Crunchyroll/Sony on a Buying Spree

So I was hoping to publish this faster, so that this think piece was a bit more timely in regards to the recent news, but… yeah, that didn’t happen. Either way, I wanted to share my thoughts on things and also give a bit of an overview on how big of a company Crunchyroll has now become.

But anyway, a bit over a week ago, it was announced that Crunchyroll is buying RightStuf. For those who aren’t aware, RightStuf is an online store operating here in the US and Canada (and maybe other regions?) that specializes in anime, manga, figures, and any sort of physical stuff that exists in our little corner of the world. One could always hop onto Amazon to buy anime DVDs and other stuff if desired, but RightStuf was usually comparable in price and tended to have a slightly larger selection (especially when we got to things like merchandise), and you also had the warm feeling of knowing you’re supporting some small business rather than a mega-corporation. For all intents and purposes, RightStuf is the online anime store.

Crunchyroll also operates its own online store too, also selling merchandise, anime DVDs, manga, and more. Since Crunchyroll holds the rights to a number of shows, they also occasionally have exclusive merchandise not available on RightStuf or Amazon.

But, this is just the latest in a string of acquisitions and mergers involving Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Buying and Growing

Sooooo let’s do a little overview of what all companies and stuff are now under the Crunchyroll brand. Or more specifically, the Funimation brand before Crunchyroll was purchased by Funimation.

Firstly, backing up a bit, let’s recall that Funimation was purchased by Sony back in 2017. Specifically, Funimation was under the Sony Pictures wing; and under the Sony Music wing is Aniplex, one of the biggest names in the anime market in Japan. Funimation was one of the largest anime distributors here in North America, and the biggest thing to rival Crunchyroll (which was a separate company at this time). Funimation already had the licenses to a loooot of popular shows, including Attack on Titan, Cowboy Bebop, My Hero Academia, Tokyo Ghoul… the list goes on. Funimation also licensed a lot of Aniplex’s shows, such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Black Butler, Baccano, Soul Eater, and more; one could dive into the minute details of how the licenses and availability of these shows changed over the years, but because Aniplex and Funimation are now under the same parent company Sony, it doesn’t really matter.

That being said, since Funimation and Aniplex are technically under separate wings of Sony, they still operated independently; it was pretty much assumed that Aniplex-produced shows would end up on Funimation’s streaming service here in the US though, and then after 2019, Sony rearranged these companies so that Aniplex technically co-owns Funimation (with Sony Pictures being the other co-owner… so Funimation is really co-owned by Sony and Sony, but although they’re the same Sony overall, it’s different Sonys)… uhh, this can start to get confusing, so for the sake of simplicity and moving on, we’ll just say that now Aniplex owns Funimation.

Funimation isn’t the only purchase that Aniplex/Sony made in the past few years though. Outside of North America, other purchases have been made:

  • Wakanim: a European anime streaming service (kind of like HiDive here in the US). Purchased by Aniplex in 2015, its own website is still up and running, but that’s going to change soon enough.
  • Madman Anime Group: the anime arm/division of Madman Entertainment in Australia/New Zealand. By February 2019, Aniplex had gained full ownership of this, and this was kind of big. Madman licensed a loooot of anime in Australia, probably even more than Funimation had licensed in the US, and they also had their own streaming service (AnimeLab), sold anime DVDs and merch, and ran an anime convention called Madman Anime Festival. After this purchase, Madman Anime Group was folded into Funimation, and AnimeLab was shut down in 2021 (with its content being moved to Funimation). Madman as a company still exists, but doesn’t deal with licensing anime anymore, although you can still buy anime DVDs and merch from their website, strangely enough.
  • Manga Entertainment: also purchased by Funimation/Aniplex in 2019. Despite the name, Manga Ent. mainly handled anime licensing and distribution in UK and Ireland. They were pretty quickly folded into Funimation UK, although it’s said that Manga Entertainment’s brand will still be used in certain places in this market (sounds familiar?). At the current time though, Manga Entertainment’s website straight up doesn’t load for me.
  • Viz Media Europe: also during this same year (2019), Crunchyroll purchased Viz Media’s European business. Reminder that at this point, Crunchyroll and Funimation/Aniplex are still separate companies. Viz Media Europe gave Crunchyroll a foot in the door in the European, Middle Eastern, and African markets in regards to anime Blu-Rays and manga volumes (rather than just streaming). Kazé (a French anime distributor) was also included as part of the purchase.

