A Kickstarter for a new anime streaming service raised more than $100,000, but anime industry professionals are casting doubts on its legitimacy. On Friday, the campaign was suspended by Kickstarter.
Anime Tube's pitch on Kickstarter positions itself as a competitor to services like Crunchyroll, VRV, and Funimation. It specifically mentions these apps in their campaign, citing low ratings from users in the Google Play store.
"Anime enthusiasts worldwide have expressed their discontent with the current anime apps," the campaign reads. "The few licensed anime apps on the marketplace are inundated with low ratings between 2 - 3.5 stars on Google Play and other stores."
The pitch goes on to call Anime Tube the "future of anime streaming apps," boasting an AI virtual assistant, free anime shows with ads, and a service called Anime Chat, which is described as "an extremely useful feature as well as a way to connect with other anime enthusiasts for suggestions or to talk about anime in general!"
Initially, professionals in the anime industry took issue with how Anime Tube promoted itself. If you look at Anime Tube's social media accounts, they use images from famous anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and Sword Art Online. These images are absent from the version of the video that is on their Kickstarter. According to a report from Anime New Network, the campaign previously used these images and linked to a list of shows that they said they hoped to license. It was those images, among other red flags, that professionals in the anime industry pointed to as a sign that this Kickstarter may not be legit.
Kickstarter told Motherboard that it was "actively reviewing the issues that have been raised about this project against our policies." It later told Motherboard that it had suspended funding for the campaign.
George Weller, the founder of Anime Tube's developer Gameface LLC, and his business partner Hironori Zusho, told Motherboard that they plan to appeal Kickstarter's decision, and that they object to the characterization of Anime Tube as a scam. This is the second Kickstarter for Anime Tube; another campaign with a higher funding goal in June was canceled. If you go to the page for it now, it says that it is "subject of an intellectual property dispute."
"The definition of scam is like, a dishonest act, some of that 'wish' and 'trying to' is not really dishonest," Zusho said. "We are still trying to do it—it's not impossible—because people are saying that's a scam."
Shawne Kleckner, CEO of Right Stuf, told Motherboard that they were not in talks with Anime Tube about licensing their titles to the platform. The list that was originally linked to on Anime Tube's kickstarter included Revolutionary Girl Utena, as well as other titles licensed by Right Stuf.
"I had also inquired if any of our industry partners had heard from these folks and no one had," Kleckner told Motherboard. "I feel that it was disingenuous to show this long list that people would likely feel that they would be getting if they supported the Kickstarter."
Justin Sevakis, founder of Anime News Network and owner of post-production company Media OCD, told Motherboard that licensing anime is extremely expensive, which makes crowdfunded efforts like Anime Tube difficult or impossible. He said that when he worked at Anime News Network, they made an attempt to start their own streaming service, but found that the industry was too expensive. Licensing competition has only increased as major players like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Warner Bros. have entered the fray. More than just the price, Sevakis said that licensing agreements between American and Japanese countries require a great deal of trust. Even Disney has had trouble with this in the past. Famously, one of the producers at Studio Ghibli sent a katana to notorious producer Harvey Weinstein who was then at former Disney subsidiary Miramax, when the company was releasing Princess Monoke with a message attached that read "no cuts." The studio's wariness didn't come from nowhere. Ghibli's first foray into international distribution was through a much maligned release of Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind from New World Pictures, which was heavily edited and renamed Warriors of the Wind upon its initial release.
"I think the problem isn't so much the capital, but you have to give people a reason to work with you," Sevakis said. "All the stuff that Netflix has been doing they've been working on for a decade in trying to build bridges in the anime space. It has taken them that long to get the trust going."
Miles Thomas, marketing chief at UK based anime distributor All The Anime, told Motherboard that within the anime fandom, there's little understanding about the economics of licensing anime in the west, and that while deals can vary, the process is both complicated and expensive. Additionally, being able to license shows that are already available on another service would be incredibly unlikely.
"Even if Anime Tube is able to successfully negotiate with a Japanese publisher, for all of the top 350 anime on the biggest anime pirate site, there’s already an American publisher with exclusivity," Thomas told Motherboard. "You could conceivably get Kodansha to put pressure on Funimation to force them to sub-license Attack on Titan to you, but that seems quite incredulous, even with stacks and stacks of cash—not even Netflix has the more recent seasons, and their annual content budget is close to the median GDP of all countries in the world."
Zusho told Motherboard that the list of shows that was previously linked on their Kickstarter campaign was a wish list of sorts, and that they understand now that it was a mistake to include it in the campaign. They described the current situation with anime in the west as a monopoly run by Sony. Sony's deal to buy Crunchyroll is currently on hold because of an ongoing antitrust review from the United States Department of Justice.
"If we pay $100 million for one contract, I think a company will license it, but it's very unreasonable and I can't pay for it," Zusho said. "But, you know, we're trying, and is it really wrong to go against [the monopoly]? Is it wrong for us to try something?"
Professionals in the anime industry were also concerned with GameFace LLC's previous apps, like SoundHead, which was pulled from the Microsoft Store last year. Sevakis and Thomas both characterized SoundHead as apps that enabled piracy.
"There’s no acknowledgement of this fact in the Kickstarter or any other documentation, and the fact that it’s an established brand with an established audience even makes the framing of this service quite suspect," Thomas told Motherboard.
Weller told Anime News Network that they did previously publish SoundHead. Weller and Zusho told Motherboard that these apps did not host any pirated material, but rather aggregated them from other sources like YouTube.
"We used Google API for third party apps," Zusho said. "So even if somebody sent a DMCA to [our apps], you have to go back to Google because they are the ones hosting it."
"We were originally connected to YouTube and getting content through there and one of the original companies, they had content on there. All the companies that were putting anime out there, and we would just index it and provide it to people," Weller said. "On Windows 10, and Xbox, they couldn't access that stuff. So we provided a means for them to connect to YouTube and get that content."
Despite repeated warnings from people who work in anime on social media, Anime Tube's Kickstarter reached over $100,000 in funding before it was suspended. Sevakis told Motherboard that anime fandom has long held onto the spirit of being the underdog at war with greedy corporations, even though anime is now popular enough that Michael B. Jordan created a collection of Naruto clothing for Coach.
"I want to emphasize that it's not the anime community at large, but definitely a substantial subsection of the anime community that tends to be very antagonistic. It's lots of angry young men, young male energy," he said. "I feel like a lot of those guys tend to be more anti publisher, piracy equals the answer, you know, it's all this very kind of teenager, 'fuck the system' sort of thing."
"That hasn't gone away in the time of streaming, it's just kind of morphed into something else, because it's harder and harder to justify that stance," Sevakis continued.