Researching the Business of Anime – Crunchyroll

In one sense, an academic approach to anime does not require much beyond access to anime – and access to/familiarity with some kind of theoretical framework to base the approach in and validate it. But, this kind of approach is also exactly what Thomas Lamarre has criticized as exemplifying the “the book report or film review model” of writing about anime – useful, but limited and limiting. Anime studies – like film/television studies in general – must be concerned with more than the texts themselves. How are these texts created (in all senses of the term)? By whom? With what money? For whom? How are they distributed? To where? Again, why?

crunchyrollAsking these kinds of questions, in turn, requires a different set of resources and essentially, a different knowledge base. For example, writing about how anime developed in America in the 1980’s and through the 1990’s could require using articles on the work of various “anime entrepreneurs” that appeared in business publications such as Forbes and Fortune, as well as local magazines and newspapers, and interpreting the annual reports that public companies like 4Kids Entertainment and Navarre (for several years, the corporate parent of Funimation) are required to file. And, the recent announcement by anime streaming platform (“the leading global destination and platform for anime and manga”) Crunchyroll, Inc. that it now has over 1,000,000 paying subscribers, and over 20,000,000 total registered users can lead into a great case study on the kinds of materials that are available for research on the “business of anime”. In the decade now that Crunchyroll has existed, how has it been covered in the media – and in scholarly writing?

crunchyroll-oldIn its original form, Crunchyroll was just a central hub for individual users to upload their anime videos – without worrying too much about how legal or illegal this would be – and definitely drew some attention, such as from TechCrunch: Crunchyroll Pushes the Envelope on Video Copyright. So, how did it grow from that to – this?

The first steps of Crunchyroll’s evolution into its present form can be documented in brief notices on specialized websites like PEHub:

CrunchyRoll Inc., a San Francisco-based video sharing site focused on anime, has raised $4.05 million in Series A funding, according to a regulatory filing. Venrock led the round, with partner David Siminoff joining the board of directors.”

This, of course, led to another look at it by TechCrunch: Copyright Infringement Continues To Pay: $4 million For Crunchyroll.

The next stage, in December of 2013, attracted significantly more media attention:

Chernin Buys Anime Site Crunchyroll to Expand Online Video Assets (Reuters)

Chernin Group Buying Majority Stake in Crunchyroll, the Anime Subscription Site (All Things D)

Chernin Group Takes Majority Stake in Anime Website Crunchyroll (Variety)

Chernin Invests in Anime Streaming Company (New York Times)

Peter Chernin Picks Up Controlling Interest in Cruchyroll for $100 Million (Jewish Business News)

Particularly interesting here is an article by Venrock partner David Pakman, summarizing the appeal of Crunchyroll from an investor’s point of view:

An Emerging New Model for TV? Crunchyroll

So here we are, just a bit more than three years later. And Crunchyroll is now in the Wall Street Journal, again in Variety, and in trade publications like Multichannel News.

On the other hand, academic interest in Crunchyroll’s history, business model, and role or place in the anime industry and how anime actually reaches audiences outside Japan has been limited to a couple of mentions in articles like Cultural consumer and copyright: A case study of anime fansubbing and Boys’ Love anime and queer desires in convergence culture: Transnational fandom, censorship, and resistance that certainly acknowledge it as a source of or conduit for anime outside Japan, but do not particularly elaborate on how it operates either as as site/community or a business. Anne Cooper-Chen, in Cartoon Cultures: The Globalization of Japanese Popular Media (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) provides a bit more background – but, at this point, anything she said is long out of date. Jacqueline Ristola did recently author a paper entitled “From piracy to legitimacy: The rise of Crunchyroll and the exploitation of digital labor”, but that is yet to be published, though it is available from the author’s Academia.edu page. Finally, an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Cultural Studies will include a paper by Shujen Wang (Emerson College) entitled The cloud, online piracy, and global copyright governance, with a section on “piracy as business model: Japanese anime, fansubbing, and Crunchyroll”.

So, the knowledge base and the resources to examine the history of a company like Crunchyroll, and the role it has played in how anime is distributed and presented worldwide are certainly there – and the resources that I mentioned above do not include the coverage that Crunchyroll received over the years in the “enthusiast” and trade press, on sites like the Anime News Network and ICv2.com. And, I am really hopeful that as anime studies continues to develop as a field, scholars working it will take advantage of these kinds of resources and methods and approaches and use them in their work!

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3 thoughts on “Researching the Business of Anime – Crunchyroll

  1. It agree that it’s welcome to see scholarship budge slightly from the text-scholar-fan triad that’s been anime studies’ bedrock since the beginning. Apart from publicly-available reports, I would love to see scholars interview industry personnel more often, but understandably they would encounter more resistance since industry networks are more closed than fan networks. But of course it can be done; sociological studies addressing the social dynamics of other industries from a participant-observer perspective are plentiful. Perhaps companies in more mature industries are more open to social researchers hanging out and asking questions because they feel less threatened?

    • Apart from publicly-available reports, I would love to see scholars interview industry personnel more often

      Casey Brienza draws on interviews quite extensively for her Manga in America book – wonder if publishers and others in the manga industry are just more used *to* being asked questions! Plus, of course, hey, both Condry and Steinberg certainly did a lot of hanging out and asking questions on the Japanese side!

  2. Great article, particularly for how it illustrates some of the limitations of anime studies at the moment. Also, thank you for the shoutout! I’m gonna send that article out for potential publishing soon once I finish up some of the my research projects at the moment. Should be exciting!

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