And again, it’s important to reiterate that Aniplex is a big name in Japan, being one of the biggest production companies behind a lot of shows: Fullmetal Alchemist, Anohana, Bakemonogatari, Sword Art Online, Cells at Work, Demon Slayer, Madoka Magica, Soul Eater, the list goes on and on. They own entire anime studios: A-1 Pictures and Cloverworks. Now, this doesn’t mean Aniplex itself directly animated many of the shows they produced, but they were the company that helped foot the bill, get ideas off the ground, and had services like musicians (for OPs and EDs), a merch shop, a distribution network for getting DVDs and Blu-Rays out there, and a team to put on events and concerts to promote the shows in Japan. Aniplex was pretty much a one-stop shop for an anime production in Japan… if they felt a production was worthy of their time and business.

Anyway, finally, we come to the big purchase: Funimation/Aniplex purchased Crunchyroll in 2021 (buying the company from its previous owner, AT&T). Although Funimation and Crunchyroll did work together for a time before this, it seemed destined the two companies would be the two big rivals here in North America, forming a large duopoly (while Sentai and other companies got table scraps or stuck to their niches). That’s not so much the case anymore, huh?

It’s All Crunchyroll Now

No matter where you live in the world, I shouldn’t have to explain Crunchyroll to you if you’re in the anime scene. They have pretty much taken the anime world by storm as the big king anime streaming service, operating in dozens of countries and a large handful of languages. Even if Crunchyroll wasn’t the biggest service in your particular country, you were at least aware of it and they definitely had a number of shows available to you in your area.

So yeah, the purchase of Crunchyroll by Funimation/Aniplex/Sony was kind of a big deal. Reminder, Aniplex already owned a lot of anime licensing and streaming companies around the world at this point, but now they’ve gone and purchased the biggest one of them all.

And what’s the next thing they do? Start renaming everything to be called “Crunchyroll”.

It’s no longer Manga Entertainment, it’s “Crunchyroll Manga Ltd.”. No longer Madman Anime Group, it’s “Crunchyroll Pty” Australia (and also no longer Madman Anime Festival, now it’s “Crunchyroll Expo Australia”). Viz Media Europe, Kazé… now it’s “Crunchyroll EMEA”. Even Funimation, the brand name that helped kick off and expand the anime market in North America, will soon be no more: Funimation in its entirety has been renamed “Crunchyroll LLC” and Funimation’s name will no longer be used for new dubs and new Blu-Ray releases.

On a low-key level, this disappoints me. For thousands upon thousands of people, these are the brands that helped introduce people into anime and became well-known names in the countries they operated. Here in the US, the name Funimation brings nostalgia from when Dragon Ball played on Cartoon Network on weekday evenings, this being one of the shows that brought a lot of Americans into anime.

And by the end of 2022, all these names will just be… memories.

Now, I do love Crunchyroll. It’s hard to deny the positive impact it had on the world of anime. It introduced a level of availability and discoverability to anime (with the added bonus of being a fully legal avenue to consume this media), allowing it to reach a muuuuch larger audience than ever before. I can certainly say I wouldn’t be watching anime now without Crunchyroll, and I feel that isn’t a statement unique to me. It introduced the idea of anime being available to watch in English (subtitles) within a week of it first appearing on Japanese TVs. This was mostly unheard of beforehand, and introduced the concept of seasonal anime to the West. Even today, when I want to watch anime, Crunchyroll is the first place I turn to.

Crunchyroll definitely doesn’t have a clean track record though. It did start off as yet another anime piracy site, for goodness’s sake, but beyond that, it does have its fair share of logistical and design issues, being behind on the times, and weird/bad business decisions over the years. I certainly can’t call it perfect, but I can certainly call it successful. It’s definitely a global brand, and it makes sense why Aniplex is moving forward with this being the name of all these companies.

Dominating the Market

Now, here’s where we run into the big issue that I have though. (And this is also where the purchase of RightStuf comes back into play.)

We’ve certainly seen a number of headlines over the years of media companies being bought out by even bigger media companies. Disney is the big culprit that comes to mind, and arguably now Warner Bros Discovery is just as big a conglomerate.

Crunchyroll (and Aniplex) is now kind of the same boat as those… but it’s actually also kind of worse. See, with Disney and Warner Bros Discovery, although they definitely do license a decent amount of content, they have enough studios and people to pump out original content of their own constantly in various forms of media. Aniplex (and thus, Crunchyroll) definitely does have a fair share of original content as well, through the various shows it produces and funds. (Let’s set aside that the big differences in how anime is produced and funded in comparison to most Western media.) But Crunchyroll doesn’t just have all of Aniplex’s shows available to show… it also licenses all kinds of other anime too, produced by all kinds of other companies.

