Fun With Numbers: Guesstimating the Break Even Point of English Dubs

If you’re familiar with the Japanese anime sales figures I sometimes look at, you may be aware of something called the break-even point, a rule-of-thumb figure that sets a general line between profit and loss for a given show at 3000 disks sold per volume. (The math is fairly elementary. At 10 million yen per episode, 12 episodes cost ~120 million yen. Selling 3000 copies of 6 disks at 7000 yen per disk nets a gross profit of 126 million yen. While that number varies depending on things like show budget, alternative income sources, and how many episodes are packed into a volume, it’s good to have a rough number in mind because it sets a scale for what constitutes success and failure for a show. But what does that number look like for the U.S., and what does that say about the comparative purchasing power of western fans in general?

While it’s impossible to say exactly how useful a similar number for dubs will ultimately be, given the not-public status of major US localizers, it’s nice to have if only to compare to the above 3000 disk threshold (and thus the buying habits of the respective fanbases). To compute the threshold of a dub (and sub, while we’re at it), we need to know 2 things. First, how much cost gets invested in a series (via licensing, translation, and voice acting)? Second, how much does a localizer charge for a series at the MSRP?

Fair Warning: Some of these numbers may be low-end or high-end and not representative of an average.

The first half of the first part, licensing costs, is simple. ADV court documents from their 2012 bankruptcy filing revealed the licensing costs for a number of shows, which varied from just over $3000 per episode (Moeyo Ken) to just under $33,000 per episode (Air Gear, Pumpkin Scissors).

The second half is trickier, and I’m going to be using a total of one example for this part. The Time of Eve Kickstarter earlier this year had goals of $18,000 for a subtitled hardcopy release and $50,000 for a dub release of a 100-minute movie. So the cost of subbing and dubbing a 25-minute episode of anime is going to be around $4500 and $12500, respectively.*

The prices of dubbed anime boxsets, though they often get cut via sales, are a matter of public record. They tend to be between $50 and $70 for between 11 and 13 episodes of anime. So that means that a single box sold is worth somewhere between $3.85 and $6.36 per episode.

Put it all together, and the math is simple. For a low-end show like Moeyo Ken, with its $3300 per episode cost and $50 non-save boxset, that means that it needs to sell in the neighborhood of 4500+3300=7800/3.85~2000 total copies to match gross profits with costs as a sub-only, and 12500+3300=12800/3.85~4100 copies as the dub that it actually was. That’s a huge difference, and it’s probably a big reason why many more niche releases are sub-only. For a higher-end show like Pumpkin Scissors, which charged 60$ for each of two 12-episode boxes, the difference between sub and dub break-even is a smaller percentage of the required total; 4500+32500=37000/5~7400 copies for a sub, 12500+32500=45000/5~9000 copies for a dub.

It’s important to note, again, the assumptions involved. First, I assume Time of Eve paid a typical price in getting NYAV Post to handle things. For all I know, Funimation typically puts double (or half) as much work into theirs. Second, I assume that all the profit goes right back to the companies (it doesn’t, retailers take a cut at the very least). Third, I assume that costs are relatively constant per minute of anime, and don’t go down or up too much. That could change if voice actors get a signing bonus and the costs of incremental extra work decrease as that cost is distributed across more value. Fourth, I assume the license market hasn’t significantly cooled down or heated up since 2007 (which is a huge fudge factor). Go ahead and add a plus/minus factor of times 2-3 for all of those guesses.

All that said, the interesting result remains that the rule-of-thumb sales threshold for anime in the U.S. doesn’t vary hugely from the 3000 low-end/10000 hit scale that gets used when looking at the Japanese market. Even with the fudge factor noted above, that implies that the buyer’s market for most titles is not larger than Japan’s by a factor of 5, even with the U.S. prices that *are* a factor of 5 lower than the Japanese ones. Don’t sleep on Space Dandy making bank primarily off of western audiences, or a Hakusensha/Dengeki Daisy* Kickstarter, but these rough calculations suggest to me that it’s likely impossible to fuel large amounts of anime production (i.e. multiple 12-episode series per year) with U.S. fan money alone, even when it’s being supplied directly to the makers.

Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the West is about to succeed where Japan failed in kickstarting Santa Company, so there’s some room to debate that point when it applies to the production of new anime, especially projects with a sub-million dollar budget.

*Only manga in the mal popularity top 30 to not have an anime. If there’s a hypothetical fake thing that would really blow the doors off the gimpy domestic market for shojo anime, a 10-episode Dengeki Daisy OVA series with a million-dollar goal on Kickstarter (kick it back to 5 episodes/$500,000 if you want to be safe) would be it. The odds of it failing aren’t off the table, but I’d take it to make that goal at 1.2:1 odds, easily. The odds of it happening are, sadly, much lower. I think it might be smarter to kickstart a season 2 of Kaichou Wa Maid-Sama, if anything. The fanbase is already there, western female fans remember shows they like for a longer period of time, and it tests the waters for bigger things.

