20 Years of Right Stuf - Part 2
By Lisa Marie, 2007.
Welcome to part 2 of the history of The Right Stuf International! When last we left off, Right Stuf had just turned 10 and the anime industry was on the verge of breaking into something almost resembling mainstream acceptance. Under CEO Shawne Kleckner's careful watch, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor had just begun release, Right Stuf was slowly devouring the office space around it, and the catalog had climbed to over 2,200 individual listings in a single issue. Life was good for both anime fans and their suppliers.
Anime Returns to Broadcast TV!
In 1998, 35 years after the chant of "Go, go, go Astro Boy" first sang from American TVs, anime finally returned to US mainstream television. That year, not one but three anime phenomenons were launched. In the summer, Cartoon Network gave both Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z prominent afternoon slots in its Toonami programming block. Then in September, a little show named Pokémon debuted on Kids' WB. Ask any fan under the age of 25 what their first anime was and odds are good they'll name one of these three. Heck, the craze even caught on at Right Stuf: in '99 we numbered each page of the catalog with its appropriate Pokémon. Anime had arrived again, and this time it would need a much bigger spotlight.
The success of these three shows led to an unprecedented anime licensing boom in the United States, and titles like Gundam Wing, Digimon, Hamtaro, Yu-Gi-Oh, and many others soon followed. What did that mean for Right Stuf? A rapid - and rabid - expansion of product listings and a sudden company growth spurt. So you'll understand if I have a soft spot for electric yellow rodents, overpowered aliens, and odango pigtails.
DVDs?!If I could name just one invention that propelled the anime industry to where it is today, I'd probably pick the internet, but DVDs would be a very, very close second. First introduced commercially to the U.S. in summer 1997, DVDs not only made rewinding obsolete, but they could contain multiple language and subtitle tracks plus extras and allowed skipping to any part of the disc in mere seconds.
Of course, the DVD conversion didn't happen overnight. It would take tech-savvy early adopters to get the ball rolling, and a key demographic in that category was anime fans, long known for their interest in using new technology. Anime was a big part of the early market, and had its own major category devoted to it. In fact, at one point, 9% of all DVDs released were anime!
Right Stuf's first entry into the DVD field would come in early 2001 with The Irresponsible Captain Tylor. Shawne was hesitant to commit to the new format too soon due to the immense production costs, and so a special bonus was born. The first 750 fans to pre-order Tylor on DVD would have their names recorded onto the discs as a special thanks. We released all four individual DVDs, plus the box set, on March 27, 2001.
Later that year, we followed the Tylor release with a range of other DVDs including Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko, Assemble Insert, and Boogiepop Phantom. Boogiepop was our first DVD series to have English 5.1 audio. It was also the last of our releases to receive a VHS edition. Like the rest of the industry, Right Stuf would be DVD-only from here on.
In a slight break from the usual, in the fall of 2001 the Right Stuf production staff was hard at work on something totally unrelated to anime: the 25th Anniversary edition of the 1979 TSR board game "Divine Right." Shawne fondly remembered the game from childhood and wanted to make it available again, so he approached the publishers to re-release the game. Glenn Rahman, the game's original author, provided some updates to the rules and even a newly illustrated world map to play on. The game proved just as popular as it had in the ‘70s, and the entire run sold out in only a year.
At about the same time, ADV Films and Right Stuf joined forces to capitalize on interest in anime music and created the new music label "Animetrax". The venture proved a success when the label was able to break into major mainstream music/video retailer Suncoast. It was the first time anime music had ever found its way onto major retailer shelves. With the launch of soundtracks like Macross, Akira, Tylor, Slayers, Lost Universe, and Boogiepop Phantom paving the way, soon CDs from other industry players, like TOFU Records and Geneon, would be joining them in the stores.
The Web Grows By Leaps and Bounds
But while our soundtracks were breaking new ground in the so-called "brick and mortar" stores, our website and online store were changing, too. For many years, we had worked with a third-party vendor to develop our website. In July 2001, we moved all of our web hosting in-house.
Once things were handled internally, we started to focus on improving the overall customer experience. It wasn't long before customers were able to review order status online and shipping notices were being zipped out via email.
Coupon Code: Savings!
Of course, no history of Right Stuf would be complete without mentioning the evolution of our many, many ways to save money – so you can spend it on even more anime, right?
In 1998, we introduced our infamous "Got Anime" purchasing club. For just $12 a year, you could (and still can) save an additional 10% off of our already-discounted prices on VHS tapes. Since 2002, that little $12 membership has grown to encompass more and more types of products and now you can get discounts on just about everything that isn't already on closeout or a special, but the membership price has always held steady through the years.
