2008-01-30

AniPages Looks at Tenguri


Ben Ettinger takes a good look at Osamu Tezuka's Tenguri at Anipages this month. I've mentioned it in an earlier post, but this was a long-lost 1977 animation project directed by the great Yasuo Otsuka, and including much of the old crew - Miyazaki, Kotabe, Okuyama, Kondo. If you want a more thourough and in-depth look at the film, then enjoy the read.


I still haven't bought the DVD, but I will one of these days. I spend too much money on Christmas presents and furniture and a pile of books (a downtown Borders is closing, putting a 40% discount on everything). Oh, and that Nintendo DS I foolishly caved in to buy, just for that old Animal Crossing fix. Ah, well.

2008-01-22

Oscar Picks Are In (for real this time) -Yay!

Yay!!!

The Oscar nominations are in, and my new favorite movie is included! And Dreck is out! Did my earlier rant make the difference? You make the call!

I'll be accepting messages from anyone in Hollywood who needs that extra push.

Here are the nominations for the animation categories:

Best Animated Feature Film:

Persepolis
Ratatouille
Surf's Up

Best Animated Short Film:

I Met the Walrus
Madame Tutli-Putli
Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (Meme Les Pigeons Vont Au Paradis)
My Love (Moya Lyubov)
Peter & the Wolf

Two excellent picks for animated feature. Surf's Up looked alright, at least from the clips playing at Barnes & Nobles, but it's pretty much standard Hollywood studio cartoon fare. Satoshi Kon's Paprika, I'm told, was considered last year.

The shorts category is interesting. I haven't heard of any of 'em, but I expect to see the touring show at Lagoon Cinema sometime after the Oscars. Too bad they can't be seen by a wider audience. This is just the sort of thing digital distribution is made for.

One extra note: Ratatouille was also nominated for Music Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Original Screenplay. Those are some excellent picks, especially the latter one. We're in a very interesting position as animation fans. If the Academy plays it right, the medium could receive a desperately-needed push.

I fully expect Pixar to get the animation Oscar, since Juno is certain to score the Screenplay Oscar. But I'm still rooting for Persepolis to score an upset. Let Brad Bird win in all the other categories.

Finally, from the Dept. of George Bush Oscar Picks - Norbit was nominated for an Oscar. No, really. Norbit was nominated for the Makeup category. I'm pretty sure that's a sign of the coming apocalypse.

2008-01-21

Off-Topic Post: Can I Start Getting Paid in Euros?

Oh, by the way, the global financial markets melted down a trillion dollars today.

The stock market is going to be a nightmare tomorrow. It's a good thing the windows at the TCF building are double-plated. And while I say that slightly tongue-in-cheek, the sober truth is that the US economy is completely FUBAR'd.

Oh, boy, will I be looking forward to the Oscar nominations tomorrow. I really, really need a pick-up.

Oscar Nominations For Animation...Update: Never Mind, I Jumped the Gun...

UPDATE: D'OH! Alright, that was the Britain's BAFTA nominations. I read the post over at Cartoon Brew, and after finishing this post, I remembered that the Oscar picks are tomorrow. My bad. I should be more patient before running off my big mouth. Still, let's see what happens tomorrow - I don't expect anything different, but we'll see.

Another year, another batch of lousy Oscar picks for animated films. Once again, the Academy just doesn't get it.

The Oscar pics for Best Animated Film include Ratatouille, Shrek the Third, and The Simpson's Movie.

Oh, by the way, Persepolis has finally arrived here in Minneapolis this weekend. It's absolutely fantastic. I'm pouring through the book right now, and I want to go back to the Uptown Theatre at least a couple more times. I just may go there tonight.

But, oh, never mind, let's give it to Shrek and Simpson's. Gimmie a freakin' break. This is the laziest and most ignorant category in the entire Oscar realm. There's always a slot for Pixar, which I really don't mind, because their movies are so consistently good, and Ratatouille really sets a new standard for 3D computer animation. But what's the deal with the rest?

The standard-issue mindset persists. "Animation" means "baby-sitter." These aren't real movies. Oh, no. These are just easy distractions for the five-year-olds, so Mommy and Daddy can go crash on the couch after working another wasted day in their useless worker-bee jobs. This reminds me so much of the way videogames were treated by mass media fifteen years ago; a magazine reviewer with no clue about Nintendo or Sega would pawn some game onto his eight-year-old, and then repeat what Junior said.

Isn't it weird that gaming has become an accepted part of our popular culture, while animation, which has lasted as long as the moving pictures themselves, remains in the ghetto. This is a matter of ignorance and crass laziness.

Persepolis is the poster child for everything you want Western animation to achieve. For a Ghibli freak like me, it is convincing proof that Isao Takahata was right all along - that animation can succeed in portraying the human condition better than live-action. The iconic nature of the medium, its balance of subjective and objective storytelling, draws the viewer in to a degree that live cinema cannot. Animation, like modern painting, is a medium of ideas. Youth, rebellion, the spirit of freedom, and the way our memories shape and refashion the past - Persepolis is a celebration of all these things. And I'm firmly convinced that the same story could not be told with live actors. Animation is closer to the realm of imagination and dreams, which is, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, the ground of our being.

So, yeah, I'm a bit miffed Persepolis didn't get an Oscar nod. I see nobody bothered to remember Satoshi Kon's Paprika, either. Yeah, right. Watching a cartoon Eddie Murphy jump the shark is sooo much better.

