Anime fans were thrilled to hear that one of the biggest hits of the last season, Sword Art Online, has been slated for home video release in the U.S. They weren't thrilled to hear about the way Aniplex is planning to release the series: in four DVD sets of $49.98 each ... and four Blu-ray sets of $112.98 each.
Actually, it isn't just Sword Art Online that costs a bundle -- it's most every title Aniplex has put out for domestic release. The reason why this happens deserves some discussion. (Warning: some technical discussion of anime business stuff.)
When an anime distributor sets the price for a given show, it's a reflection of a number of things at once: how many copies they think they'll sell; how much they paid for the license in the first place; how much they believe they're able to offset the cost of the license through other venues (e.g,. TV broadcast or streaming); any demands stipulated by the owner of the show about how many copies they must put on the market at minimum, and so on.
In Aniplex's case, they are the distributor, and so they are free to set whatever manufacturing volume -- and pricing -- they feel is valid. They routinely set their prices more than twice as high as other domestic anime distributors, in part because they're pursuing a sales model that is patterned largely after the way things work for the fan market in Japan.
There, per-unit prices are routinely quite high for a variety of reasons: as a way of offsetting the cost of making the series in the first place (although that explanation rings slightly hollow for a show that's been on the market for years); as a reflection of the video market still being geared mainly for rental pricing and not end-user sales; because the relative size of the market demands it; and because that's the way they've always done it. Old habits die very hard.
Granted, the pricing for the domestic pressing of Sword Art Online is still cheaper than the Japanese import, and these are deluxe editions with tons of extras. But the first of those facts is cold comfort, and the second is frustrating to people who just want a standard-edition piece of physical media. Doubly frustrating since there's no guarantee Aniplex will either produce a standard edition or license it out for sale via another distributor. That, they did do for Baccano! -- they let FUNimation release the show on DVD, then put out a Blu-ray Disc edition themselves -- but such a move made little sense for that show since the masters for that show weren't even full HD anyway! (I have the packaging for the Baccano! BD in front of me, and it says right on the box "The original master has been converted from SD to HD.")
Now, without auditing Aniplex's books, it's hard to tell whether or not this less-units, higher-prices strategy works in their favor. Maybe they sell less of them but in the end pocket more money; who knows?
But that's been consistently shown to be a bad approach to fans outside Japan. Consider Broccoli and Honneamise, both of whom also tried the "boutique" approach and ended up closing up shop because, well, most Western fans don't want to pay $75 for a single movie or $250 and up for a series. The only outfit I know of right now that's able to make the deluxe-editions-first approach work in their favor is NIS America -- and I hope it continues to work for them, because I've liked just about everything they put out regardless of what kind of packaging it came in.
Aniplex, do everyone a favor, especially yourself. Don't play it all so close to the chest. Strike more deals. Put your products -- which are very good indeed -- back in the hands of the people who want it at prices that won't alienate the vast majority of them.
But most importantly, don't ignore the lessons of history.