Although Japanimation or Anime, a unique style of animation from Japan, offers potential for new video business, selling it to supermarket video buyers is perhaps a bigger obstacle than selling it to consumers.
There's a market waiting to be tapped in the United States for this sophisticated type of animation and genre of videos, especially for the PG and PG-13 type titles, say distributors of the videos.
But the main issue facing buyers is the unknown quantity. These films are unrated with some containing nudity, explicit sexual situations and violence along the lines of decapitations and impalements, with lots of vivid blood and guts scenes.
"The potential for sales in supermarkets is totally untapped," said Albert Price, president of New Market Sales in Wilmington, N.C. "There's a huge appetite here for quality animation. If consumers find out about Anime, they'll love it. Anime is gorgeous."
It is estimated that 500 to 600 different Anime titles are available in the United States. Most of them are geared towards males, especially teen-age boys, but there as many as 100 of those suitable for family viewing and more are arriving daily.
"The potential for PG and PG-13 Anime is huge," said Wayne Mogel, vice president of Star Video Entertainment, Westboro, Mass. "The Anime market has already taken off and with the exposure that supermarkets can give, it would do extremely well."
"There are a number of titles appropriate for the supermarket," said Susan Blodgett, senior vice president, marketing, at Orion Home Video, Los Angeles. Among such titles are:
Streamline, distributed by Orion, has recently released "Akira," and "Secret of Blue Water," which has two episodes.
AnimEigo has in its children's collection the five-tape series "Oh My Goddess," the four-part "You're Under Arrest," the television series "Urusei Yatsura" and "Spirit of Wonder."
Last year, Sony Wonder, which released both a PG and unrated version of "Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie," sold the PG version in supermarkets, and its "Aeon Flux" has aired on MTV. Central Park Media, New York, will release an edited version of "Battle Arena Toshinden" this spring, with hopes of placing it in supermarkets.
While there is a general perception that many of these titles are all violence, there are several other problems with marketing Anime through supermarkets.
To begin with, Anime is not rated by the Motion Picture Association which, according to some, is both a political and expensive proposition.
"Rating a film costs about $4,000," said Marvin Gleicher, chief executive officer, Manga, Chicago, the largest distributor of Anime in the world, excluding Japan. "We're not Disney. We don't sell Disney's numbers. Disney can afford the $4,000 it costs to rate a film because it factors into about one cent per copy. For us, it would cost about 80 cents per copy."
Gleicher said that the industry is currently assessing the rating situation and many distributors now voluntarily mark the boxes when a film contains explicit sex, nudity or violence.
"Supermarkets should not be a place of controversy," said Price, whose company, AnimEigo, also labels all of their video boxes. "Some of the earlier ones had no warning and people griped, especially when these tapes ended up on the shelf next to Mickey Mouse. But if presented and labeled properly for the right marketplace, people would have been thrilled."
"Orion developed a sticker which clearly said, "not for kids" that we put on the harder Anime products," said Blodgett. "Because it's Anime and looks like a cartoon on the cover, we wanted parents to know the difference, that some of it was more adult-oriented."
If the rating system were clarified, then there is the problem of Anime's lack of exposure. Few American PG or PG-13 films or characters can survive without national exposure and lucrative toy contracts, and many suggest that the marketplace is "over dominated" by the giants like Disney, Fox, Nickelodeon and Saban.
"They control all their own production and merchandising," said Gleicher. "You can't go anywhere with them. If you have an idea, they want 99% of it. If you bring them a series, they want $12 million in guaranteed advertising from a toy company behind it. And because it's a success somewhere else doesn't mean it will be a success here."
Most of the Anime films come from independent producers in Japan, and as Price of New Market Sales pointed out, supermarkets generally require more support than independent producers can usually give.
"Traditionally supermarkets need 100% guarantees, and they need a lot of help making sure displays are put up on a timely basis and for the full period of agreement. It's not unusual for you to have some kind of field staff or food broker making sure this happens. Even Disney can send in a 48-pack display and store managers never unpack it. And rackjobbers are reluctant to take chances on anything other than hits in this environment," said Price. "But the consumers are certainly there."
Ask any teen-age boy about Anime and he will probably tell you about titles such as "Ninja Scroll," or "Ghost In The Shell." Manga Entertainment released 68 films into the U.S. market last year and expects to release another 40 in 1997. Manga calls Anime "one of the most fashionable and popular new trends among the youth of the '90s."
Despite this teen-age craze, most distributors agree that there is no place for the "harder" films in the supermarkets. Some suggest editing the film to remove the more objectionable parts, but others warn that the sex and violence are integral to their cult-like appeal.
"If you edit these videos," says Bill Bryant, president, Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn., "then you're turning them back into regular animated cartoons. Historically, the audience has come because of the content."
Mike Pescuzzi, director of sales for Central Park Media, also mentioned the lack of ratings as a problem for Anime, but suggested that stores that sell and rent R-rated movies might do well with R-type Anime, if presented and marketed in the same way.
"If supermarkets were interested in getting into the genre, and if they marketed Anime correctly, there's tremendous potential," Pescuzzi said.
"The interest is there on the consumer level, but it needs to be cultivated on the supermarket buyer's level. Many of them have a lack of understanding about the product and probably have budget constraints. They need the knowledge that the product is in demand by consumers. Many make the mistake thinking there's no demand just because people aren't coming in asking for it," Pescuzzi said.
"I agree that it's an untapped market, but it's an expensive one to open up," said Bryant. "You'll need to spend a lot of marketing dollars to educate the consumer about what the product is and the retailers about its salability."
John Jump, vice president of sales at Sight & Sound, St. Louis, thinks Anime is still a special interest category and considers placing any video other than a guaranteed hit in a supermarket still an uphill battle.
"You need the audience for Anime and then you need to cultivate that audience. I don't think you can just merchandise Anime and expect sales to happen. I don't think supermarkets have the time to specialize in a category like this.
There are bigger fish with bigger returns out there." But the break-even points and return-on-investment points with Anime are very good. Plus, because the intricate and sophisticated animation is a big part of the attraction, they are the types of videos that people want to watch more than once.
"Priced in the $19 to $24 range, Anime is somewhat collectible," said Blodgett. "There are certain groups of people who definitely want to own it."
Because of their low price point, they make sense from a rental perspective, too. Price of New Market Sales reports 300% to 500% return on investment for Anime rentals.
Many believe that if supermarkets were to stock Anime, they could actually increase traffic if word got out that a specific store were the place to buy.
"It's like anything else," said Blodgett. "If you carry something that people want that no one else carries, they'll go to your store to get it."
Pescuzzi agreed. "Supermarkets can see increased traffic for a different group of customers. Because the product is not readily available, they can actually gain new customers from fans who are seeking the product out. If a specific supermarket becomes known as an outlet, they'll tell their friends about it," he said.
Everyone agrees that there's more Anime to come and that sales opportunities abound in supermarkets.
"Audiences continue to get bigger and awareness of the genre is growing," said Pescuzzi. "More supermarkets will give it a shot and if they do it right, they'll have success with it."