The golden age of DVDs isn’t over yet for anime fans

Production studios still regularly release their latest, greatest films and series on DVD and Blu-ray. But over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that physical media just isn’t as much of a priority as it used to be for Hollywood’s biggest players. You could see it in the way that Barbarian — one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2022 — came and went without a physical release and in the way Disney only seemed keen on putting projects like WandaVision, Loki, and The Mandalorian on disc years after their streaming debuts. Given the way that the pivot to streaming has decimated most brick-and-mortar retail and rental entertainment businesses, it has often felt like we’re hurtling toward a future where people simply won’t be able to physically own copies of their favorite mainstream hits.

But as dire as the situation seems, there are still a handful of small anime-focused outfits working to give fans the kinds of robustly featured physical home releases they crave. And at a time when it has become clear that viewers should never expect their streaming favorites to always be accessible, the work these smaller companies are doing to preserve beloved pieces of art, and literally get it into people’s hands, feels more important than ever.

Brands like Funimation, Viz Media, and Discotek are typically associated with newly remastered anime classics. And it’s through partnerships with postproduction companies like MediaOCD that they’re able to bring those types of projects to market as physical discs. According to MediaOCD founder and CEO Justin Sevakis, many niche publishers have found success by playing specifically to the small, passionate communities of fans who want to own a piece of the media they love. Though major studios don’t usually consider physical releases for projects that aren’t expected to move at least 50,000 units, according to Sevakis, “a good hit in the niche Blu-ray space will move something like 5,000.”

“We’re not talking huge numbers here,” he said. “But those are 5,000 people that really loved that anime or show or what have you. And because they get excited over the idea of physically owning media like this, I think it’s imperative on us — the people that put these products out — to make something special and definitive.”

Before Sevakis got into remastering anime professionally, he was a high schooler obsessed with Project A-ko and making VHS fan subs of series like Kodocha by hooking up a LaserDisc player to his Amiga in order to twitch-time subtitles in by hand. Producing those early fan subs lit a passion in him — not just for the specific series he loved but also for keeping tabs on all the other anime that was making its way to the market. And after realizing that there weren’t really any websites making it easy for people to follow anime news, Sevakis took it upon himself to get Anime News Network off the ground in 1998.

Sevakis’ time at ANN was brief, but his interest in anime never faded. After a chance encounter on a plane with the president of Central Park Media, Sevakis landed a gig producing subtitles for series like Project A-ko as well as “some of the most flesh-crawlingly awful hentai you’ve ever seen” at one of the biggest anime distributors in America.

“When discs became commoditized, there was a lack of care that became very evident.”

Sevakis remembers the early days of DVD as a time of experimentation for studios that were still figuring out how to get people into the habit of buying media on the new format. “It was good because a lot of cool stuff was made, like a lot of really nifty, innovative bonus features that you just don’t see today that really took advantage of what DVD could do interactivity-wise, like little minigames,” Sevakis described. “But after DVDs became commoditized, the thinking shifted to, ‘Well, people don’t really buy a disc for the bonus features. That doesn’t move the needle sales-wise.’”

Looking back at the menu-focused minigames that were included with the DVD releases of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Shrek, it is somewhat hard to imagine people rushing to buy those movie discs just for their bonus features. But as simplistic as those features were, they gave viewers a small taste of how much more interactive DVDs could be compared to VHS tapes. But as DVDs became the new standard, those types of features were the first things to be cut for production costs, and Sevakis points to that initial period of paring back as one of the reasons that mainstream Blu-ray releases today tend to feel pretty bare-bones. 

“When discs became commoditized, there was a lack of care that became very evident,” Sevakis said. “There’s always been an antipathy towards the end consumer, which might be why they’re not doing super well at direct-to-consumer.”

In 2023, the top-selling DVD in the US (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) moved just over 300,000 units — a far cry from the millions that used to put films on the charts just a decade ago. Sales of physical media have similarly been on a downward trend in Japan for the better part of the past 20 years. But between Demon Slayer – Kimetsu No Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film in global box office history and moving record numbers of Blu-rays in the process, it’s obvious that audiences are still interested in the genre. And with Sony doubling down on its investment in becoming a bigger player in the anime streaming market, it’s clear that bigger studios have come to see that interest in anime as a moneymaking opportunity.

The advent of services like Crunchyroll — which subsumed Funimation as part of Sony’s plans for anime dominance — has made legally accessing popular Japanese-produced animated series and films easier than ever before. But much in the same way that subscribers to other platforms have watched titles suddenly vanish from their libraries with little to no warning, there are no guarantees that digital offerings from anime streamers will always be there.

Even if people like Sevakis didn’t pour time and energy into painstakingly remastering the projects coded onto the Blu-rays they’re selling, the simple fact that the discs will just play if you’ve got the right equipment on hand would keep people buying them. A deeper and more important reality, though, is that physical releases have also played a key role in the preservation of classic media. It’s only because Sevakis and the Discotek team were able to find an old Betamax tape of Nutcracker Fantasy — Sanrio’s 1979 stop-motion feature based on the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story — that they were able to produce a remaster of the film’s international cut.

Sevakis could not tell me the number of times during the production process “where it’s like, ‘Oh, we need this English dub, but the masters are gone. Better find an old DVD,’” only to then realize that the DVD in question never came out. That’s when the hunt turns to eBay, where, luck willing, there might be a collector with an old VHS they’re willing to part ways with. That willingness, Sevakis insisted, has been crucial to the continued existence of media that would otherwise probably become lost in the streaming age.

“It’s easy to blame the studios, but I’ve been in a fast-paced production environment, and I know what it’s like to not have time or bandwidth to deal with archiving stuff after you’re done,” Sevakis said. “But it’s important to make sure that films are preserved and not ephemera, and things only become ephemera when no one saves them.”

By 111 Tech

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