16 thoughts on “Fun With Numbers: Guesstimating the Break Even Point of English Dubs

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  2. This exchange happened after a Sentai Mediaworks panel in Otakon 2012

    > @GNitro: “Sentai admits 3000 sales is considered a hit in the present anime industry. #Otakon2012”
    > Not for Funimation. WAY higher. RT: @GNitro: “Sentai admits 3000 sales is considered a hit in the present anime industry. #Otakon2012”
    > I have access to Nielsen VideoScan. Meaning: I have access to credible Home Video industry data.
    > – Speaking of, are you saying when you sell out at both wholesale and retail, it’s more than 3000 copies for a given show?
    > – by several factors.
    > We pass on shows that can only sell 3,000 units. That unit count can’t financially support an English dub. #truth

    That last statement comes from Funimation. From this public outburst, we can figure out a few things:

    * 3000 units turn a profit for Sentai’s sub-only releases: Sentai’s typical release are $50 volumes, so $50×3000=$150,000 (with a 60% haircut to the retailers). Typical royalties are 20%, which implies a Guranteed Minimum of around $30,000 for 12 episodes, or $2,500/episode,

    * 3000 units can’t financially support an English dub: Retailer takes a 60% haircut, that leaves $60,000 for Funimation at most to work with for dubbing for 12 episodes. That implies dubbing cost is at most $5,000 per episode.

    * Sanity check: Funimation projects 10,000 units for their dub titles:

    $70 typical MSRP
    x 10000
    – 420,000 deduct 60% retailer haircut
    -140,000 deduct 20% royalty (including $30,000 licensing/G.M.)
    – 60,000 (12 * $5,000 dubbing)
    – ??? printing cost

    • These are fascinating numbers, and seem reasonable. It makes sense that Funimation pays more for their localization, since they tend to use bigger names and target series with better myanimelist popularity totals. And the reason sub-only releases started becoming commonplace was to fill the demand gap for less popular releases.

      By the way, when you say “at most $5000”, do you mean it’s a minimum of $5000 per episode? (3000*60*.4)/12= $6000~$5000 per episode, but we just established that that was a serious lowball for Funmation. So a lot of that printing cost might be additional dub cost. I don’t have figures on it, but I do know DVD/BDs are relatively cheap to press.

      • Ops, I meant “at least $5000.” DVD pressing can be had for very cheap, as low as $1/disk. BD pressing costs more, both due to substantial license fees and more expensive authoring process.


          The above sites offer independent BD production at rates varying from $1.40-$5 per disk, depending on the quantity of the order and the layering of the disk. Since we’re talking about 10,000-sized orders, the max for the BD production on a double-layered disk would be a little less than $3/disk. Add in a dollar per disk for DVD comboing and the $1000 stamper fee, and you wind up with a cost of 4*10000+1000=$41,000. Substantial, but well short of $80,000. So something like 5000+40000/12~$8000/episode for a dub+sub would probably be a reasonable guess.

          That’s less than Time of Eve per 25 minutes, but not by a ton. Plus, they were subtitling in several languages and that movie in general is probably more difficult to translate than the average TV anime.

          • Sounds about right.

            Basically for Funimation’s dub releases, before they sold a single disk, they have already sunk $150,000 on a title (production+dubbing+licensing). For Sentai, their sub releases can be had for as little as $50,000 a title.

            • That also matches with what I’ve seen so far from February amazon titles. The Sentai releases (AKB and Hidamari Sketch) are ranking significantly weaker than the Funimation titles (Jormungand, Kamisama Kiss, and especially Robotics Notes) thus far.

              It occurs to me that if you took the average amazon rankings of these titles over their solicitation period and normalized it to the 2000-3000 level for Sentai Releases, and figured out what the typical break-even for a Funi dub is to within a couple thou so you could do the same for their releases, you might end up with somewhat meaningful numbers in terms of how much they were selling. Emphasis on the might, and it would be utterly untestable, but fun to spitball about.

            • The process you mentioned basically mirrors how Japanese STALKER points system work, details here:
              (under Section 4, Amazon Ranking Stalker)

              Unfortunately, we don’t have an Oricon counterpart in US to give us sales numbers to check predictions against, so it might not work that well.

              Also, I summarized the above analysis in this spreadsheet:

            • Yeah, I follow stalker intermittently. The way they’ve (relatively) solved the effective sales problem is impressive, albiet doable in an environment with that much data. Anything R1-based would be a lot more order of magnitude, though one never knows exactly how useful calculations can be in the long term.

          • Justin Sevakis recently answered a mail-in question that confirms DVD and BD pressing costs:

            >The idea of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in a combo pack is tricky business. On one hand, it increases per-unit manufacturing costs a bit. A DVD by itself is around $1 all-in, a Blu-ray around $2-3, and a combo will end up going over $3 and some change. That doesn’t sound like much, but it definitely adds up. On the other hand, with retailers like Best Buy, Walmart and others severely limiting shelf space dedicated to anime, it can really help sales to have both DVD and Blu-ray in one package, so everyone can get what they want.

            >There are hidden costs to having two separate SKUs (Stock Keeping Unit, or individual package type). It’s more warehouse space you’re taking up, more shipping costs, and if you’re going to brick and mortar stores, more returns you have to absorb. It can also be a nightmare trying to figure out if you’re going to sell more DVDs or Blu-rays of a particular show: there often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which direction fans will go. If you go with separate packages, you’re often left with too many of one or the other. If you have just one SKU, you don’t have to worry about any of that.


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