By 2000, Shawne's list of bargains and deals was getting larger and larger. In response, the Bargain Bin was introduced as a special category of items, allowing for easy browsing of deals. An unqualified success, it was followed in 2002 by the Closeout Bin, for those items that had been discontinued by their manufacturers.
The ability to use coupons to the site was added in 2002, greatly increasing the number of different deals and discounts we could offer. Coupons could (and of course still can) be used in combination with a Got Anime membership, applied to items that met different requirements (get $5 off any Right Stuf title, for example), allowed "one time only" offers that would have been impossible previously, and so on.
Coupons were also the key to the debut of our infamous studio sales, allowing for sweeping savings across an entire studio's stock. And as an extra bonus, customers using the print catalog as a guide before hopping online could still apply their coupons from the back. (Hint, hint.)
Also in 2002 (it was a busy year), we made economy shipping free for all domestic orders over $99, and in 2005 lowered the threshold to the current $49. Since then, we've expanded the program to include free Canadian shipping at $150. The Canadian pricing was actually an "experiment" but one we've never felt the need to modify. Another successful experiment was Shawne's Deal of the Day, launched in summer 2003.
Far Too Much Effort on the Production Team's Part
Meanwhile, the production team was hard at work putting together the most complex anime DVDs ever produced. No, I'm not exaggerating. In July 2002, our release of His and Her Circumstances made history when it was announced that it was among the most complicated DVDs in the world. You see, while in 2002 a normal DVD contained about 1,000 assets (menus, subtitles, audio tracks, video tracks, etc), the first volume of His and Her Circumstances contained 79,713. And while most individual DVDs of the time had somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 lines of code, volume 1 had 347,006.
Not content to rest on our laurels, this extraordinary dedication to detail continued with the introduction our Ultra Edition box set line in 2003. Designed specifically for collectors, these sets were piled with extras (such as Japanese video segments never released in the US), given books featuring historical insights from the creators, and wrapped up in specialty boxes. The first Ultra set to be released was for Boogiepop Phantom, followed in 2005 by the TV and OVA sets for Tylor, and later with multiple sets for Astro Boy and Kimba.
Overhauling the Catalog
Catalog-wise, one of our biggest changes in years came in 2001. With more young fans becoming interested in anime (thanks largely to the aforementioned Pokémon), we decided it was time to make the catalog more "family friendly." All products rated 18 and up were moved from the main listings to a special sealed section which could be easily ripped out. We received so much positive feedback about the change that it has been a hallmark of our catalog ever since. But even this change was only a drop in the bucket compared to the overhaul that was to come.
In late 2002, Kris Kleckner began to move from updating the store's online content towards heading the Production Department. Her first hurdle was to revamp the company's massively growing print catalog. Still getting her bearings in 2002, only a few changes, such as the addition of age ratings, were made as she learned the ins and outs of compiling the entire anime industry into a single volume. The experience gave her a firm idea of which things she wanted to alter, and Kris and her team were ready to tackle the next edition.
In fall 2003, the catalog changed from an annual black-and-white horizontal book to the bi-annual full-color vertical version in your hands today. The product listings, which had been growing more and more unwieldy each year (we were up to 256 pages in 2002 – exactly double the current 128), were slashed from "everything anime under the sun" to "everything anime under the sun released since the last catalog, plus new stuff and best sellers." Customers looking for older titles were directed to our website, now a driving force of Right Stuf's sales.
Staff picks were introduced, highlighting some of the production team's favorite titles. Contest coupons, which had been acting as sort of mail-in raffl e tickets, disappeared to make way for more of the traditional-style (and popular) money-off coupons. The contests would later reappear as online exclusives and eventually find a permanent home on our Anime Today podcast.
But the biggest change to the catalog came with the expansion of the American manga market. What was once a listing of a few books in the back with other miscellaneous merchandise suddenly ballooned into its own 15-page section. Styled similarly to the video listings, the manga section included descriptions, pictures, and even staff picks. Today, thanks to the manga boom, graphic novels have actually overtaken DVDs to become the biggest part of the catalog.
Mining for Diamonds
Other changes were afoot in the licensing division. While classic anime had given Right Stuf its start, it was time to move on to the slightly newer future. Acquisitions turned its focus to discovering "hidden gems," and the next big discovery came with the shonen-ai (boys-love) series Gravitation.
