Kun Gao is one of the founders of Crunchyroll and its current CEO. He and his friends started Crunchyroll because they couldn’t find any legal sites where they could stream anime. Crunchyroll reaches tens of millions of fans through content, events, merchandise, and games. Kun Gao remains an anime fan, watching current shows, but always goes back to both Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion. He loves the anime community and wants to continue to create a better experience for fans like himself. Honey-chan recently had the chance to catch up with Kun Gao, and much like last year, it was at Crunchyroll’s very own convention in San Jose, California.
Interview with Kun Gao CEO and Founder of Crunchyroll
We can start out with a softball and move on to the more serious stuff from there. Why did you create Crunchyroll?
Well originally it was just me and three other friends from Berkley (University of California at Berkley). We were computer majors and science geeks and coders and we were watching anime in the dorms. When we left Berkley, we were trying to watch it and there wasn’t a place to watch anime other than to go to a Torrent site. We were like “that kind of sucks,” because you have to go there and download it. It was pirating, and you could get a virus and you’d have to wait a long time. You’d also have to wait for fans to translate it. We were like “why couldn’t there be a cool community place for this to happen?” So we made Crunchyroll so you could stream anime. We realized that to stream anime we had to go get the licenses for it and so we got investors. We went to Japan and began to build it [the platform] out. We were able to start talking with Japanese licensors and they were passionate about what we were doing as well. So that’s how it started, solving problems for ourselves and realizing that there were millions of people like ourselves.
Last June Crunchyroll released mobile game based on “Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in the Dungeon?” called - DanMachi: MEMORIA FREESE. Does Crunchyroll have plans to expand its lineup of mobile games as well as expand outside of the mobile platform?
Traditionally a title like that would never be published outside of Japan, because companies don’t see the audience demand. They don’t see the fans that would want to play that game because of a connection with that franchise. So we were very fortunate to work with GREE to publish the game and we definitely want to do more. I think right now we are really focusing on mobile because that is where our audience is and we want to focus it (gaming) on the shows that they’re watching as well.
What are some of the problems Crunchyroll faces?
How do we contribute back to the creation and funding of content? How do we connect creators from Japan with creators here to create content that has more international appeal that international anime fans want to watch and might not even know they want to watch because it just not created anymore? For example, my favorite show was Cowboy Bebop; I don’t know if that show gets made because it’s not really a traditional Japanese anime genre. So we are trying to do originals, events, and merchandise because we think that is a problem fans face today so we want to try to improve that experience.
Companies like HiDive, Amazon, and Netflix are creating exclusive content for their own platforms. Do you think this might affect the simulcasting of anime?
If people want to watch anime on another service they absolutely should because they pay for those services. I think that means that somewhere down the line the creators will get compensated for it. I think our goal is to have the best possible offering for simulcast, the best possible catalogue, and the best video experience for fans. I think one of the things unique about Crunchyroll is the number of languages we translate anime in. If you look at those other services they’re not connecting globally whereas we are. With that reach we are able to bring more audiences to anime.
The news of Crunchyroll’s sale to Otter Media/AT&T shook up the community and caused a bit of anxiety for those who use the service. What can you say about the takeover that can help alleviate the concerns of your subscribers?
I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but AT&T has always been an investor. They have always been extremely supportive with what we are doing in our mission to serve fans. We collectively don’t think enough is being done. We think we can do a better job. We want to be everything for some people, and those some people are anime fans. AT&T continues to be supportive, has watched us grow, and have been with us every step of the way, pushing us to keep innovating, investing, and growing the experience for fans. We are still doing what we do and think there will be more of it with AT&T behind it. We feel very positive about where we are going.
You were quoted in Variety as saying “We’re not trying to be something to everyone, but everything to someone.” The idea isn’t one most companies take when as they try to appeal to a broad audience. What value does Crunchyroll feel it has focusing on a niche audience?
We really want to do things that passionate fans want more of and we want to do more of the things that they want. We want to not just be streaming content to them. We want them to be really invested in the shows. We want them to also come to our events and experience fandom and meet the creators. We want them to be so excited about the show that they are buying merchandise whether in our stores or not. We want them to engage every possible way with the things they are passionate about. I think that is the core of what we do as a company. It’s in our DNA. I think at the end of the day if you can make everyone happy around their fandom and their passion than there is a meaningful business there. The Crunchyroll focus is about the anime fan and the anime community and that is big enough for us.
Crunchyroll is already involved in so many things from streaming, to gaming, to creating its own content. Why get involved in putting on its own convention?
This our second year running our own convention and the turnout has been amazing. We didn’t expect this kind of turnout, and we are extremely happy. I think the reason we really wanted to create our own convention is because we wanted to create a better experience. The conventions we see out there right now are generally running a convention business as opposed to us; we have a lot more exposure to the community. We can bring a lot of really interesting guests from Japan because we literally are investors in the shows. The directors or the creators are really the ones we want to bring out. The creators are also interested in coming out, because they want to meet the US fans. They want to learn what the international audience looks like. We are doing our best to make a better experience for fans and link it more broadly to content.
In some cases, like with “Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?” you have rights to only part of the series, like how Sword Oratoria is on another service. Do you have plans to consolidate that?
Yeah, always, we want it. I think specifically for that show. Yes, if there is a subset of the show we definitely want to secure those rights, too.
I know the we hear the term “toxic fanbase” a lot these days, but these people aren’t new to any genre. What do you think causes this fan entitlement? Do you have anything to say to those less-than-polite anime fans?
I think what is really special about the anime community is, at least from my experience and what people working at Crunchyroll see, the anime community is so supportive and so embracing of each other as well as embracing of outsiders. If you look at a lot of communities they say things like “this is us, and that’s them and don’t get close to what we’re doing because it is ours.” We see so far that every step along the way the anime community is welcoming as it says “come here and check out all this cool stuff.” I think something that we need to embrace is that we are a community that is about supporting each other.
So. what can you tell us about High Guardian Spice? How did you settle on the story? What should we expect?
First, I hope they like it. High Guardian Spice is the first show we announced as a Crunchyroll original and we’ve got a few more that we will announce very soon. I think at the end of the day when it comes to creating, we are looking for people that work in the anime industry who are inspired by anime. Who grew up on anime. Who have a distinct viewpoint and a story to tell. We have a creative reason for each of the shows we’ve greenlit but we don’t know if every show is going to be liked by everyone. But I think as a slate of titles it’s something that we are really proud of and we think there is at least one show in that slate that everyone can enjoy. All that said, think of High Guardian Spice as a Magical Girl show with a twist.
What anime did you watch that was impactful on your opinion of anime?
I think there is a lot of great anime. But I think if I had to pick one, I’d say Eva (Neon Genesis: Evangelion). I think it’s no surprise that Shinji, the name of the forum master of Crunchyroll, is from that show. If you go to our office some of the rooms are named after the characters from Eva. It is one of the first shows I watched and I was like “this is nothing like US animation,” that this is not just cartoons or comedy, it deals with real issues. It has such complexity of characters and amazing world building and I think there is a lot of triumph over adversity.