Even as of right now, if they don’t license another anime show again, Crunchyroll has an absolutely massive catalogue of anime shows it holds the licenses to. Here in the US, I’d venture that 4 out of every 5 at least mildly popular anime from 2016 and onward are all licensed under the merged Crunchyroll brand. That is a lot of the available market of anime controlled under one brand. This isn’t just streaming online either, but also producing the DVDs, Blu-Rays, merch, getting them on TV, and now (with the purchase of RightStuf) one of the largest direct avenues for Americans to get their hands on said Blu-Rays or merch.

From licensing to streaming to dubbing to Blu-Ray-ing to selling, Crunchyroll now it’s hands on every part of the anime market here in the US (and is also set up similarly in the UK and Australia). Sure, Crunchyroll and Funimation both had their own online stores before this, but RightStuf (and Amazon, I guess) were always available to purchase shows and stuff from all North American anime companies.

Now, of course, Crunchyroll doesn’t have an absolute monopoly on anime distribution, at least in the larger Western anime markets. Here in the US, there is still Sentai and Hi-Dive, which both get a decent amount of shows each season (last I checked, although they’re often not the most hyped up shows in their season), as well as other smaller companies like Discotek and the occasional show or two which gets scooped up by a larger media company like Netflix or Disney. In Australia they have Hanabee, and I’m sure they have other similarly-sized companies in the various European markets too.

But with how much money Crunchyroll already had, plus the financial backing from Aniplex and Sony, I’m sure Crunchyroll will keep shelling out all this money to continue picking up licenses to most shows (including – of course – all the popular, big ones) every season, and probably for every market outside of Japan (and East Asia). It’s hard to deny… Crunchyroll is pretty much the anime distributor. If you want anime, you go to Crunchyroll. That’s it.

All this being said, it’s also hard to deny that (beyond what gets scooped up by the other companies I listed a bit ago) it’ll be nice to just have one website and service I can go to to watch all the new anime that comes out in a given season, along with so many of the popular shows from past seasons and years. This has been a big complaint a lot of us have had with so many streaming services popping up is that one has to subscribe to six different services just to watch all the various shows being talked about; in the world of anime, now that problem’s been greatly reduced.

But it still does kind of feel weird and frankly a tad spine-shivering-y to have so much of this one particular market under one company… in practically every Western country in the world. I’m not as much of a vocal “these companies are too big and should be broken up” type as others are (not to say I’m disagree with that though, otherwise why would I write this entire piece?), but the knowledge that “anime” is likely to become synonymous with “Crunchyroll” outside of Japan doesn’t sit quite right with me.

Part of a Larger World

There is another angle to look at this though.

For millennials like me, it can sometimes be hard to remember that anime isn’t as niche and small of a thing as it once was. If you got into anime, you’d have to seek out other people who watched anime (not even mentioning watched the specific types of anime you do) to even have someone to talk about it with. Anime and manga were relegated to quiet conversations in the corner, a single shelf at bookstores if you were lucky, and specialty clubs and meetups.

Nowadays anime isn’t quite as mainstream as the major hit shows that Netflix, Disney, or HBO come out with, but it’s not nearly as hard to find someone who’s at least watched an anime show or two, or at the very least know what anime is. A number of celebrities and others have talked about having watched a few anime shows. Again, anime isn’t popular, but it isn’t unpopular either.

Major streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu now have a prominent anime section, and that’s where we come to the point of this section: under these streaming services, anime is shown as another category, another genre, from the list, next to “Drama”, “Horror”, and “Romance”. For these larger services and companies, anime is just another type of audiovisual content.

So in the grander scheme of media and streaming and what-not, anime can be seen as just another genre. A subset. Which… probably isn’t an incorrect way to look at it. For those of us who have really fallen into anime, we know that anime itself has a lot of genres, like “isekai”, “action”/”shonen”, “magical girl”, “slice of life”, and also more traditional genres like “romance” and “comedy”. So it may feel weird to consider anime itself a genre of its own… but at the same time – although some anime shows can definitely differ heavily from other shows – anime does kind of have a similar style; not just in appearance (character design), but also just the… vibe and just how a production is done, a lot of anime start looking like they’re cut from the same cloth. And for these giant companies like Disney, HBO, and Netflix, which have such a large catalogue overall, it’s easier to just lump all anime together rather than further dividing and specifying.

Looking through the perspective of anime just being another genre of the larger world of media, you can argue that Crunchyroll/Aniplex doesn’t really have a monopoly or a large portion of the market… they’re just a company that really caters to a particular genre or niche. Similar to, say, Shudder, for horror films or Curiosity Stream for documentaries… or YouTube for online indie productions. Each of these companies have a specific genre or style, and have a looooot of it, but although they’re big in their specific circles, they’re still just a part of the overall piece of audiovisual media. I think a big difference with anime is that it has a large, vocal, and dedicated fanbase (not that other genres don’t, but, well… the reputation of collective fanbase of anime precedes us).

