Right hobby, right time

A fan of Japanese animation created a multimillion-dollar business that is one of the nation's top online retailers.

Published November 5, 2004

WESTCHASE - On screen, red-haired Tiara and her pet ferret, Japolo, seek to find and return the stolen source of power to the Guardian World.

Inside AnimeNation, Morgan Canaday embarks upon a less ambitious but, to her, equally serious task. She's on the hunt for new Japanese animation to devour.

Keychains with some of her favorite characters jangle from her purse strap as she peruses the new release rack. The 22-year-old Publix cashier speaks in detail about the voice actors who perform on obscure titles.

The theme song from a new disc blasts over the speakers. Canaday names the tune just notes into it, dancing to the beat she calls addictive. "I really want this," she announces to no one in particular.

Canaday is an otaku, the Japanese word that many hardcore U.S. fans of Japanese animation and graphic novels have adopted to describe themselves. Her rental list is 20 DVDs long and growing. She buys what is "cool" or "rocks," and already has more than 150 discs and hundreds of books.

And she has been getting her fix from AnimeNation, just outside Westchase, at least twice a week "forever."

"They get stuff faster than Waldenbooks," Canaday explained. "They have more of a selection. The problem with Best Buy is, you never know if you'll get them all (the discs in a series). Here, you know they have it."

As the sign on the shop wall says, if you can't find an item on the shelf, just ask. The store keeps more than 8,000 items in stock. They have it because AnimeNation has quietly become one of the country's top two online retailers specializing in Japanese animation.

* * *

Owner Gene Field considers himself lucky to have stumbled into success.

After graduating from Clearwater Central Catholic High, Field, now 37, knocked around at odd jobs for a year, never finding anything that suited him.

He joined the Coast Guard, his father's profession, for an eight-year stint. Then he returned to an eclectic collection of jobs - clerk at CompUSA, airplane mechanic and guitarist among them - rarely holding a post for more than a month.

Nothing seemed to fit.

It was his hobby, of all things, that became his multimillion-dollar business.

The Internet as we know it didn't really exist in 1995. But Field enjoyed tinkering with the system, creating a fan site - really a single-page computerized bulletin board - featuring pictures from Japanese animated movies and television shows that he enjoyed as a kid.

Web page owners were charged by the visit at the time, and the site got so many hits that he couldn't afford the bill. But the people who saw the artwork began clamoring for more, asking Field to sell the movies they came from.

"I decided to take a chance," he said.

Thinking ahead, Field bought two copies for each title someone requested, and began creating a stockpile. When cash ran low, he sold the Volkswagen minibus he once had driven to and from Alaska, leaving him with just a bicycle to take orders to the post office.

"Anime was always an interest, kind of a hobby," he explained, sitting in his office filled with character art, figurines and other collectibles. "It just grew by itself once I put it online."

* * *

As it turned out, Field could not have had better timing.

Internet use was growing, along with interest in anime. He lucked into the business version of a perfect storm.

Animation was part of the Japanese film industry before World War II, with artists consciously moving to color animated movies for the international market in the 1950s.

By the 1960s, television became the medium of choice and some of the more notable characters such as Astro Boy and Speed Racer made their way to the United States. American fans were largely aware they were watching Japanese shows, as they had been culturally stripped in translation.

But they made the connection in the late 1970s, said anime historian Fred Patten. "Cult fandom" grew, Patten said, as people traded videotapes of shows they recorded off the Japanese stations in New York, Los Angeles and, sometimes, with friends in Japan.

Science fiction buffs, in particular, preferred the stylized art and mature themes of the Japanese shows over the more childish fare of American animation.

"Fans were always asking for Japanese animation to be made commercially available in the United States," Patten said.

The Star Wars generation warmed up to the Japanese Robotech, but anime was still far from the mainstream.

"The professional companies putting out videotapes in the 1980s said, "Nobody in the U.S. is really interested in that, except you freaks,' " Patten said.

By the late 1980s, some early anime fans were making money and starting companies to bring the films and programs to the U.S. market. The 1988 release of Akira, an apocalyptic animated movie, pushed the genre to a new level.

"With the film Akira, you really had not only a kind of cult boom in Japanese animation, but something that really stood out as distinct," Yale University film expert Aaron Gerow said. "It wowed people."

The next three years saw the first round of startup companies licensing more and more titles for U.S. distribution, Patten said.

Mainstream chains saw there was money to be made. The SciFi Channel aired some of the most popular animes, and the industry got another boost.

