FUNimation licenses to expire – what does this mean?
Some fans may have already heard the bad news making its way around the western portion of the anime industry lately that the licenses for some of FUNimation’s most popular titles, including Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Baccano!, and Darker Than Black, will soon expire or have expired already and will no longer be available from FUNimation for streaming or home video distribution.
Due to the extreme popularity of these shows, a great fervor has been erupting lately because of this news, so to make sure everyone’s on the same page and doesn’t start pointing fingers in the wrong direction, I felt that now would be a great time to explain how anime licensing works.
How anime licensing works
One of the most common mistakes that new anime fans make (myself included) is thinking that FUNimation is the origin of these anime, or that they have any control over production whatsoever (Dimension W being the very rare exception). The anime starts where every TV or film project starts: in a studio. Brains Base (Baccano!) and Bones (FMA, Darker Than Black) are just two of the dozens and dozens of studios that write, direct, and animate the final products we see.
However, it’s important to note that even these studios don’t actually own the anime that they create. They do get paid to make them, but they don’t own them. The rights of ownership, logos, trademarks, etc. belong to the Japanese production companies such as Aniplex, Bandai Visual, and Pony Canyon that commissioned the anime’s creation in the first place. These companies handle pretty much all the business-related aspects that go with anime production and distribution.
Funimation, Viz Media and Sentai Filmworks are license holders
So how does an anime get over to the West then? This is where companies like FUNimation, Viz Media, and Sentai Filmworks step in. Since they are unable to actually buy the rights to the shows, these western companies are instead allowed to license the anime, essentially renting the property rights, for streaming and distribution in the West. However, these licenses almost always have a specific time limit on them for how long these companies are permitted to license the anime in question, and must be renewed every time the license is about to expire.
What happens when an anime license expires?
Unfortunately, there are some cases where licenses aren’t renewed for one reason or another. If a show isn’t popular enough to make a profit, some companies may just let the license expire since there isn’t enough demand for it. Other times, such as with the great Geneon Crash in 2009, a licensing company may go bankrupt and have to sell off all their assets or cancel current licensing deals. This explains why FUNimation has so many former Geneon properties like Black Lagoon, and why other Geneon shows that are really great but had such a small audience at the time like Higurashi were left to the annals of time (until Sentai picked it up last year of course).
Sometimes, distribution in the West is handled by a western branch of a Japanese company. This was the case with Bandai Entertainment for a while, holding the licenses to huge titles such as Code Geass, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and several Gundam series. However, a few years ago, Bandai announced that they would stop distributing anime in the West, and so licenses for shows like Eureka Seven were either bought up by other licensees or were left alone.
With this, we come back to the issue at hand. In the case of Brotherhood et al, it’s not that FUNimation is allowing the licenses to expire, but rather that they are being denied the right to continue licensing it from the shows’ original owner, Aniplex. FUNimation originally licensed these shows during the late 2000s and early 2010s. However, in the time since then, Aniplex’s western branch, Aniplex of America, has seen massive success with shows like Sword Art Online, Durarara!!, and Fate/Stay Night.
It wasn’t until the past two years or so that Aniplex was wholly confident that their western branch would succeed, and now that it has, they’ve chosen to discontinue their relationship with FUNimation. As much as I love FUNimation, I can’t really blame Aniplex for their decision. Why would you continue licensing out your shows to another company when you have your own successful western branch? It’s just common sense really.
Will FUNimation anime shows return?
If you’re wondering whether the Aniplex shows licensed by FUNimation will return, the answer is almost undoubtedly of course they will. I have no doubt that at some point in the future we’ll start seeing the Blu-rays pop up on the market again, though next time they’ll have a rather hefty Aniplex of America price tag on them. As for streaming, we run into yet another odd issue. Unlike most licensees, FUNimation handles both distribution and streaming, while Aniplex of America and others only handle distribution and allow other groups like Crunchyroll to stream the anime they’ve licensed, so my guess is that we might soon see these shows reappear for streaming under that big orange logo we’ve come to know so well. As for the Netflix and Hulu licenses, I have absolutely no idea what will happen, but I doubt that Aniplex would miss the opportunity to continue streaming these shows on such popular platforms.
What will happen to the dub tracks when the licenses expire?
I suppose the biggest question now would be what’s going to happen to the dub tracks, and to be honest, I think Aniplex already recognizes that it would be a horrible decision to not reissue these shows with the original FUNimation dubs, since the dubs for FMA and Baccano! are so iconic that they’ve practically shaped the way that dubs are written and produced. Perhaps there might be some bad blood between FUNimation and Aniplex because of this licensing decision, but I’m fairly confident that it will be resolved in the end.
Some people will probably wonder why this was such a big deal in the first place if everything will be resolved with nothing effectively “lost.” The shows will still be here, just under a different name, so what’s the big deal (aside from the massive incoming price hike)? As a Chicagoan who refuses to use the term “Willis Tower,” I can explain it quite clearly. These shows, FMA in particular, have been huge, defining pieces of media for western anime culture. Hundreds of thousands of anime fans in the West started with one of these shows, not just because they’re good entry points, but because they’re some of the best that anime has ever produced. Brotherhood still sits at the very top of MyAnimeList’s rankings, boasting an impressive (to say the least) 9.25 out of 10, and after half a decade and hundreds of shows watched, it still sits at the #2 spot on my personal favorites list.
On top of that, FUNimation is the reason why anime is popular in the West to begin with, with shows like the original Fullmetal Alchemist and Dragon Ball Z forming the backbone of late 90s/early 2000s anime culture. To see them lose some of the most popular anime of all time because of reasons completely out of their control is actually kind of sad, and to see those titles reappear under a different licensee will be very bittersweet.
The license for Brotherhood expires at the end of March, Baccano!’s on February 8, and Darker Than Black’s is already gone, so I highly suggest that you stock up on DVDs and Blu-rays while you can so that these pieces of anime history don’t fall to the wayside as a remnant of the past.