It's bad enough that these movies will never be seen outside of the indie circuit in major cities. Audiences don't choose better movies, to a great extent, because they aren't given the freedom to choose. If they were exposed to the thousands upon thousands of movies made throughout the world, we'd see some real changes. We'd have revolution on our hands. But the dumb proles are never shown what happening on Planet Reality...and they remain the dumb proles.

The least the Motion Picture Academy could do is pay attention and do their damned jobs. On Martin Luther King Day, no less. The struggle for the dream continues, kids.

2008-01-05

War is Over, part 2 (Common and Premium Content)

Last post I began with the news that Warner Brothers will excusively support Sony's Blu-Ray format, thus decidedly tipping the balance in the next-generation format wars. For me, and those who aim to push towards online digital distribution of DVD's, this is excellent news.

At the end, I explained how every person should, ideally, be able to download a movie and then watch it on any media player, free of any interference. That freedom and empowerment is absolutely crucial in the new world of the internet and what's called "the long tail." Now let me show you an example.

Let's take the latest Pixar movie, Ratatouille. It's available in both DVD and digital formats, and it's fairly well-known. This gives us an excellent opporunity to compare the two and see how things stand.

First, with the DVD, here's what I can do. I can play it on the tv set. I can run it on my portable DVD player. I can run it on my computer and show off that 22" widescreen monitor. And, best of all, I can take the disc with me wherever I go. That's a great amount of mobility and freedom; I like that freedom, and best of all, the picture quality is fantastic.

Now, compare to the digital download on iTunes. Here are the formats I can play the movie on: an iPod, an iPhone, Apple TV, or a Mac. That's it. Can I watch it on my PC? No. Can I watch it on a Zune? No. How 'bout the television? No. Can I burn a backup copy to disc and play it on my portable DVD? Hell, no.

Now look at the picture itself. It's set at 640 x 480. In theory, it should be fine for standard resolution, but in practice, it's terrible. Looks fine on that video iPod, but everything looks fine on that little wonder. That's why I'm always tempted to buy one. But television or a monitor? It looks like shit. Compared to the commercial DVD, the picture is blurrier, fuzzier, and notable lower-resolution.

The Ratatouille download costs $12. I can buy the DVD for $15.

Is this a sick joke? You've got to be kidding me. Are you seriously fucking kidding me?!

On one level, it may appear that the Hollywood studios and Apple are helplessly out of touch, that they just don't get it. They're behaving the way corporations treated the internet a decade ago - something as too strange and odd to comprehend. Maybe that's true, to a certain extent. But I'm not buying it.

The problem with the suits isn't that they don't understand the digital revolution. The problem is that they understand it perfectly. They saw what happened to the major record labels over the past ten years. They know the score, and the suits are terrified.

You see it too, don't you? You should. It's as plain as the nose on your face. The thought keeps nagging in the back of my head...why isn't anybody doing anything about this? I can't be the first one to figure this out. It has to have been obvious for years. So why isn't anyone jumping? Why are the movie studios only content to dip their toes in the water?

We're facing the greatest media revolution since the invention of spoken language, and nobody's moving. I probably wouldn't even talk openly about these things if the Ghibli blog was a runaway hit; I'd be too convinced that some investor would grab my battle plans and get to work before I could. And, yet, here we are. Weird.

Alright, here's what I see. Back to Ratatouille. Take that digital download, and make it the equal to the commercial DVD. It's easily done; it can be done today, right now. We're only talking digits, zeros and ones. Make the download identical to that DVD, so the consumer couldn't tell the difference (this would actually be a demonstration in my proposals). This is now achievable with storage space and bandwidth.

Then comes the knockout blow. Take that $12 price tag and smash it. I have a number in my head. It's specific, I've moved it around somewhat, and I'm growing more and more confident about it. It's one of the two or three best cards in my hand - and I think it's a winning hand.

"The Long Tail" gets into all of this in far better detail, and, again, it's a must-read. It's the definitive business book on the digital revolution - The Gospel According to Google.

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Now to wrap this all up. If you're keen, you can pretty easily guess what digital downloading of movies will do to the DVD format. DVD will be smashed to pieces. This is inevitable. It is unavoidable, and, more importantly, it's something we should welcome and embrace.

I don't believe the death of DVD will mean the death of movies; it will mean an expansion and growth into a hundred new dimensions. It's all about choices. Choices in formats, and the freedom to move between them effortlessly. Again, we're already there with music, where we can download, rip, burn, trade, share, and buy millions of songs. Movies will be the same way.

Variety is the name of the game. Consumers will pay different prices for different values. For movies, I think of it as two different camps: common level and premium level.

Yeah, I know, I need better names. But you get the point.

We see this already. VHS and DVD are a form of common level. It's cheap and readily available, accessable to the most people at the lowest price. You can rent a movie and watch at home for far less than going to the theatres. This is the common level, and instead of destorying Hollywood, it made them insanely wealthy.

What would be the premium level? Going to the movie theatre. I can watch films (you know, real camera film) on an enormous screen, sharing a darkened room with as many as a couple hundred strangers. It's a shared experience, and it's absolutely wonderful. I can't imagine the movies without that experience.

This month, the Minnesota Orchestra will be showing two silent classics: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. The orchestra will be providing the musical accompanyment. Now that's premium content!

