A rather dreadful (and very large) image is making its way around the anime Twittersphere right now, and I figured rather than comment on it on Twitter (where I am more active than here, frankly) I would actually make a blog post about it. First and foremost, this image is unsourced. While the numbers on the right column are well-known, the numbers on the left need confirmation.
Edit: sure enough, it came in real fast via comments that these numbers were cherry-picked, listing only well-liked titles that sold poorly and leaving out nearly everything that's been successful for them. The image is one of those half-truth kinds of things people use to start fanboy debates on /a/. For real Madhouse numbers (in Japanese) have a look here and Ctrl+F "Death Note".
That said, the story it tells is probably not too far off the mark. In the left column we have first-volume DVD sales numbers for Madhouse titles. Their biggest seller is Black Lagoon at about 5,800 copies, and most of the titles don't make it past two thousand copies sold. We're talking about titles like Paranoia Agent, Kaiji, Kaiba (which sold under 500 copies). Every single show on that list is damn good.
In the right column-- and this is the really staggering part-- we have the biggest hit of every single other studio. Obviously this is much more mainstream fare: Gundam (Seed Destiny, what the fuck is wrong with you people), Macross (Frontier, what the fuck is...), FMA. Bakemonogatari, a very otaku piece of work, outsold everything.
The sales charts are about mainstream otaku fare, you see. Remember that video sales are the completely insane and suicidal system by which the anime industry makes all its money. It doesn't matter how many nerds on the Internet are buzzing at each other to watch a show: if people aren't lining up to buy your show for $80 a DVD or $100 a BD or whatever, you don't have a success. This industry depends entirely on the financial contributions of superfans.
To put the necessary level of superfandom in perspective, I did a little snooping on CD Japan. Current moe juggernaut K-On costs 8000y a Blu-Ray disc. The dollar is in really bad shape right now, so that's nearly a hundred dollars. There are 7 discs to buy of the first season and 9 to buy of the second. That's 128,000 yen. That's $1,571.73, leaving out the concert movie. That's just to own the show. According to that image, K-On has (thus far: it is by no means done) sold 52,761 DVDs and made Kyoani about five million bucks. In a niche this small, that's a hit.
I'm never going to pay $80 for two episodes of anime. The Shin Mazinger Blu-Rays are out there, and I'd love to own them, but I will never in my life be able to justify spending $600 on a TV show. Most folks are not going to pay $80 for two episodes of anything. This is a price point for the hardest of the hardcore, the money-to-burn rich, and absolutely nobody else. This price point is the core problem of the entire Japanese animation industry.
These Madhouse projects weren't going to make money, and I think Madhouse must understand this going in. There aren't ten thousand rich Fukumoto or Yuasa superfans out there to buy up $80 DVDs, and they're not going to appear.
Madhouse just wants to make good shows and do its own thing, and if these numbers are true, they're paying for it. It is worth noting that this chart leaves out the infrequent times Madhouse has tried to do something really otaku, like the horrendous Chaos;Head (which I bet sold), the "oh my god what the fuck am I even watching" Rizelmine, or even High School of the Dead. In any case, Madhouse might want to make a show about high school girls doing cute things (sans the gore), already. I won't watch it, but if they're lucky, the right person will.