option to pay it off in installments): "If the choice is only between all or nothing, some people will choose nothing." Obviously, some people will buy $200 box sets from Pioneer, but I fear that many other people, especially outside of the anime fandom community, who would otherwise love to buy the anime, for the various reasons that I've outlined above would not bother because $200 is an awful lot to ask for one installment of one series. Hopefully in the future (coughcoughmagicalprojectspioneer), should Pioneer, or any other company, make another 26 (or more) episode box set available, they would also see fit to release the series as individual disks (perhaps following Software Sculptors' lead with 6-8 episode disks) as well. I think that such a solution would please every fan. Single disks are the best way to promote anime on DVD to the non-anime fan.
*For those of you in Rio Linda, I was being sarcastic. Don't go to your local Rio Linda retail locations expecting to see magical fairy interns show up with crates full of the second DVD volume of Utena. They don't exist, and even if they did they wouldn't date you so don't bother asking. Come to think of it, wouldn't Magical Fairy Interns be a good idea for an anime?