The name of the game is perceived value. I and my family will spend a lot more money,and you may have to deal with traffic and parking, but look at what you're getting in return. For the movie lover, this is the real deal. Does it even matter if I have the same movies at home on DVD? Of course not. The theatre experience has a greater perceived value; it sits at the premium level.

On a deeper level, going to the Minnesota Orchestra to see a masterpiece of cinema holds greater value than the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. The special-effects picture, aimed at teenage boys, are much closer to the common level. We'll often decide to wait for the DVD, because we're not getting much more from the multiplex, aside from noisy crowds.

Another excellent example of premium content is The Criterion Collection. Need I say more? Their value is so great in the eyes of movie lovers that only the name itself is enough to make a sale. A new movie on Criterion? I've never heard of it. It's perfect!

Criterion shows us how to effectively appeal to a niche market, and succeed masterfully. The arrival of downloading won't harm them in the least. No, while digital will cannabalize the standard DVD, Criterion will continue to thrive. The experience they offer is akin to attending film school; indeed, it probably surpasses most entry-level classes you took in college. And I'll pay a premium for it every time, with a big toothy grin on my face.

Take a look at Criterion's recent DVD for The Third Man, one of my absolute favorites. In addition to the film, which is masterfully restored; there are two commentary tracks (including director Steven Soderbergh); three documentaries on the movie and writer Graham Greene, ranging from 30-90 minutes; Orson Welles' Harry Lime radio broadcasts; a booklet containing essays on the film; and a whole wealth of extra bits and pieces. It's absolutely fantastic.

This is the premium service. We cannot provide that level of depth via downloads; to be honest, I wouldn't want it. Downloading works for me because it taps into that immediacy, that hunter-gatherer instinct. Find my deer, stalk it, come home and eat. I want my movie experience now. Afterword, I'll learn everything I can about the movie that will add to my enjoyment.

Same thing with music. First I check something out. If I like it, then I'll go foraging around, learning all I can.

Which bring us, finally (whew), to Warner Brothers and Blu-Ray. What excites me about this is not only the thrill of seeing the Warners' fabulous catalog in the hi-def format, but the end to this stupid format war altogether. Now we can work on making Blu-Ray the new must-have item of 2008. As anyone will tell you, once you see a hi-def movie on that 60" screen, there's no going back.

This effectively means the end of the DVD format. Which means that Hollywood has no useful need to drag its heels. Which means that Apple has no need to drag their heels, either. iPod's great appeal was the promise to store thousands of songs at once. We're going to do the same with movies. Imagine that. Ten thousand movies in your pocket, ready to pull out whenever you want, and ready to be played anywhere, from the iPhone to the HDTV.

Which means, folks, that the door is open for digital downloads to explode. Seriously explode. The big fear now is that downloading will destroy Blu-Ray before it ever gets a chance to succeed. Microsoft (according to Michael Bay, at least) is pushing for this scenario. But I think that's a false choice. The future of media, if it means anything, means more choices. The long tail enables viable markets and endless audiences that stretch on forever.

If Blu-Ray is to ultimately succeed, it will have to compete just like everything else on this planet. Screen resolution and hi-definition won't be enough. Bandwidth restricts us now, but soon that will also fall, and my digital download of Mind Game will look identical to the BR. So what? BR needs to follow the Criterion route, and follow the Premium path. The cheaply-assembled DVDs, the ones with no useful extras, will be discarded. Waste of fuckin' plastic.* I'll download those in a heartbeat. And I will still go to the theatres, and I'll still pay fifty bucks for Criterion.

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*This is another idea that I hit upon when seeing the paper packing for An Inconvenient Truth. The green angle! "Save the Earth - Download Your Movie Instead!" Think of all the petroleum by-products that go into making that DVD. It's a disgrace, and completely unsustainable. Want to stop pollution and climate change? Download, kids, download.

War is Over (and What That Means)!

Betcha I was gonna say Iraq. Sorry, folks. We'll have to wait until next January before we can escape the meat grinder. Enjoy your $100 barrel of oil.

Folks, good news to report. The next-generation DVD format wars are now officially over. Warner Brothers, which has been straddling the fence between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, has finally made the switch to exlusively supporting Blu-Ray. As one of the major Hollywood players on the DVD market, this will effectively tip the balance decisively in Sony's favor.

I've been expecting this move for some time. Blu-Ray has been consistently outselling HD-DVD by a two-to-one margin. In Japan, where all of us anime fans have been spying patiently, there was no fight at all. Blu-Ray became the standard overnight.

This is good news for all...except, of course, for anyone who purchased one of the Toshiba HD players. But if that happened to you, you should have known. This is the risk you run for being an early adopter. I should know - I'm a Sega Saturn junkie.

For my business idea, this is great news. This will enable faster adoption to the Blu-Ray standard, which will lower pressure on the need to prop up DVD. You see, my scheme involves downloading DVD-quality movies for use on any device. The Hollywood studios have been dragging their heels on this advancement, for fear of cannibalizing their DVD sales. They're right. That's my plan altogether - I have not come to praise the DVD format, but to bury it. Digital downloading will achieve just that, just as digital music destroyed the compact disc.

