Anime streaming service Crunchyroll has leant on 14 years of experience and customer data to commission its first-ever original shows. Amid an onslaught of subscription video services launching, this little-known media platform is living proof that supposed niche services can scale up.
These last few weeks, we've seen the likes of Disney+, Quibi, and the Roku Channel rush to compete against the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and legacy broadcasters for attention and revenue. But whereas those services go for broad appeal, Crunchyroll is proof that a SVOD brand can be built around a single vertical.
"They go wide and we go deep," said Carter Hahnselle, Crunchyroll’s director of brand and title marketing, as he introduced the slate of eight new shows for 2020.
Crunchyroll was founded in 2006 in California by students Kun Gao and Vu Nguyen. After a few years of hosting unlicenced properties and fanmade dubs, it purged questionable material as studios on the other side of the Pacific warmed to being on a global, streaming platform. With more than 1,000 anime titles and 30,000 episodes from staples like Dragon Ball Super, Attack on Titan and Naruto Shippuden, Crunchyroll was snapped up by AT&T’s WarnerMedia in 2018 and has proven a valuable cornerstone of its streaming experiments.
That year, Crunchyroll breached one million subscribers ($7.99 a month), which was doubled 12 months later. These Crunchyroll subscribers reportedly consume 85 minutes of content per day. Furthermore, tens of millions more watch a limited range of shows for free with ad interruptions. Its social media community of 30m followers serves as an “online safe space for anime, a digital form of like the convention floor”.
Crunchyroll has grown such sway in anime that it simulcasts shows minutes after they run in east Asia, often with translations in eight languages to chose from. The homepage features a timer (to the second) of upcoming fresh content.
In recent years, its growth has accelerated.
Why Crunchyroll is growing so fast
“Anime is an international media, people are happy to consume this stuff with subtitles,” Hahnselle said.
One of the few factors contributing to an anime boom is the comfort English-speaking audiences have consuming subtitled shows. Hahnselle points to South Korean feature production Parasite's surprise Oscar win as evidence of audiences' openness to foreign-language media.
Next, the supreme popularity of Disney’s Marvel properties like The Avengers “made everyone kind of nerdy”, he added. “Nerd culture is now pop culture. For us, maybe five or ten years ago the potential anime audience was x, now it's X to a power of X.”
Additionally, Netflix’s been arguably lifting the roof on anime fandom with a slither of its huge content budget. For example, in the UK, it recently secured the rights to Studio Ghibli’s catalogue and recently published the third season of the Castlevania, which Hahnselle confessed to liking. He admitted: "There is a halo effect that that brings more people into the anime community. It is competition, but it is unique."
A final factor is that streaming is increasingly audiences' primary means of media consumption. From bringing predominantly Japanese content to the US, Crunchyroll is now looking to forge out internationally. “Essentially we exist in 204 countries. And like every one of them presents a new challenge.”
The company is taking a step into originals, emboldened by 14 years of user consumption data. But what is the cap on the anime industry, currently valued at more than $19.1bn?
The company knows which genres are underserved genres and which are considered 'whitespaces'. Informed by its experience, on the slate right now are eight shows: Onyx Equinox, In/Spectre, The God of High School, Meiji Gekken: Sword & Gun, Tower of God, High Guardian Spice, Noblesse and FreakAngels.
Hahnselle said: “The sky's the limit. Other people are surprised by how anime can grow but not us. We believe in the community and think it is a storytelling medium that everyone should get into.“
It is using historic user data to understand the huge, diverse anime fandom. "We spend a lot of our time getting to know these people through the data and meeting them at our conventions. It is such a beautiful community that is full of life and energy and love.
“We're always testing out certain types of content and figuring out ways to bring people into the fold and get them to stay with us."
As an anime marketer, he knows the power of the audience as advocates of the brand. He described this as a "vortex of fandom". Hahnselle is looking to position Crunchyroll in the same emotional space he has for Nintendo and PlayStation, brands he grew up with.
Its unique position as the world's largest anime portal has presented opportunities outside of streaming.
It now stages more than 190 global events each year, including the Anime Awards (it saw 11 million votes in 2020) and the Crunchyroll Expo. At the Crunchyroll Expo, it built a “living, breathing city” and hired actors to populate this anime world.
Amid its push into content creation, its also making use of its presence and knowledge of anime to bring merchandise to life with more than 100 licensors in the retail space. Mobile gaming and home video markets are also increasingly a focus as the site gets to grip with its e-commerce potential.
Hahnselle said: "Anime fandom isn't just about watching this stuff. It's about experiencing it with friends. It's about talking about it online. It's about playing video games and reading comic books. We're uniquely situated to like super-serve fans in all of those areas.”
It is not business as usual right now with the pandemic shuttering non-essential businesses and keeping people home. While events are coming to a freeze and the online communities grow in importance, Hahnselle concluded: "Anime is such a source of comfort for so many people, we’re definitely seeing more people on Crunchyroll right now.”