Introducing AnimeLab: The ‘Free Netflix’ For Japanese Animation

In Japan, anime is a big part of popular culture and is adored by people of all ages. In Australia, the genre has been mostly consumed by school kids who saw certain shows on morning TV, or hardcore fans who track down cult shows on disc and online. Since 2015, this has started to change, and it’s largely down to the free streaming service AnimeLab. Here’s what you need to know.

Since launching the Australian anime streaming service AnimeLab last year, Madman Entertainment co-founder and managing director Tim Anderson says he’s seen the audience broadening.

“It’s everything from pre-school kids watching Doraemon, to slightly older kids watching the likes of Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z and the like”, Anderson says. “Then the slightly more teeny vampire romance kind of stuff, and then up to the more violent or shocking”.

One-Punch Man is one of the latest anime shows to gain popularity in the West.

The uptake is helped by the fact that AnimeLab allows unlimited streaming of its catalogue for free, on its website or via mobile and TV apps. Premium members pay $7 per month for access to HD streams with no ads, the option of English audio instead of subtitles, and “simulcasts”, meaning access to new episodes as they’re broadcast in Japan instead of waiting for them to be added to the library.

This ‘freemium’ approach is much closer to something like Spotify than it is to Netflix, and the problem necessitating this is similar to that faced by the music industry: many people are accustomed to not paying for the content.

“One of the places we hope to get audience from is actually piracy”, Anderson says. “Anime is characterised by early adopters. It has a fairly long history of people downloading this stuff as it’s coming from Japan.

“By offering a free, almost catch-up TV style service, we believe that we’re eating into that part of the market. From the perspective of our Japanese partners, they see it as really positive because it’s monetising a segment of the market where previously piracy was quite rampant”.

AnimeLab shows are sorted into 28 genres. Some are easier to translate into English than others, but in short Bishonen / Bishoujo feature adventures with pretty boys or girls respectively, Moe pulls on your heartsrings, Shonen is the kind of young-male-focused anime you’d see on breakfast TV and Yaoi / Yuri feature gay relationships.

“[It’s all about] lowering that barrier for entry, the barrier for discovery. Making anime discoverable for people who maybe haven’t seen it before, who are new to anime or casual fans”, adds Madman creative director Chris Mander.

“And then it’s about converting the heavier viewers, the fans, the ones who want to see shows fast-tracked from Japan earlier, giving them an upgrade option”.

Another reason for the free offering, of course, is that AnimeLab’s closest competition also offers free streaming. Crunchyroll is a US service, but it does offer a product to Australians.

US rival Crunchyroll also offers free anime streaming.

Where Madman sees its competitive advantage is in its Australian roots and the ability to hold a conversation with fans across spaces outside of streaming. At 20 years old, the company has a long history of distributing genre films and TV shows on disc, and has around a 90 per cent share of the Japanese animation market in Australia.

It produces collectibles and box sets, organises theatrical screenings of new films in cinemas, maintains a presence at dozens of annual conventions around the country and is this weekend hosting its inaugural Anime Festival in Melbourne.

Anderson says its strong ties and local content deals with Japanese creators gives it an edge in the streaming space.

“We believe we’ve got the strongest content lineup in Australia”, he says when asked why anime fans would come to AnimeLab over Crunchyroll. “Anecdotal feedback from the fans, and our internal opinion, is that the user experience on our platform is better, especially on the web but also in our apps”.

Attendance at anime conventions, concerts and other events has been steadily rising in Australia and across the world in recent years, Anderson says, and he believes easy access to legitimate content has had a hand in that, likening it to growth in digital music and comic books. People who might not have been passionate enough to sort through shelves in a store are finding themselves consuming more media because of apps like Spotify or Comixology, and in the process many are becoming fans.

“The collectors are still out there, so we still see a really strong demand for physical product”, Mander says. “But user appetite to watch content on all their favourite devices is growing, and I think that’s in line with wider industry trends”.

AnimeLab’s audience is currently 55 per cent male and 45 per cent female, Mander says, and the company keeps a close eye on user analytics to identify content that might bring in new audiences or satisfy existing users.

One area Anderson says the service could do better in is curation of content, as AnimeLab allows lists but currently lacks the kind of recommendations seen in services like Netflix.

“As our platform grows and matures and an even broader audience comes in, we really need to think about how to [curate more]”, he says.

“It’s an area that will become more of a focus in the coming year or years”.

To start browsing shows on AnimeLab, click here.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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