To defenders of the old order, this must appear to be the same thing the major record labels saw a decade ago: nothing less than the end of the world. Aw, but don't you believe them.*

The coming technology will not destroy the movie medium. Just pay a visit to iTunes or Rhapsody and look at the state of today's music. The music didn't die, and the bands didn't disappear back into their crummy day jobs. No, the amount and quality of music exploded. Millions of songs from every conceivable genre, from big-media hit to the most obscure niche, are flowing around the globe. The remarkable thing is that, no matter how rare and obscure any song may be, there will be an audience for it. The result is the greatest explosion and integration of music in history. And all of this was achieved by breaking down the old economic order.

Well, the very same thing is beginning to happen with movies. The stakes are a lot higher, since there's more money floating around, and this is why the suits are so resistent to the technology. They know fully well what will happen once everything becomes integrated...or, more fairly, they're afraid of it. They fear their own demise.

That's just absurd. The film medium is about to explode, and go global on a scale never before seen. Let me show it to you. You go online and visit my publishing website. I still don't know what exactly to call this, because it's different enough to mutate into a new species, think of it as an movie publisher that focuses on importing Japanese anime, as well as foreign animation from Europe and Russia (yes, of course Yuri Norstein is in my sights). The only catch is that, instead of the old model, where we manufacture DVD's and stock them on the shelves at Best Buy, we throw everything online. You can download movies and television episodes at iTunes, or Google Video, or Microsoft's venture, or Netflix, or Amazon, or any other of the venues.

Let's say you want to get Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog. A wonderful, beloved classic of animation. It's also just 15 minutes long, perfect for those commutes. You purchase and download your copy, and you can then play it on any media platform you choose. iPhone, video iPod, Blackberry, mobile phone. Playstation Portable, Nintendo DS, XBox Live Marketplace, Virtual Console.**

You can watch on your computer, or burn to a disc and play on your DVD player. Watch Mind Game or Night on the Galactic Railroad on that brand-new widescreen tv. And all this will be possible with the same, singluar download.

I want the freedom to play my movies anywhere and anytime I want. I don't want any damn restrictions. I don't want some damn copy-protection scheme. I don't want to be told, no, you can only play this on the media devices we, the corporate overlords, allow.

I don't want this post to go on too long, so I'll continue with part two.

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*Yeah, Bruce Hornsby reference. I always loved that song.
**Nintendo's smartest move was to eschew a DVD player for downloadable content on Wii. Once they enable enough memory space, like storage on any SD card, they'll open the doors for downloading tv shows and movies, potentially leaving Sony and Microsoft in the dust. You have no idea how potentially huge the Nintendo Wii could become.

2008-01-04

The Homestar Runner Model?

I'm a great fan of Homestar Runner. Have you ever considered their business model? Here is an animation website that provides you with literally dozens of cartoons and short clips - all absolutely free.

But venture down to the store, and you'll discover that they're also selling DVD's. That's something to seriously consider for a moment. I think it's an excellent example of the internet and the long tail economy. Is there a Homestar Runner Model for us to study and/or adapt? Hmm.

I think the genius of the internet is that is completely turns the traditional business rules on their head. Traditional strategies for the old economy will get you killed in the new one. Where else could such a crazy idea - hey, let's give the store away for free - lead to profit and success?

So, what are the lessons here? Any takers?

Why Can't I Watch Animated Shorts? What Gives?

Ya know what really cranks me? Knowing that I'm never able to see all of these great animated film shorts that are nominated each year for Oscars. That just tees me off, and I'm sure their creators feel the same way.

Granted, I'm lucky enough to live in a big city, where the indie theatre chain shows the Oscar nods for one week a year. But what about the rest of the year? What then?

Niche films like these are completely overlooked in under the brick-and-mortar business model. Doesn't it seem like there deserves to be an alternative?

2008-01-03

Burn Your Own Damned DVD's, or Building the Fan Community

If I started a publishing house that focused on digital distribution, that phrase would be right at the top of the front page. It's not just a matter of economics - manufacturing animation DVD's is just throwing money into the fire - it's also a way of building community loyalty. This trait, I believe, is absolutely crucial when dealing with long tails and the internet.

The internet's great trait is that it shatters boundaries. It empowers literally everyone. The line between provider and consumer blurrs and erases. Blogging, YouTube, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Lulu, iTunes, MySpace, Facebook - these are all the new tools for enabling us to create our own art. It's enabling far, far more people to participate, by creating videos or music or books, and it demands the building of communities to survive.

How else can you survive in this environment. The traditional business model is somewhat stereotypically Darwinian. Survival of the fittest, all tooth and claw. But I think the real story of the internet is one of cooperation. The name of the game is cutting deals, making friends. Trading text links on your blog, or writing user comments on Amazon, or sending viral videos back and forth on YouTube. These are all good examples.

The key of future media lies in empowering the consumer. There are no rules that govern which formats you can use, or which brand-name products, or whether you can make copies or downloads. These are all irrelevent, if not dead and buried entirely.

Here's what I want when I'm thinking of media in 2008. I want a movie that I can download from the net, then copy and play anywhere I want. Cell phone, iPod, videogame console, television, whatever. Why should I bother with a movie on iTunes that's a cheap knockoff of the DVD? What's the point in that? I want the digital download to replace the DVD.

I want the download to look the same as the commercial DVD, not fuzzier and at lower resolution. This is currently an issue, though it has no reason to be. The bandwidth is there, the technology is there. Online content should be at DVD-quality, at least. Not "near-DVD quality," an odious phrase I found bounded around the Apple realms. I suspect this reflects the great fear of the movie industry, that what happened to the music business will happen to them. But, as I've repeatedly said, this is already happening. It cannot be avoided.