Although a few OVAs (FAKE, Kizuna) had already made their way to American shores, most US companies were still wary as to whether shonen-ai and yaoi would sell. The huge success of the Gravitation TV series slammed open the door and shonen-ai and yaoi products flooded into the market. The popularity of Gravitation eventually spawned the creation of Right Stuf's first plush toys (versions of Kumagoro and Ryuichi), and was the impetus for our first merchandise deal with Great Eastern.
Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars From there, Right Stuf's history starts to move more and more from "back then" to "just yesterday," and if you've been reading our newsletter or following our press releases, you're likely to remember some of the following.
While we've had tylor.com for ages, it had the distinction of being our only series-specific website until 2005 when a site was also launched for for Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars. The result was simultaneously informative and entertaining and the response from fans was overwhelmingly positive. Ever since then he's been hard at work creating series sites for all of our titles.
By the summer of 2005, we had devoured the last of the office space around us and had even built a loft in the area above, and the building still wasn't big enough. It was time to move. After much searching, Shawne finally located the perfect place to relocate to. The entire staff worked overtime to move everything while minimizing any downtime for the website, customer service and fulfillment.
Move completed and new offices decorated, our tech team went right back to expanding our online presence, and in October 2005 our Got Anime site was officially relaunched. Previously just a place for customers to sign up for the program, existing Got Anime members could now find details on each month's member-only special offers and coupons as well as check out a sortable list of pre-orders for the upcoming months.
The month after that marked the debut of our podcast, Anime Today, the very first commercial podcast covering the anime / manga industry. Through the years the podcast has featured exclusive interviews with industry veterans, voice actors, and even company presidents, all talking about everything from pricing controversies to new product launches. It also has regular commentaries from our production team, contests every other Friday, and has made every single member of the podcast crew blush at least once upon hearing the end-of-episode bloopers.
RightStuf.com, Nozomi Entertainment, Anime TodayOf course, the tech team wasn't the only division taking advantage of the new location. The production division was also staying busy, and Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Piano: The Melody of a Young Girl's Heart, the Gravitation OVA, Boys Be, and Ninja Nonsense all joined the Right Stuf stable between 2005 and 2006. With the larger facilities, the company pulled as much of the production process – and quality control – as possible internally. The very first disc to be completed entirely in-house was Boys Be volume 1, released February 2006.
Bringing so much of the production process under direct control meant that we could work faster and more economically. When we rescued fan-favorite Super Gals season 2 from languishing in licensing limbo, we were able to turn the entire 26-episode season around in less than eight months. We were also finally able to move forward with the release of To Heart, which had been proving cost prohibitive to release due to the bad condition of its source material. After months of intense clean up, To Heart was finally released over the course of Spring 2007.
Our 20th Anniversary!
Now, 20 years since Shawne first began his quest for those original Astro Boy masters, Right Stuf is more successful then ever and we're celebrating in style.
Most notable this year has been the launch of Nozomi Entertainment. After years of blurring lines between Right Stuf the producer and Right Stuf the anime store, the production division has gained its own identity. The very first title to be released under the Nozomi label was this summer's The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye, an action-adventure show with a sci-fi bent. Not only does The Third mark Nozomi's first release, but it's also our first joint venture with Kadokawa Pictures USA, widely known for its other joint US releases Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
We also completely overhauled the Right Stuf website, adding improved functionality and some exciting features to make online shopping even more convenient. The tech team even implemented a new redesign. You'll notice a prominent part of that redesign has been our new logo, which adds a bit of excitement. The new addition of the exclamation point stems from the Japanese red sun, and you may have noticed the new red color popping up on our order forms and packaging.
And best of all, we had a giant vanilla and chocolate cake on July 31, Right Stuf's official 20th birthday. Trust me when I say it was delicious.
The Bright and Shiny Future
What's next for Right Stuf? Nozomi already has a number of projects in the wings for the next year, including the conclusion of The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye, a premium box set for Ninja Nonsense, the resurrection of the space comedy Lost Universe TV series, and two box sets of the upstairs-downstairs romantic tale Emma: A Victorian Romance.
We're already filling up our new building (believe it or not, it was a surprise), but being based in Iowa does have its advantages – we have more than 3 acres out back to expand on. While the catalog seems to have stabilized at around 128 pages, the anime and manga industry continues to grow and the catalog may just find itself getting another revamp. Who knows? The only thing for certain is that our devotion and service to our customers will continue to be our number one priority.
Here's to another 20 great years!