Founded in 1994 by Gen Fukunaga, Funimation blazed an early trail in the U.S. anime industry alongside ADV Films; at a time when anime was still referred to “Japanimation” in hobby shops and comic stores. Their efforts brought some of the pillars of modern anime to the states: Dragonball Z, Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, Yu-Yu Hakusho and other top-shelf titles slowly brought anime into the mainstream, and the industry has seen some tremendous evolution since. While staying current with the latest series would have seemed an impossible task even 15 years ago, simulcast streaming and rapid licensing has created an environment where a curious fan can (legally) access a stunningly large library of anime with just a few clicks.
As the industry has evolved over the last 20+ years, Funimation has done its best to roll with the punches. As the video medium evolved from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray, Funimation has worked hard to be pro-active in releasing remastered works when necessary, and began seeing the profit and demand for complete series in the form of DVD and Blu-ray box-sets. The prices have certainly come down since the early days of the fandom, as many quality series can now be found in a complete set for less than $50 (case in point), a feat that would be considered nigh-impossible barely a decade ago.
The most recent evolution, however, was not to another physical medium. There were no new disks or cassettes to buy, but instead anime found itself transitioning to online streaming. With the normalization of faster internet speeds and more accessible internet in general, streaming high-definition video has become the new normal for a vast majority of Americans. Depending on the report you read, anywhere from 33-40% of American homes utilize a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu daily. Therefore, it seemed like a logical step for anime distributors to take their content online, but it was not without some level of discomfort.
Before streaming services were so popular, you might recall the days of Napster, Kazaa, and other peer to peer file sharing programs that proliferated like wildfire. Anime was still hard to find, but on these programs you could locate series that had been subtitled by a group of fans and then released to the general public for consumption, aptly titled a “fansub”. As the anime industry was still struggling to gain traction in the late 90s and early 2000s, losing profits to file sharing and piracy made it a particularly sore point for many of the major distributors, Funimation included. When these fansubs made the transition to the online streaming market, things began looking even more bleak. Large distributors that had helped prop up the emerging anime market in the U.S. dissolved, including ADV films and Geneon, and there was some real concern that American distributors would pull out of the business completely. Crunchyroll, currently boasting over 700,000 paid subscribers for anime and asian drama titles, controversially got its start by hosting some of these fansubbed titles. While they ultimately dropped the illegal content, it gives you an idea of the complicated history that anime has with streaming services and the internet in general.
However, despite the growing pains, anime streaming now has a healthy presence on the internet. With services like Crunchyroll, Daisuki and AnimeLab, fans have access to more anime than ever before, and for those who don’t mind waiting, a vast majority of the series are free.
This brings us back to Funimation. While they previous hosted content on their site and offered a streaming service of their own, Funimation recently announced a new service that would be launching in May titled “Funimation Now”. I was curious what would distinguish Funimation’s new streaming service, not only from its current offerings, but from the other major players in the streaming market. Funimation was kind enough to put me in touch with their Chief Operations Officer, Mike DuBoise, to answer a few of my questions.
Funimation currently offers some great streaming options, what’s going to make FunimationNow so unique?
For us it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about creating a new dynamic link in the chain. Anime fans don’t just watch anime, they live it. So, FunimationNow is an incredible, much needed, link in an entire experience that we are creating for fans.
FunimationNow will give fans a seamless, ad-free, beautiful way to watch their favorite anime titles. It will allow our subscribers to view programming integrated across multiple screens, platforms, and channels. In addition, FunimationNow is the only streaming service that offers broadcast dubs, English-dubbed episodes of select shows that are currently broadcasting in Japan. Funimation uses the broadcast/simulcast materials from Japan and dubs the episodes into English, making them available to fans in just weeks after their original broadcast.
We have an exciting journey ahead and will be transforming our current service with a completely reimagined experience for fans this summer.
The first step of this journey begins in February, when we retire our current mobile apps and replace them with completely redesigned mobile apps, along with brand new Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV apps.
The second step in the journey will be in May when we launch new Xbox360, XboxOne, Ps3, PS4, and Roku apps.
We will then bring an all-new and completely reimagined FunimationNow experience to life later in May With the launch of our completely reimagined and new website,. This will position us to have mobile and console apps in place that can support the all new FunimationNow experience that is being designed to be brought to life in May, with an all new website that will power our entire digital ecosystem.
With a major draw of streaming services being their library of shows, will this drive Funimation to be more aggressive when bidding to acquire new series?
We will remain very aggressive when bidding to acquire new series. It is important to us to provide fans with their favorite shows from Japan, as soon as they are available.
What are some areas you feel are lacking in other streaming services (Crunchyroll, Hulu, etc)?
For us, it’s not about what our competitors and partners are doing. It’s about our mission to serve passionate fans. We want to create seamless and integrated experiences that provide them more ways to discover and experience their favorite anime.
With more simulcast options being offered, is Funimation still seeing a market/interest in dubbed material? Or is it dwindling with more immediate access to subtitled content?
Actually, we’re finding just the contrary. Recent research and feedback from fan panels has shown a strong fan preference for dubs. However, until Funimation introduced “broadcast dubs”, airing just weeks after the simulucast, there was no way to experience new dubbed shows until the Home Entertainment launch months later.
We continue to invest a lot of time and effort into our English dubbed Translations and voice casts for each show. Having said that, we are Just as interested in subbed content, as we want to offer fans the ability to control their viewing experience anytime and anyway they choose.
What would you say is the greatest benefit of this rapidly expanding streaming market? What about its greatest drawback?
We’re committed to meeting the fans where they are and where they want to watch. Streaming allows us to reach and engage with completely new fans as well as to better satisfy existing fans.
Stepping away from streaming service for a minute, with the tremendous success of Funimation’s “Dragonball Z: Resurrection F” late last year, can we expect to see more anime on the big screen this year?
We are pleased to report that we have an ongoing slate of exciting theatrical releases throughout 2016. We are really excited about The Boy and the Beast, releasing in select theaters nationwide starting March 4th. This is a beautifully animated film from internationally acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda, creator of Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Following shortly thereafter is PSYCHO-PASS: The Movie. Fans can go to our new website, FunimationFilms.com, to get info. on new releases, watch trailers, purchase advance movie tickets, and more.
Once FunimationNow is up and running, what’s next?
We will continue to make major updates to the FunimationNow service throughout the year. In addition, we are excited about some great new shows we are already working on for the spring simulcast season starting in April. As noted previously, we have a full slate of theatrical and DVD releases planned for 2016, as well as some huge convention experiences for fans. The all-new Funimation cable channel will be launching later in the year as well. Finally, we are launching in the UK soon, with additional international territories to come. So it is going to be a busy and exciting year!
So, there you have it! Make sure to keep an eye out in the coming months as Funimation revitalizes its streaming platform. With all of the competition out there, there’s one thing for certain – it’s a great time to be an anime fan!