It's bad enough the music industry tried to resist the change. They completely destroyed themselves in the process; now, the major labels are about as popular as Bush and Cheney, and I for one can't wait to see all of 'em leave. Please, sue your customers. Please, put DRM onto your discs. You'll just go bankrupt faster. And when that happens, I'll find some investors, pick up the remains, and all will be happy.

It would be sad to see this happen to Hollywood, and I'm still pretty doubtful it will go down like that, but, still. Resistence to technological and cultural upheavals won't work.

Anyway, I'm ranting and losing the topic. What I want in my movie downloads is the ability to play on any media format available, freely and without any hassle. And that means burning my own DVD's. Which brings us back to the motto on my proposed homepage - "Burn Your Own Damn DVD's!"

I have no interest in making and selling the damned discs. When it comes to animation, especially Japanese anime, there ain't no money in it. Not unless you're a fairly large corporation with many different revenue streams and deep pockets. This doesn't seem to be doing them much good, anyway. Hopefully Geneon will not prove to be a future trend for the licensed publishers.

No, this is an idea that I've come to accept with greater fervor over time. The future is digital distribution. That's how you do it. Inventory, infrastructure, manufacturing, packaging - that's all brick-and-mortal thinking. Going entirely digital dodges this entirely. We are only talking about digital files, which can be stored and moved around without batting an eye. All that's needed now are a few clicks on the mouse, and a decent broadband connection.

Question, then: if we can provide online content that's equal to a commercial DVD, what to do with the box, and the label on the disc? Well, the internet let's you get creative with everything else, why not this? Create your own DVD package. Come up with whatever crazy designs you can scheme up. Anything at all, or nothing at all. And then you get to show 'em off and share.

See, this is where my head is at. I'm an artist. I've been doing this sort of thing for years. I've been pushing the idea of artist-created gallery CD's since the start of the decade. It's a perfect way to help build a community online and build that loyalty. In this environment, loyalty is the name of the game. It's the thing that can make or break you.

I'm thinking of offering tutorials, showing examples, and helping to empower the user as much as possible. Send your photos and .jpegs of your designs. Add them to the downloads section.

Another idea, one that keeps in tune with the theme of cooperation. Create business partnerships with related companies. DVD label-makers, burners, yadda yadda. Find those who stand to benefit by the market we're creating, and bring them into the fold. Advertising, discounts, yadda yadda.

Building the fan community is absolutely crucial. Online message boards? Hmm. I've been tossing that one around back and forth. User comments, rankings and recommendations? This would work best if each feature has its own page, with the direct links to the download sites - iTunes, Google, and all the rest. These pages need to be informative and comprehensive about the works, since they are pretty obscure. You need to be given a reason why this show or that movie is worth the cash.

Still another method for building community is through podcasts. It's perfect advertising since it goes to iTunes, and it's another great way to bring the world of film to the public. Think of a Conversations on Ghibli podcast, writ large. Be very aggressive about this; bring in guest stars, roundtable discussions, and fellow podcasters.

The biggest mistake I've seen other merchants make is that they don't hustle. This is the hardest part of the job. You've got to build a brand; and yet, what seems to happen is that your new startup just drops the anime movies onto store shelves, with nothing more than a few complimentary review copies to a handful of websites. No, friends, we need to work much harder on this. I believe this is a question of exposure. You're spreading a gospel or sorts.

But a gospel of what? Ah, that leads me to the big idea. It's either the smartest of the stupidest idea I've had on the whole matter. But I'm roundly convinced that the times and the circumstances call for it. I'll deal with that on the next post, since time's running down and I've got to get back to that book.

Keep circulating the tapes!

Ask John Ponders Digital Distribution, and I Continue to Ponder my Crazy Dreams

This Ask John post was from January 2007, but everything John says is worth reading. Excellent reading, and just happens to address my obsession of the moment.

If it seems like I'm rattling of a lot about this issue, it's only because I think it's such a spectacular idea. For a "long tail" environment like foreign and independent animation, digital distribution that forgoes DVD entirely makes perfect sense. Heck, this is going to be the future of the movie industry. You know that. We all know that. The same thing that happened to music will happen to television and movies. This is all part of the very fabric of the internet.

Coming back to John's column, there are two points I heartedly agree with. The first is DRM, or Digital Rights Management. This is the same copy-protection racket the music business tried. It's just as absurd and counter-productive then as it is now. DRM has no right to exist. Heck, I'll make more money with absolute freedom, doing things my own way (and I'm very much in favor of running with the long tail), than trying to resist the tides of the ocean with the suits.

Sorry, Charlie. The old business model is extinct. It died the moment Napster dropped. But that's alright. The new paradigm will be bigger and better. There will be more money to be made for us in the long tail. There will be new opportunities. And there will be far more people stepping up to the plate - not only consumers, but providers as well. The internet will unleash the greatest explosion of art in human history.

I came up with this idea today while surfing around the Apple store at the Mall of America. The internet is the greatest psychedelic ever created. It's our greatest invention for the pursuit of boundary dissolution, transcendence, and the blending of community.

So...uh, no, I don't like DRM. I would do everything in my power to resist it.

