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Sony Has Yet to Win Anime Fans to Its Post-Crunchyroll Strategy, but Opportunities Remain Strong

Sony Crunchyroll resized graphic
Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform

Sony Pictures Entertainment announced earlier this month that it had completed its $1.18 billion purchase of anime streaming company Crunchyroll from AT&T, but it has done little to calm the nerves of the anime genre’s most dedicated supporters.

“Our goal is to create a unified anime subscription experience as soon as possible,” said SPE chairman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra in a statement. He gave no details of how or when Crunchyroll would be merged with Funimation, a similar streamer that SPE already owns, nor of how the Sony Group might enable anime streaming through its PlayStation gaming consoles.

Fans and industry insiders have expressed a range of concerns, such as the threat of jobs cuts for Funimation and Crunchyroll employees, or increased pressure on Japanese animators to tone down their work for Western consumption.

Other fans are worried about the impact on their own anime viewing: “My memberships for both services are going to renew this month and since y’all are now one company, what is going to happen to my subscription?” tweeted one fan. “Will people like me still have to pay for both services?”

Getting the deal done involved overcoming a U.S. Department of Justice probe into the takeover. The organization was concerned that a combined Funimation and Crunchyroll, which has five million paying subscribers and almost 120 million registered users, would become the dominant player in anime streaming outside Japan. But in the end it determined that Sony would not have a monopoly.

Data from market researcher Parrot Analytics shows that other players may be much larger. Its figures for content demand among subscription streamers in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2021 showed Hulu as the market leader with 21.4% share of viewing time, followed by Netflix with 18%. Disney Plus had a 4.6% share. Crunchyroll and Funimation claimed 3.5% and 2.7% shares respectively, despite being specialists in the genre.

Jonathan Clements, a veteran anime blogger and author of the book “Anime: A History,” says that Sony bought Crunchyroll less for its current subscribers than for the potential of its 120 million registered users.

“On paper, that looks like an asset with the power to greatly multiply its value,” he said. “The risk is that it’s a junk bond of cobweb accounts and people who’ve already moved on, but I presume that Crunchyroll has private metadata that favors the positive end.”

Another possible downside to the deal, says Clements, is that “Sony may have bought a competitor to streamline the market and cherry-pick the talent, but the talent leaves because they don’t like the new environment.”

Alejandro Rojas, director of applied analytics at Parrot, views the deal as a win for Sony if it can attract “a larger number of paid subscribers and, with its larger scale, justify further investments to supply more quality content to an ever-expanding set of fans.”

Rojas noted that global anime consumption has nearly doubled since 2017, but he makes a critical distinction between the high volume, subscription-renewing “super fans” that Sony is targeting versus more casual users.

If it is the occasional consumers that are driving the growth, Sony’s deal may not be a game changer. General streaming services such as Netflix and HBO Max that “offer the genre as part of a more complete catalog of programming may capitalize growth expectations,” Rojas said.

The solution for Sony, says Rojas, is “to extract consumption behaviors from millions of users to determine the actual split between ‘super fans’ and ‘casual fans’ on a market-by-market basis.”

Highlighting the importance of understanding national trends is the example of Japan itself.

Teikoku Databank, a Tokyo-based data collection and analysis company, recently released a survey on the Japanese anime biz in 2020. Despite the monster success of “Demon Slayer” (co-produced through Sony’s Aniplex unit) and “Evangelion,” the Japanese anime market shrank for the first time in ten years. Total earnings dropped by 2% and, of the anime companies surveyed, 49%% reported drops in revenue, year-on-year.

Teikoku concluded that the Japanese domestic market, particularly terrestrial TV, is declining, while Japanese producers are facing increased competition from Chinese animation suppliers.

Parrot’s Rojas says that (globally) “consumers are hungry for more anime content,” but industry supply is not keeping up.

According to Parrot data, in the May 2020 to April 2021 period, 4.7% of global viewer demand was for anime, while only 3.2% of shows offered fell in this category. The gap, he says, “represents an expansion opportunity for more anime titles.”

Japan remains the biggest supplier, despite the rise of vendors from China, South Korea and, even, the West. “Analyzing the content genome of strong anime titles, we constantly find links to manga intellectual properties,” Rojas said. “Japan, being such a powerful force in the creation and commercialization of manga, has a unique content engine to keep its supremacy in the near future.”