So by 1995 - the year Field started his fan page and the for-girls action anime Sailor Moon premiered in the United States - the pump was primed for success.

* * *

At first, Field ran AnimeNation on a shoestring.

He had a small warehouse in Clearwater with a small staff, and barely scraped together enough money to print a 12-page catalog. He never intended to have even a walk-in store.

Then fans started dropping by and "we had to start a retail shop just to keep people out of the warehouse."

Within a year, his 12-page catalog had grown to 100 pages and 22,000 copies. The privately held company now has a mailing list of more than 70,000, and its Web site - www.animenation.com - has more links in the anime world than any other.

Field won't reveal actual sales because of competition, but says business is in the multimillions.

Sensing its growth might be big, Field and his business partner-wife, Connie, built a 15,000-square-foot warehouse five years ago in a light industrial park at Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard. The company fits there comfortably with room to expand, and it's just a short commute from their Safety Harbor home.

"We're not small, but at the same time we try to market ourselves and separate ourselves from the Best Buys and the Amazons," Connie Field said. "When you call us, we are all fans."

As AnimeNation experienced success, general entertainment retailers also found their way to anime.

"We've really seen explosive growth over the last four years," said Beth Bingham, spokeswoman for Borders Books, whose outlets have expanded their anime and graphic novel sections exponentially to meet demand.

Disney recently started releasing the critically acclaimed work of Hayao Miyazaki, with Spirited Away - the tale of a young girl trapped in a spirit world who must find the courage to save her parents - winning an Academy Award in 2002.

The Cartoon Network airs anime during its afternoon Toonami programming and its after-hours Adult Swim. The latter slots were No. 1 in the September ratings for basic cable among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The network plans to debut two hot titles - the long awaited Fullmetal Alchemist and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - in November.

"I think anime has been around enough now that it has penetrated a broad mindset," said Terry Kalagian, the network's vice president for acquisitions and coproduction. "We see that evidenced by the success of Pokemon and the success of Yu-Gi-Oh!"

Mainstreaming is a double-edged sword, said John Oppinger, AnimeNation's resident anime expert. It makes the art form he and others obsess over more recognized. It also exposes viewers to "Americanized" anime.

One thing is certain, though.

It forced AnimeNation to rethink its future.

* * *

The ability to rent or buy Japanese anime at Blockbuster excited fans.

"But we knew it was a scary thing," Connie Field said. AnimeNation did not want to go the way of the mom-and-pop store.

"We had to compete with the mass merchants," Gene Field added, nodding.

That meant moving in new directions.

Already, AnimeNation had branded itself. Fans would use its Web site to buy products, and also to discuss the latest news and rumors about shows and characters. Oppinger had become a semi-celebrity at anime conventions because of his knowledgeable "Ask John" column.

The company name regularly came up - usually positively - in online chatter.

The next logical step, Gene Field said, was to license and distribute titles. After lengthy negotiations, the newly formed AN Entertainment released its first DVD, Risky Safety, to generally positive reviews in 2003. To see the first episode, visit www.animenation.net/anent/riskysafety/funbox.php?v=risky

AN Entertainment issued its second series, a more violent and risque Miami Guns, this year, and announced its acquisition of the hip cult series Hare+Guu for release in 2005.

AnimeNation also launched an online rental division, Rentanime.com. Customers can rent up to three titles at a time, with no set return date, for $19.95 monthly. When the DVDs become less popular, or have been circulated enough, they go into the company's used sale bin for half price.

* * *

Next year, AnimeNation celebrates its 10th anniversary, and the Fields are confident that success will continue.

"I saw the numbers in an article of what the industry is projected," Gene Field said. "Maybe $1-billion. It wasn't a small amount. I read Dragon Ball Z alone sold $100-million."

They plan to issue a full-color glossy collector catalog, propel Hare+Guu into the market and grow Rentanime.com, while also keeping an eye out for the next set of titles to license.

"We're trying to do it right, and not get ahead of ourselves," Gene Field said.

That's something Chris Maas of Town 'N Country expects.

Maas, 24, is such a fan that he named his son, Krylin, after a Dragon Ball Z character, and he's now trying to collect all the DVDs that feature the character for his son. He said he got into anime as a way to stay out of trouble, and quickly became an AnimeNation regular.

And though he could do all his shopping online, he comes to the warehouse and store instead, because of the personal touch.

"I use the online to find stuff, but I like to come in because I like the people," Maas said.

He headed off to rent some videos for the weekend that he hadn't already seen.

Luckily, he said, many on his list were available.

Quest fulfilled.

- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com