The second point in John's column is more problematic: if any studio or publisher can simply place their content online, why bother with licensing at all? Why doesn't the Japanese copywright holder of, say, Future Boy Conan, simply handle it themselves? I'm afraid I don't have an answer for that as yet. Perhaps this is something for the skilled salespeople to sweet-talk their way through.

Hopefully, the suits don't fully realize what we're facing. They're still thinking of broadcast and DVD sales. The idea of iTunes hasn't quite clicked yet. Sooner or later, however, they will wake up, and everything will appear online overnight.

Still, I don't think anyone's thought of using digital distribution exclusively; that is, doing away with the commercial DVD altogether. This is a far better strategy for those obscure titles, the long tail - which just happens to be where my interests lie. I'm not a fan of most modern anime; let's face it, the stuff I promote on this blog ain't exactly Dragon Ball or Naruto.

This could prove to be another advantage. It's far easier to sneak the barbarians under the gate this way. Smaller, more obscure titles that have already been deemed unsellable for the American market may be easier to steal away.

So, answering question number two: pray the suits at Toei and Nippon Animation don't get wise. I have some more ideas that may help...for the next post.

Oh, btw, on the Ask John page, is that dog with the rainbow hair a reference to the infamous "John 3:16" sports fan? I wonder if anybody ever caught that.

Today's Barely Cryptic Question of the Day

Alright, everybody, I've got something I wanted to test out, and you can help me.  I'd like to hear your thoughts and reactions to this.  So here goes with the question of the day --

Let's say I held the rights to, ohh...Yuri Norstein's films.  All of his directoral work.  I was selling them online through the usual venues - iTunes, XBox Live Marketplace, Netflix, Amazon, and so on.  But let's just say I added a twist.  On my website, you could watch every one of them for free.

It would be the same as what the Ghibli blog is already doing, when I'm posting videos that have been uploaded to YouTube.  Only this time, I'm the publisher.

If you could watch Hedgehog in the Fog or Tale of Tales for free, in that little YouTube window, would you still pay for them on iTunes?  If not, why not?  And if so, what would be your cutoff point?  What would be the right dollar amount?

I'm reading "The Long Tail" right now, which is the best business book about the internet era.  It tosses a lot of interesting ideas into my head.  Please let me know what you think, and, by all means, quiz your friends.

2008-01-02

Classic Anime That Demands an American Release

This is continuing my current train of thought, which kicked in this past weekend in between football games. Just for the sake of the conversation, I decided to put up a list of the anime films and series that are not available in America, but deserve to be.

If I had the resources to start up an animation publishing house, for release on iTunes and DVD, this would be my dream list. Anything on Ghibli ga Ippai label nonwithstanding:

Films:

Hakujaden
Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon
Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon
Horus, Prince of the Sun
Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves
Puss in Boots 2
Belladonna of Sadness
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Akira
Nasu: Summer in Adaulsia
Mind Game

Television:

Lupin III, Series One
Heidi, Girl of the Alps
3000 Leagues in Search of Mother
Anne of Green Gables
Future Boy Conan
Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (tv movie)

For films, I'd want to get all their available films from '58-'72, which covers their "classic period." For television, the obvious candidate is the World Masterpiece Theatre series. There are some other seasons (A Dog of Flanders, Perine's Story, Huck Finn, Little Women) that would be successful.

If I have only a handful of options at the onset, I'll just grab the two or three most essentials. For films, gimmie Horus, Akira, Mind Game. For television, Conan and Anne. I think Anne should be the first WMT series to import. It's the most well-known name, and makes favorable comparisons to Canada's live-action and cartoon Anne.

Everything goes on iTunes. Fight like hell for broadcast rights. Use the company website to build the online community. Hire at least one full-timer to manage it; include weblog, Facebook, and MySpace.

From the Dept. of "Can You Believe This?!"

Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 anime landmark, is currently out of print in North America.

Just think about that one for a second. Akira doesn't have a publisher in 2008.

Something is seriously wrong with our current business model.

2008-01-01

Today's Big Idea - Online Digital Distribution?

I've still been thinking heavily about the questions revolving around securing and selling anime classics here in the States. Longtime readers of Conversations on Ghibli know this is my mantra, but I've been working extra hard this weekend. In addition, I sent a long letter to Discotek Media this week about joining up and helping them.

I've no idea if they are hiring or what their future plans are, but that hasn't stopped me from trying to crack the nut and solve this mystery.

We're all aware of the challenges. Anime remains a small, if fervent, community. Greater success has eluded almost everyone, and issues such as budgets, dubbing, subtitles, broadcasting, and DVDs continue to be serious challenges. The problem is that the pond is too small for all these fishermen. We need a wider horizon.

So here's the big question of the day: what about digital distribution?

I've no doubts that DVD will remain as a format for many years, and the movement into the hi-def formats will continue to build momentum in 2008. But we also know what these are merely technological stopgaps. The future will involve online distribution. That's where the real money lies; this is why the Hollywood writers guilds are on strike. They need to be able to win compensation for television shows that will be broadcast and sold online.

As more and more programs embrace Apple's iTunes, where does this leave the animation community? What opportunities does this open up? Would this help broaden the horizon for a Future Boy Conan or a Heidi?

Is this merely an either-or situation? What should the mixture be, between online and DVD? Should DVD be considered more of a luxury market, reserved for the comprehensive treatment of Criterion and Warner Bros? I can't imagine anyone selling a bare-bones DVD in this day and age. If you don't have the budget to offer more than the movie and a trailer, why not just eschew the disc altogether and sell it online?

