An Introduction to Pied Piper Inc.

ann yamamoto illustrationEarlier today, fans all over North America let out a collective squee of delight as it was revealed that Pied Piper Inc. has licensed the anime series Skip Beat! for DVD and Blu-ray. Who is this new magical, wish granting company though? Well, allow me to fill you in as earlier this week I had the chance to sit down with the president of the company, Ann Yamamoto, and ask her some questions about Pied Piper Inc. and their plans for the future.

– Pied Piper seemed to come out of nowhere. Earlier this decade the company ran a very successful Kickstarter and distributed the Time of Eve movie but now you’ve decided to venture into licensing anime yourselves. What was the decision making process behind this new direction?

The decision making process was very organic. When I launched the Time of EVE Kickstarter, I saw it as a small experiment. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be a 2-year journey involving music licensing, book publishing, and collaboration with fans around the world.

I came out with three crystal clear realizations.

First, the Kickstarter was the single most challenging and satisfying experience in my professional life. I knew with absolute certitude that I wanted to do anime crowdfunding again.

And, as the final rewards were shipping, I was over-the-top delighted to get messages from backers asking me to do another campaign.

Finally, I didn’t make a single cent. OK, I’ll just go out and say it. I lost money. Toward the end, I was paying my accountant, bookkeeper and outside vendors, but not myself. But, I also realized that the project had been my greatest teacher. Sure, a lot of these lessons were kind of jack-of-all-trades skills, like uploading 1,300 addresses into Amazon’s shipping interface or packaging ceramics for shipment to Russia. However, there were other more meta lessons. For example, being able to think through the full ramifications of a spec change, or knowing how to approach licensing for music, books, bonus videos and merchandise.

So, I decided to think of the financial loss as business school tuition. I decided, you know what, I’d be a fool not to use that knowledge toward something that I love to do, and toward solving problems that matter to anime fans.

– With so many companies in the United States already competing against each other, what makes your company stand out against the rest? Is there a particular niche that you’re aiming to fill?

Honestly, I don’t see myself in competition with other distributors/localization companies. First of all, I am a tiny operation! I don’t see myself going head-to-head for licenses. I find the gems that somehow have fallen through the cracks.

And, I think what I do is a little bit different from other distributors, with the exception of Robert Woodhead at AnimEigo. It is true that I’m after the same bundle of rights (merch, videogram). But, I am not primarily in the business of selling products. Other companies do that much better than I could ever do. My focus is offering the opportunity to join something like a barn raising. To me, the reward tiers are like tickets to an experience, and the goody bag at the end is the fruition of our collective effort. My dream is that fans come away from the experience somehow changed – such as having a greater appreciation of the title, or of anime as a whole.

Like other distributors, my roles are gaining the trust of the rightsholder and taking on the risk of getting the license. But then, after that, my role is to bring the backers into the localization process as much as possible. This might be quality checking of subtitles or voting on packaging designs, or sharing very detailed and transparent “behind-the-scenes” updates about the localization process.

I am not wedded to crowdfunding per say. Technology is creating new ways for people to collaborate, and I think ecommerce is playing catch up. I think we will see more models and platforms emerge in the next few years, and I want to be part of that.

– Over the last few years, anime fans have been turning to streaming sites more and more in order to get their fix. Does Pied Piper have any plans to join the streaming/simulcast market or will you be sticking to home video releases?

At this point, I don’t see how I can bring more value to streaming/simulcast.

In fact, streaming creates a new set of problems, namely backlog and overwhelming choice. I see myself as counter-programming, if that makes sense.

– Another thing fans have seen over the last few years is the market split sharply behind the high-end “boutique” distributors and the mass-market providers. Where does Pied Piper see itself fitting in the current landscape?

I am all about boutique, bespoke!

– In an ideal situation, how active would Pied Piper like to be this year? To put it another way, can fans potentially look forward to many license announcements over the next twelve months or is the company more interested in a slow and steady approach to potential licenses?

The biggest challenge to my business model is that it isn’t really scalable. I love the process of negotiating with backers and the Japan-side creators, and I’m not interested in handing that off. So we’ll see. Last year I wrote up a business plan that calls for 4 projects and 8,000 total backers each year. *If* this Skip Beat campaign is successful, I’ll have a war chest that I can use toward licensing new titles. And, I’ll have more credibility when I approach rightsholders.

