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.