With online, you're saving a lot of money that would normally go into packaging and distribution. Shipping is not an issue. Supplies to retailers is not an issue. All the consumer needs is a few clicks on a mouse.

This is where the future lies. The notion of forced formats, sold in specific regions, with authorized hardware - this is prehistoric nonsense. You may as well go back into your cave and paint on the walls. The music industry is learning this lesson the hard way. Either they will realize that online subscriptions, free of any controls, are the way to go....or they will eventually go bankrupt, and their remains snapped up by the technology companies. Don't think for a minute that Steve Jobs hasn't been planning this for a decade.

So you can see the appeal. The goal is to have media - television, movies - that can be played anywhere. On your iPod. On your phone. On your laptop. On your Nintendo or Sony handheld. On your DVD or hi-def player. Many of us have been doing this for years already. The only real hurdle has been all these incompatible formats, and the difficulty in ripping and burning media. That will change. It will become easy and commonplace.

The question is...when? How soon?

For now, I say it's best for us to embrace as many markets as possible. We need to embrace as much media access as possible. This is why DVD region-coding is so backwards. Look at all the places you could sell to, if only you were able. Many of us can hack our players, so it's no longer an issue for us. But hacking should be unnecessary. Everyone should be free to search for what they want, on their terms.

A cause for concern: this may be an issue for Japanese anime, especially considering how horribly priced some DVD's are. The television shows are just awful. Do you know how much money you'd spend on the entire series' of Heidi or Conan? Hundreds of dollars. That's utter madness.

Now imagine that, instead of paying upwards of $400 for Anne of Green Gables, a young adult in Tokyo, New York, or Paris and just download it from iTunes or similar venues. The cost? Less than a tenth. Now you understand if the bosses in the Tokyo office are nervous.

I see that anime on iTunes is available only for specific markets, so this isn't an imminent crisis for the suits. But it will be. This is the nature of the internet; it's burned into the DNA of the internet itself. It's a medium that dissolves boundaries (this, btw, is why psychedelic hippies embrace the web so much). Sooner or later, everything's going to become global. We're just seeing the old order resist the tides. Someone will have to take those first steps in going global.

For me, I don't see a problem with this. I still like the idea of DVD's, especially when packed with extra features (documentaries, behind-the-scenes materials, interviews) that add to the experience. This is our film school. Digital downloads open the doors for everyone else.

When we're dealing with niche markets like anime, this makes perfect sense. We really need to move on this, and move fast.

Question for the readers: how much would you pay for an episode of Heidi or Marco or Anne? How much for Lupin III or Conan? How much for Horus or Animal Treasure Island? What will make you crack open that wallet?

Think of it just like music. Digital Distribution is the record single. DVD is the full-length LP.

New Year's Day Movies - Gauche the Cellist

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

Alright, this is the last of it, I swear! Hah. We never know how long we have these movies available, so it's best to strike fast.

Gauche the Cellist is one of my favorite Isao Takahata films. I'd probably rank it just after Omohide Poro Poro and Horus, Prince of the Sun. It's a magnificent little picture, quiet and peaceful, full of the details of daily life.

This also happens to be one of the great movie about the transcendent power of music. I can't think of a better movie where music plays such a vital role (no, Sound of Music and West Side Story never did it for me). Where did Takahata get inspired to draw together a beloved children's poem (by Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa) and Beethoven's Pastorale? Perhaps he saw Beethoven as the thread that links together the different worlds.

Gauche has never been released in North America. Studio Ghibli wisely secured the DVD rights last year, releasing a new 2-disc set on the Ghibli ga Ippai label. That means, I suppose, that Disney could have the option of releasing it here in the States. That's certainly a no-brainer, a smart decision that everyone would love. Which means it will never happen.

I still don't understand this. Disney should have established a seperate Ghibli line, just like in Japan. This would enable them to import all those other films in addition to the features. Ghibli ga Ippai Short Short, for instance, or Yanagawa Waterways. Gauche is perfect for that. Heck, the suits have spend the money for these DVDs already, why not just translate the text and make a couple bucks more?

For the rest of us, then, importing remains our only option. If you're a real fan, then you're doing this already. But it will be nice when we finally do away with all this region-coded nonsense and have global digital distribution. Smart businesspeople should be getting in on the ground floor right now. That's the future.

Anyway, I don't want to spoil anything for you, so enjoy this wonderful movie. Happy New Year's 2008!

AniPages History of Toei Animation

Just to finish things out, I wanted to include these two masterful posts from anime scholar Ben Ettinger from his weblog AniPages. Here, he chronicles the movies from the golden age of Japan's Toei Animation studio. This period covers 1958, with the release of Japan's first full-color animated feature, Hakujaden, through the early 1970's, and the exodus of the great talent that would achieve world fame via World Masterpiece Theatre, Telecom, and finally Ghibli.

These essays serve as a primer on anime's most important studio; I've relied heavily upon AniPages in the past, and will continue to do so into the future. If you have any interest in animation, this site should be at the top of your blogroll.

And, finally, I'll make one more appeal to you in support of these wonderful films. We all know how difficult it is to bring these movies to our shores, and bring them to ever-widening audiences. Discotek Media has brought us The Wonderful World of Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island, and Taro the Dragon Boy. These are all must-have's for any DVD collection, and this is a small company, so they deserve your support.