– Let’s talk about Pied Piper’s first license announcement, Skip Beat. You’re making a lot of shojo fans in North America very happy by releasing it to home video for the first time ever. Is there anything in particular that made this series such an attractive title for your first license?

After I had the realization that I wanted to turn crowdfunding into a sustainable business, the first challenge was to get new titles. In an ideal world, Directions (producer of Time of EVE) or dir. Yoshiura would have the perfect crowdfunding project in the pipeline. But no, that would be too easy!

How to identify and evaluate unlicensed titles? I’d been having conversations with Time of EVE backers and talked with several of them about my predicament. Five of them joined me as Project Curators to scout out new titles, and so they sent me a stream of ideas. My next step was to contact the rightsholders. I got many, many rejections, which gave me the chance to refine my pitch. So I was in a much better position when I met with TV Tokyo. I saw “Skip Beat!” in their catalog, and my jaw dropped.

To be honest, it wasn’t my ideal title simply because 25 episodes increases the costs on all fronts – licensing, dub, authoring, and manufacturing. It is a huge risk. I was looking for a smaller-scale title. But, Kyoko is all about guts. I love the title, and decided to go for it.

The TV Tokyo licensing team was open to letting me use crowdfunding, and I am profoundly grateful that the production committee allowed me to license the title.

I’d like to also give more background into my decision making process for the “Skip Beat!” license. Sorry, this is going to be long…

Once I’ve decided that a title has potential for crowdfunding, the next step is to make an educated guess of the minimum support I can expect from the core fan base. I try to be as empirical as possible. In the case of Time of EVE, I knew 350 or so overseas fans had purchased Direction’s Blu-ray release of the ONA version at $55, so I felt like it was reasonable to expect that at least 300 fans outside of Japan would join an international crowdfunding campaign. So I didn’t want the goal to be much higher than $16,000. Then, I got vendor quotes for the bare minimum release with a tiny production run, and managed to whittle the budget down to $18,000. So that’s how I set the initial goal (which was met within the first 24 hours of the campaign!).

For “Skip Beat!,” I looked at viewer ratings on MyAnimeList, ANN and Crunchyroll, and compared those with the other crowdfunded projects to date. I felt like I could count on 3,000 fans in North America to join the campaign at an average of $70 per pledge (the Time of EVE average was $79) for a total of $210,000. I refuse to set the initial goal above this amount, as I feel that would be unfair to fans and to the title. So, before I licensed the title, I had to ask myself: Can I deliver a quality release with English dub within that budget?

The rational answer is, absolutely not. The dub itself could easily exceed that sum. So, I was stumped. Fate stepped in, however, and one of Pied PIper’s Project Curators introduced me to Mela Lee, an incredibly talented voiceover actress with producerial smarts and the crazy heart of a die-hard fan. She proposed that we could deliver a quality dub within the $210,000 total budget, and then set stretch goals to scale up the dub with backer support. She brought onboard a truly amazing production team with Cristina Vee, Jason Charles Miller and Alexander Burke. It still feels like a miracle to have their talent on board this passion project, and I’m constantly having to pinch myself!

With their participation, I had the confidence to go ahead with the licensing agreement. So, you can think of the five of us as the first group of backers to the project. We are bonded by our love of “Skip Beat!,” and I hope that comes through in the campaign.

– Is there anything in particular you’re looking for in potential future anime licenses?

It boils down to two factors. First, I am looking for unlicensed titles that have a special quality that inspires passion from fans. Each case is different. I ask myself how I feel about the title, consult with the Project Curators who are helping me, read reviews and look at metrics like MyAnimeList. Second, the rightsholder needs to be open to crowdfunding. They need to be willing to let me open up the localization process to backers.

That being said, I absolutely think my business model is going to evolve. Three years ago, even a year ago, I would never have imagined myself taking “Skip Beat!” to fans through crowdfunding. I will continue to experiment with new ideas as I go along. It goes without saying that some of these won’t work out. It is terrifying, and exhilarating!

– Are there any plans to hit any conventions in the United States this year in order to better introduce yourself to fans?

I would love that opportunity!

– If there were one thing that you wanted our readers to know about you, one single thing that stands out about all others, what would it be?

What an amazing and difficult question! This isn’t unique to me, at all, but I’ll write it anyway. I’d like readers to know that I am continually inspired by anime, and I feel like it is such a privilege to be part of this industry.

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