Crunchyroll CEO: Anime is a community, not a niche

Fresh off Crunchyroll’s merger with Funimation, chief executive Colin Decker explains the secret to the service’s success.

Crunchyroll CEO Colin Decker

"Anime has more in common with [bands and music] than it does with Marvel or mainstream Comic-Con. It's not about fandom, it's about community."

Photo: Crunchyroll

The past few weeks have been a bit of a homecoming for Colin Decker, CEO of the Sony-owned anime streaming service Crunchyroll. Decker joined Crunchyroll as its COO in 2016, but left the company when AT&T took full ownership of the streaming service in 2018.

After a brief stint at VR startup Within, Decker joined Sony Pictures in 2019 to lead the company’s Funimation anime streaming service. A year later, Sony and Funimation announced the acquisition of Crunchyroll from AT&T, and Decker became CEO of the combined business. Last month, Sony merged the libraries of the two services under the Crunchyroll brand.

In a conversation with Protocol, Decker shared why Sony is bullish on Crunchyroll, what it will do with the Funimation brand and what other streaming services can learn from anime.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the reason Sony chose Crunchyroll over Funimation as the brand for its anime ambitions?

A lot of people have scratched their heads on that one. Didn't you acquire them? Aren't you sort of the winner? Our view was that we want the most extensible brand. The Crunchyroll brand has extended further into international territories. Crunchyroll has a digital manga experience; Funimation does not. Crunchyroll [has] a mobile games unit, which Funimation did not have. Crunchyroll had very strong events, [including] Crunchyroll Expo, and the Anime Awards. As a brand, it extended out a little bit further.

And ultimately, we wanted to bring these things together as quickly as possible, so bringing the content over into the Crunchyroll service was just a no-brainer. We were very determined to bring these resources together and give fans the opportunity to get essentially more, without raising the price. That's a really big deal, and a very strong statement about our commitment to this industry.

You did remove simulcasts from Crunchyroll’s free, ad-supported tier, right?

Yeah, but I wouldn't read too much into it. With literally double the amount of content, we just simply can't [stream] that much of it [for free], and it makes more sense for us to just get it right into the subscription service.

AVOD has a place for us, for sure, and one of our commitments is that we want to [reach] anime fans wherever they are. We will always syndicate some of our content out to other SVOD services, linear TV and other places. That includes putting the right amount of it into an ad-supported environment, where some users have the option to watch some anime for free. It's not a big strategy shift. It's more a function of the complexity of merging the catalogs.

Will you eventually discontinue Funimation and VRV? Right now, you’re just encouraging users to switch, but haven’t announced a shutdown date.

Over time, we will ultimately deprecate those brands. But we want to make sure that we're giving everybody a long opportunity to evaluate what choice they want to make.

How worried are you about competition from the Netflixes of the world, which [have] been investing lots of money into original productions both inside and outside of Japan?

Anime is kind of like wine. Bordeaux is only Bordeaux if it's from Bordeaux. Champagne is only Champagne if it's from Champagne, and you can kind of tell. Anime is a little bit similar. It's not just because it's from Japan, but there is something very distinct about the creative freedom that is afforded a Japanese creator in that environment and in that context.

For fans of anime outside of Japan and around the world, it's a really differentiated experience. It's very fresh, very different. It's unique, it's bold and it doesn't reflect the norms or conventions of what they're seeing for content created in their region. Any attempt to overly adapt or morph or modify anime ultimately [turns it into] something different.

And you know, the more exposure for anime, the better. We think that's a really great thing. We exist for the person that gets into it beyond a certain threshold. And if they do, we're here to super-serve them.

Back in the early days of Crunchyroll, many companies wanted to replicate that model and create other niche video services. Why didn’t that work?

It's kind of an interesting lesson. That term, niche, that's viewing everything through a programming lens, a traditional media lens. It's a way of instantly [breaking] everything down into channels, categories, demographics and topics. What that perspective failed to recognize is that it is more than just the content. It's actually a community.

What does that mean? It's something that has a lot more in common with bands and music, as an example. When I was a kid in the 80s, if you heard somebody talk about metalheads, those were the dirty losers in the parking lot. It was loud, aggressive, ugly, dirty music. “It will never be more than a fringe niche" was something you heard a lot.

Fast forward just five or six years, and you've got a band like Metallica, which has one of the biggest No. 1 hits of all time. They're actually one of the highest-grossing bands of all time at this point. But somewhere [along the way], the dirty kid in the parking lot becomes a very loyal fan base, and that loyalty starts to transcend just a love of the music and the band. What it really becomes about is a shared identity through a shared affinity.

Anime has more in common with [this] than it does with Marvel or mainstream Comic-Con. It's not about fandom, it's about community.

What can other streaming services learn from Crunchyroll, other than finding that dirty kid in the parking lot?

What can be learned from anime is that you are in the business of deeply understanding someone. Every aspect of their life, their point of view, their hopes, their dreams and their fears. What are you going to do to super-serve them?

What that means is you really have to be about that person. You cannot be about yourself. And that's really hard for companies. It's been decades of: We define a brand. We create this sort of untouchable, incredible, high-quality product. We create fans of that product, and we're in the driver's seat. But I think that those days are dwindling. That's hard for traditional media.

There’s always going to be space for verticals, [blunt] demographics [such as] women [or narrow content categories like] crime dramas, whatever. But there's many other areas and categories that have yet to even reveal themselves, around which people are organizing online right now. It may look like a niche today. But believe me, it could very well displace the most powerful, entrenched incumbents in 10, 20 years, just like anime has.

Update (4/13): This post was updated to clarify Decker's remarks on demographics.


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