You've all talked the talk about fan support. Well, now it's time to actually prove it. Prove it. Buy these DVDs today. Tell your kids that Santa was held up in traffic.

Anipages - Toei Doga, part 1
Anipages - Toei Doga, part 2

New Year's Day Movies - Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

Let's give a round of applause to YouTube user Extraordinaire, who has sent me a number of animation clips during 2007. Then, just in time for Christmas, I was sent the links to a full-length movie - the 1963 Toei Doga feature, Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon.

Excellent work! Pass the popcorn! Sure wish I had a computer that could play this.

This film was the sixth full-length animated picture from the Toei studio, and is universally regarded as a Japanese masterpiece. Little by little, the young animators and artists and writers are learning their craft, building from their understanding of American cartoons, calling upon their own vast cultural heritage. If Horus, Prince of the Sun can be called the Sgt. Pepper of anime, then Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon is their Rubber Soul.

I'll let Ben Ettinger, the expert scholar of anime history, describe the movie in his own words:

Now we come to one of the all-time anime masterpieces, a film that holds the
distinction of being the film that introduced the animation director system into
anime (whereby one person corrects all the drawings by the key animators in
order to eliminate minor differences and keep the characters looking the same
throughout the film). But that's not necessarily what's great about it to anybody who watches it. The designs are great. The color is great. The music is great. The story is great. The animation is great. The finale is incredible. It's probably the first Toei Film film that comes together as a totally satisfying and integral whole.

The animation hilight of this film is the final scene of the hydra, animated by Yasuo Otsuka together with Sadao Tsukioka. Otsuka had pursued realism since he began as an animator, basing his animation on close observation of the reality around him -- for example, observing and drawing actual catfish in preparation for animating the scene with the giant fish in Magic Boy. But there are no 8-headed dragons in the real world to study, so how to draw one? Reality in this scene is evoked by the tension produced by careful timing and framing of the action unfolding on the screen in one
continuous flow over the course of several minutes.

There are many other great scenes -- the fight with the tiger early on, the dance scene. This is the first film in which most of the film is totally satisfying in terms of the animation, with interesting movement and appealing and original designs.

New Year's Day Movies - Farewell, Beloved Lupin

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

What better way to spend New Year's Day than watching a couple really good movies? Well, going outside, I suppose, but it's bitterly cold outside where I live (Minneapolis). Fortunately, I found a couple surprises at YouTube that I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Today's first screening is the final episode from the second series run of Lupin the Third. As we all know, the original series ran from 1971-72 and was helmed by the likes of Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and a 22-year-old Yoshifumi Kondo. It was gritty, violent and realistic; the tone of the show shifted more towards comedy (at the behest of the studio bosses), but the episodes were always excellent and captivating. The "Green Jacket" Lupin was retired after only 23 episodes.

Much like Star Trek, then, the series grew in popularity over the years. Eventually, a second tv series was commissioned at the Telecom studio. This time, the "Red Jacket" Lupin was a success, and ran during the late '70s. The quality at the beginning was suspect, but with the arrival of the old veteran Otsuka, and the gradual migration of all the heavy talent, the show was firing on all cylindars.

Miyazaki directed two episodes of the second Lupin series, which naturally are the most famous. He and his colleagues had already finished Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, which harkened back to the original Lupin, and were ready to wrap things up on the small screen.

This final episode, "Farewell Beloved Lupin," is quick on its feet, but also shows Miyazaki's older, mature style. This is the more reflected, more experienced style we saw in Cagliostro, less anarchy, but more confidence and style. Fans of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli will immediately recognize the giant robot. It was made as a tribute to the Fleishers' Superman cartoon, one of his many nods to the beloved Fleisher studio. The Superman robot made its second appearance in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and today a giant statue stands on the roof of the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan.

There's also a scene in this episode where tanks rumble through a downtown district. This was an idea that Miyazaki originally used in the 1969 Toei Doga movie The Flying Ghost Ship. It was a very minor film, somewhere between monster movies and Scooby Doo (no, seriously), but it sported the talents of Miyazaki, and the husband-and-wife team of Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama. Other story elements would be riffed years later in Future Boy Conan...and am I reminded of that "Slurm" episode of Futurama? Never mind - I'm rambling.

More surprises for the devoted Miyazaki fan await. Sumi Shimamoto makes a return appearance as the Herione. This is her crucial link between Clarisse, the imprisioned heroine of Cagliostro, and Nausicaa. By now, she is firmly establishing herself as the voice of the Miyazaki Heroine, that great and mysterious archetypal character who haunts the master's work.

I was struck by the relationship between the Heroine and her giant robot. This was an idea that was also brought forth in Castle in the Sky, before reaching its final destination in the final volume of the Nausicaa books. The recently-published Nausicaa Watercolor book suggests that the revived God Warrior would play a role in the manga's climax early on, but it would take many years before the necessary details would be ironed out. It's another example of Miyazaki's writing style, in which he only carries a general idea of where to go; the story will literally be written during the journey itself.

As far as finales go, I enjoy this a lot. I made a backup copy of the American VHS tape, which is rather badly dubbed, so it's a treat to watch it in the original language. Subtitles would be nice.

Riff Alert: Here's one of the great Miyazaki riffs. Near the end, a villain is knocked out; his pose slyly matches the same pose from the original animated Lupin III pilot from 1969. Sneeze and you'll miss it.