By ROLAND KELTS
Back in the Stone Age of streaming media, the most notorious and popular of pirate anime websites suddenly went legit. In January 2009, after securing distribution agreements with Japanese studios and a licensing deal with TV Tokyo that included episodes of the global hit series Naruto Shippuden, the San Francisco-based fansite Crunchyroll banished all illegal content and started offering paid-subscription packages.
In three years, the site turned a profit and began funneling earnings back to Japanese producers. In 2013, Hollywood mogul Peter Chernin’s investment arm, The Chernin Group, acquired a majority stake in Crunchyroll to the tune of an estimated $100 million.
This did not go unnoticed. Media giants like Hulu and Netflix leaped onto the streaming-anime bandwagon, with the latter’s CEO Reed Hastings announcing earlier this month plans to co-produce anime titles in the near future. So called over-the-top content (OTT) — online, on-demand and delivered via ISPs by third-party outlets — is the now and future of global media.
But as Hastings’ comments indicate, the streaming media bandwagon is sagging under the weight of so many passengers. Sites face increasing pressure to distinguish themselves by adding value, diversity and originality to their content catalogs, so that their impatient and oversaturated users remain committed.
In June, Swiss-based streaming service Viewster opened its first North American office in Los Angeles, appointing anime biz veteran Rob Pereyda as CEO of its United States subsidiary, Viewster Inc. The ad-supported site focuses on global media and its largest content category is anime.
Viewster Inc. CEO, Rob Pereyda
Pereyda has worked in the Japanese entertainment industry for a decade, eight years of which he spent living in Japan. Like many non-Japanese who take jobs in the business, his roots are in fandom. He founded an anime club as a student at Santa Clara University. In 2003, after graduating, he launched Anime Overdose, an informal gathering-turned-convention. Stints with game companies Konami and Capcom USA followed. In 2008, he joined the Tokyo office of Crunchyroll, just as it was transitioning from pirate fan site to legal service.
“It was a lot of fun helping build things from scratch,” he says now from Los Angeles. “We built the licensing program and subscription literally from the ground up. It was like being a combination of cowboy and prospector.”
Three years later, Pereyda took a job with Bandai Namco Entertainment, helping develop digital strategies and initiating an endeavor called ShiftyLook to revive the company’s classic intellectual property in new media formats.
“The plan was to start with web comics, then do animation and games and merchandise.” One such project, “Wonder Momo,” based on a 1987 arcade game, was reinvented last year as a comic and anime series and sequel game. (It also gave Pereyda his Japanese voice-acting debut.)
Viewster tapped Pereyda last spring through the professional social networking service LinkedIn, where one of its founders asked him to join as a part-time adviser. He had already set up his own production company, Henshin, LLC, to oversee creative properties between Japan and the United States. But when Viewster offered him the chief executive officer slot at its U.S. consumer-facing business, Pereyda made the move to LA.
His current goal, he says, is to create “a premium subscription service that is of value to the consumer, something that he or she will love that isn’t a clone or copy of an existing product.”
Viewster's "Omakase" gift box
Viewster’s new bimonthly product was unveiled in July. Called Omakase (I’ll Leave it Up to You), it offers what the company calls “carefully curated anime merchandise,” plus ad-free high-definition streaming and exclusive digital comics, music and anime content.
The first installment features a boxful of merchandise from Studio Trigger’s globally popular manga and anime series, “Kill la Kill,” including a gold-foil hardcover manga book and a “Senketsu” scarf, designed according to the detailed look of the clothing worn by “Kill la Kill” characters possessing sentient and transformative powers. Only a devoted fan would understand its meaning, but it also looks fashionable.
Pereyda stresses that the scarf was created in-house by him and his staff for the benefit of Viewster users. It’s anime e-commerce, yes, but with a twist: Omakase is not a resale of existing products. The merchandise is original.
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Kill la Kill,’ ” he confesses, “and so is my staff. There is an episode where Ryuko, the main character, wears this scarf. It’s an iconic part of the show, but it never existed in official merchandise form. The cool thing here is that since it’s very much a ‘symbol’ without a giant piece of art, it can be worn in ‘stealth,’ just as a cool scarf, a fashion item.”
Those who aren’t fans will appreciate the chic, he adds, while devotees will dig the insider wink.
Omakase retails for $29. Viewster pegs the total value at $60. The first boxes ship in less than two weeks, on Nov. 25. Pereyda and Viewster are betting on the marriage of Japanese content with lifestyle. Having anime streaming everywhere is not enough. Now you get to wear it.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.