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Andrew Osmond quizzes Manga UK’s Jerome Mazandarani about the perils of formats

The Blu-ray debut of Naruto Shippuden 2: Bonds – released both as a standalone title and in a pack with the first Shippuden movie – confirms that Manga is still committed to Blu-ray in the UK, despite the frustrations and cancellations of recent months. Indeed, a slew of Blu-ray titles are scheduled for this year, ranging from Mardock Scramble to Roujin Z.

Manga UK’s Jerome Mazandarani points out that many UK anime fans have moved from DVD to Blu-ray, obliging Manga to follow. He adds, though, that “Maybe 80 or 90% of our sales are still on DVD, so it’s very important.” The release of anime Blu-rays is a tricky proposition, balancing the demands of multiple parties. Jerome points out that the Japanese licensors and producers of an anime have their own agenda, which Manga must meet if it wants the title at all.

“They’ve got specific ideas about how they want the release packaged: when it’s released, how much we can sell it for,” Jerome says. “The licensors for anime have a hell of a lot of control over these shows, unheard of in the normal video licensing business. They could say, for example, that you can only sell it at this price; that you can’t release it until six months after it’s out in Japan; that you can’t do x, y or z…”

“International licensing for anime, for most Japanese companies, is probably less than 10% of their overall business,” Jerome points out. “So why would you give your prized anime licenses to a foreign distributor and let them do whatever they want with it unchecked? Let them put it on Youtube or itunes or Netflix? Let them sell it at stupidly low prices, so that Japanese customers can import it? All the decisions the Japanese licensors make are based on protecting their distributors in Japan, and Japan sustains a model where a K-ON! three or four-episode DVD can sell at £30, and the Blu-ray at over £40, and sell a quarter of a million copies.”

Recently, Manga had to cancel the Blu-rays of both K-ON! and the film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. “We wanted to get most of K-ON! out last year,” said Jerome. “But we weren’t allowed to release a complete season box-set if we wanted access to the English dub, which Bandai produced for America. We either had to release it the way Bandai was doing, or wait until after they’d finished the campaign in the U.S. I decided to follow them, so the series want out on single-disc volumes. But the DVD sales were so low it no longer made sense to invest in a Blu-ray release that was unlikely to break even.”

The single-disc decision had been taken for the fans. “Fans hate waiting a year or two years after something’s been simulcast or on Japanese TV to get their hands on it. So in the interests of trying to sell more by narrowing the window, we made a strategic error releasing K-ON! that way [on individual discs]. I think we would have been better off just not releasing it last year. Rather we could have waited until now and released the complete first season on both DVD and Blu-ray.”

The problem with Disappearance was different. On the film, Manga was sharing authoring costs with the Australian distributor, Madman. “We wouldn’t have even released a lot of anime if it wasn’t for Madman, including Spice and Wolf (due on DVD in June) and a lot of the ‘moe’ titles that we’ve released over the last two years. Before, we wouldn’t have bothered with them, because we don’t sell a lot of them. Sharing costs with Madman halves our production/inception costs and makes a lot more releases viable. We commonly see if Madman or Siren have released a title in Australia, because then we know there’s a PAL DVD version in most cases.”

In the case of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Madman and Manga made a deal with Bandai to access the US Blu-ray replication master. “We got the Blu-ray from Bandai, which had been tested and QC’d (assessed on quality control) on American PS3s. When Madman QC’d it, that was fine, because most of the PS3s in Australia are American ones. But it didn’t work on a European PlayStation! We’d already invested a sizeable sum of money on the authoring for the Blu-ray and we were suddenly put in a position where we had to re-author it again from scratch at three times our initial cost. It was a terrible situation to be in and a painful decision had to be made. Authoring Blu-ray is time consuming, costly and very, very complicated.”

Another high-profile disappointment was the cancellation of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood on Blu-ray after the first two sets (out of five). “It was really disappointing; we saw a 50% drop in Blu-ray sales from Volumes 1 to 2,” Jerome says. Manga was tied to fixed costs and to a Minimum Order Quantity (which meant it was obliged to make a hefty number of copies of each volume), so the series became unviable.

“We could have gotten the rest of Brotherhood out in a Blu-ray box-set,” Jerome says, “but that would have brought up new problems. What about those consumers who bought part 1 and 2 individually? Do we set up some kind of discount scheme? How would we implement that?  It would have been a logistical nightmare!” The price would also have been prohibitive for many fans. “To be honest, we would have had to sell the box-sets at a very high price point. Possibly as much as £150 to £200, without offering much in terms of special packaging.”

These days, Manga focuses on Blu-rays for feature films and for shorter series of around 13 episodes, such as High School of the Dead and the forthcoming Angel Beats. However, Jerome doesn’t rule out longer shows on Blu-ray– “If FMA: Brotherhood had been only 26 episodes long, it would have been totally viable on Blu-ray.” In principle, if the costs of Blu-ray came down, then Manga could also complete a series such as Xam’d: Lost Memories.

Following the Naruto Shippuden films, April 16 will see the first film in the SF thriller trilogy, Mardock Scramble, which Jerome rates as, “One of the best new anime films that I’ve seen in ages; it’s beautiful.” The first three Bleach feature films – Fade to Black and its predecessors, Memories of Nobody and The Diamond Dust Rebellionwill debut on Blu-ray in May, as will the Ghost in the Shell film Solid State Society.

Old and new films will follow. Pensioners and big robots figure in the wonderful SF comedy movie Roujin Z (written by Katsuhiro Otomo), released in June, which is also when we’ll see the afterlife series Angel Beats. Then it’s kids in space in another feature film, Welcome to the Space Show in July. Manga is also planning the Blu-ray debuts of both big-screen Fullmetal Alchemiststhe new film, Sacred Star of Milos, as well as 2005’s Conqueror of Shamballa. Just the thing to chase Blu-ray blues away…

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