In this larger world of media, Disney and Warner Bros Discovery are the mammoths. And Sony is definitely also a pretty big company itself, but Crunchyroll/Aniplex specifically? Not quite as much. So I think this might be the counterargument used when it comes to accusations of being a monopoly or anything like that.

EDIT: After looking at a FAQ article that Crunchyroll posted in relation to the shuttering of the brand Kazé, they talked a bit about the whole “monopoly” accusation, and indeed provided an answer similar to what I talk about here (the answer, given that Kazé is a French brand, is in French… so here’s the Google translation):

The streaming industry has changed a lot since Crunchyroll was established over 15 years ago and Funimation 25 years ago, and now anime is a big part of almost every major streaming platform. Crunchyroll hasn’t cornered the anime [market] but the brand aims to be the best destination for tens of millions of global fans.

https://help.crunchyroll.com/hc/fr/articles/6674695412116#h_01G4FG0YCVHP304P819D5DCR3A

Where Things Go From Here (The Future…)

So what do I, some random guy on the Internet, think is going to happen from here?

Well, Crunchyroll is already underway with renaming all the various companies and bringing everything together under the Crunchyroll banner. So it’s only a matter of time before sites like Funimation Now, VRV, and Wakanim are going to be fully shut down, and all their catalogues will be on Crunchyroll. (Plus also now the catalogue of RightStuf’s Nozomi Entertainment.)

I suspect the same will eventually happen to RightStuf itself, where RightStuf will be shut down as an independent thing, and either renamed to “Crunchyroll Store” (or something) or subsumed into the existing Crunchyroll Store. It’s possible the opposite might happen where the Crunchyroll Store and other various online stores get shut down, and RightStuf becomes the “store” part of the whole company, but given the trend so far has been to collect everything together under the Crunchyroll name, I don’t see this being as likely. We’ll start to see this transition happen slowly, as RightStuf will probably lose its identity and unique flairs or quirks as it’s absorbed in (for better or worse). I’ll also note that I don’t think this is a scenario where Crunchyroll is buying RightStuf simply to remove this storefront/avenue; selling physical media and such is still a potential source of revenue, and I think Crunchyroll is more likely to just take the systems, processes, and relationships that RightStuf has and just incorporate them into the larger company. Note that I didn’t say “staff”; I suspect there will be a lot of redundancies, and a lot of people back on the job market in the coming months.

Also, as a side note (I didn’t know where else to fit this in), in regards to RightStuf removing all 18+ and hentai stuff, and distancing themselves from those things, post acquisition… once I had heard this, I honestly wasn’t surprised that happened; it’s a little disappointing, for sure, for those who purchase such products, but I suspect some other smaller company will pop up to fill the void that’s been left by that decision.

I don’t know where Crunchyroll would go next in regards to more acquisitions, at least here in the US. They could continue purchasing up other anime distributors and streaming services, like Sentai / Section 23 or HiDive, but Crunchyroll also could just strong-arm these companies out of business instead. Here in the US, I think this will end up being the last big purchase in the anime scene out of Crunchyroll. (There may be more purchases, but they’ll either be 1) relatively smaller purchases by Crunchyroll, who’s already the de facto “winner” in this market or 2) an outside company pushing itself into the scene by purchasing up Sentai or something.)

Given that Crunchyroll is owned by Aniplex, which is owned by Sony, I also don’t suspect the brand and company is going to change hands anymore, unless Sony decides they really want out of the anime business.

And from there… I don’t think there’s going to be enough public outcry or other issues to dissuade Crunchyroll or Aniplex to reverse course in any fashion. In general, people are looking for a hassle-free way to watch and buy anime, and Crunchyroll is handing that to you on a silver platter, no matter where you live. So barring any major scandal or shift in the market, I think things will keep keeping on like this. Crunchyroll will become an even bigger name in anime than they’ve already been, and pretty much become the one site you go to for anything anime-related. (Minus the few shows that are either picked up by the smaller niche companies, or by the larger corporations like Netflix or Disney.)

There may be the chance that other anime producers in Japan (like Kadokawa or Square Enix) might want to switch things up, and start building their own alternative(s) to Crunchyroll to stream or sell anime in other markets, but Crunchyroll may also have enough cash in hand and enough incentives to just keep these companies selling licenses to them. Time will tell with that, but I’m not holding my breath.

But yeah. Anime isn’t just some weird small market anymore, filled with a handful of independent companies in small offices dotted around the country. Anime is a big thing now, and now the companies behind it are big things too. Ultimately, this may just be another page or footnote in the chapter that is the recent “media conglomeration” trend, but it’s still notable news of the times regardless.

And I feel… well, not the best.

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