Manga Entertainment is far from the first company to get into the business of bringing Japanese animation to western shores, but in many ways they've made the biggest splashes.
In Europe and Australia, they--then known as Manga UK--brought many classic anime titles to the big and small screens, making Japanese animation a household term. This brought both joy and consternation to anime fans, as anime once again gained a reputation for being pornographic and violent. When Manga Entertainment opened their offices on American shores with different management, the North American fans held their breaths--and were pleasantly surprised to see theatrical and video releases of such classic titles as Wings of Honneamise
, and video releases of the best of the new breed of anime such as Macross Plus
and Giant Robo
. Many titles have been released in both dubbed and subtitled formats, in an effort to please both the newcomers and the diehard, old-school fans.
Recently, Manga Entertainment released Ghost in the Shell
, a visually sumptuous cyberpunk thriller in the aesthetic vein of Akira
. Based on an original manga by Shirow Masamune (creator of Appleseed
) and directed by Mamoru Oshii (director of Patlabor 2
and Angel's Egg
), Ghost in the Shell
features some of the best Blade Runner
-esque scenery since Akira
hit the screens in 1988, and some of the most interesting blends of computer and cel animation since last year's Macross Plus
. However, Ghost
also introduced something new--Manga Entertainment co-produced the film, probably marking the first time a western company has helped finance an anime film intended for a Japanese audience.
Manga is a fast-moving company, and CEO Marvin Gleicher is a busy guy. I managed to catch up with him in mid-May, and we talked about the business of importing Japanese animation and some of the realities of co-production. Here's what he had to say.
Emru Townsend: Let's just do the whole overview thing, shall we?
Okay. So, first of all, let's start with you, as opposed to the company. How'd you get into all this?
Well, I have a background in film, film editing, commercial production, and animation production dating back to the '70s. And then I got sidetracked for about fifteen years in the music business, and had produced music videos... I produced and directed several, in addition to several TV commercials for record projects. In fact, I produced three videos for the band Rush, for their Hemispheres
album, before MTV was even invented, and [they were] shown on the Juno Awards.
I had the opportunity to bring--well, Manga Entertainment has been an Island company, which was owned by Chris Blackwell, in England, and had brought Japanese animation to all of Europe for the first time, and had proven extremely successful. Then when I analyzed the US and Canadian markets for Japanese animation, we discovered that... well, first of all, I was totally attracted to the animation style and had been, well, not a fanboy, but a strong fan of the animation style, and had seen several films, and just really enjoyed the graphics and the storylines and the action, and really became attached to it. When I was approached to open the US division and then Canadian division for Manga, I decided within 24 hours to totally change my career from music to work on Manga. I saw where we could market and use press [to] educate the public to the genre. Because it didn't have the accessibility of American or normal cartoon shows for Saturday, it didn't have the appeal for the movie channels yet, because there weren't what they felt were strong enough titles, but it did have a strong awareness in the, I would say, 12 to 30-year-old range, and there's a lot of fans older than that as well. But the majority of these people just hadn't been exposed to it. So we are really experts at educating and targeting press and marketing towards various vector sub-groups that are very niche-oriented. We did it city by city, we ran college animation festivals for free, or fifty cents, and all the money went to charity if there was any charge, or the student union fund. Then we got all the local people involved from the coffee shops to the bookstores to the video stores to the comic stores and even the bigger accounts, so that the localized press would then write about it. So we went through 140 cities like this. And when we started to do more national campaigns and released what we felt were better films than our competitors, we also had better distribution in place, we had better perception of marketing in place, and the stories changed from "just another Japanese animated film" to something a lot more exciting than it was. Now you had a complete audience of hundreds of thousands of people that we exposed to it, that could make a decision for themselves. I'm not saying everyone loved it that saw it, but at least it was a chance to be exposed to Japanese animation, to make a decision for yourself.
I saw this as what was lacking initially, because in North America the only way to get titles was either through a catalog or through a comic book store. So the regular music chains, with one or two exceptions--I mean, Akira
was a big film that everybody knew about; Robotech
; Giant Robo
might have been around--there were just a few titles that were available, none of the rental stores had them, other than one or two titles, and people were tired of renting the same title, and we saw tremendous opportunity for expanding that market [by] creating consumer demand. Not hyping the retail stores to take the product, like most film companies--a lot of film companies have to load films in to justify a lot of marketing expenditures. We constantly worked on creating consumer demand, and it evolved through legitimate word of mouth and sell-through. That was kind of our overview; half the people here have worked in the independent music business, one or two people have worked in the film business, I've got tour managers, I've got marketing experts, I've got film bookers... and we have access to a lot of people that are experienced. We were kind of going into unknown territory, but we had big picture and small picture plans, and we just stuck to it and executed it, and it's grown on a very strong curve. And we've reduced the price to the fans and have released some of the best titles in Japanese, subtitled, and even some of the dubs that normally some of the real strong Japanese fans don't like, they liked of ours. And by doing it in English, we've been able to expand that market to people other than the original fanboys that were there. So we've been able to keep the fan market intact and expand it.
I have to admit, I'm not really a strident fan. I don't care if it's dubbed or subtitled. I care if it's dubbed well, or if it's subtitled well more than anything else.
The public is pretty much spoiled because the higher-end productions can get everyone from Keifer Sutherland and Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, and the costs of getting those talents is more, sometimes, than it costs us for the film. [But] you need professional actors and actresses. Just good voice-over people don't cut it, because the dynamics are still missing. You need the actors and actresses to really distinguish the parts, and the Japanese--[for instance,] it's part of their culture where the women have high voices, which is done intentionally, and some of the fans like to watch it in Japanese to really get the feel and gist of how it was perceived from the Japanese point of view, which is totally understandable. Sometimes the words don't translate exactly. Sometimes one word in English takes twenty words in Japanese, and vice versa, along with a paragraph for the colloquialism, or explaining the feudal system, or how this samurai did this, or... [laughs
] I mean, there's so much that's inferred. The languages don't translate extremely well to each other. Also, you have to think of what you've got. So, some of the dialogue, you have to kind of fit in what's best, and the translators, the professional ones, have kind of judgement calls that are made that are asterisked that two or three other people check out to make sure that the interpretation of what it is is correct when it's dubbed. We translate into French, Italian, German and Spanish.
Oh, so you do the dubs into other various European languages as well.
We're dubbed in... yeah, French, English, German, Italian, and Spanish. And then it's subtitled in Dutch and Swedish, and then sometimes it's subtitled in Portuguese, sometimes it's subtitled in Spanish, because Spanish from Barcelona doesn't translate into anywhere in South America or Latin America.
Do you know offhand if the French dubs are going to be released in Canada?
Yes, we are planning on it. We're setting up distribution right now with Polygram in Canada, and we will have the French dubs available if they want to release them. I don't think every film will be released in French, but I think the stronger titles definitely could be, and be workable. That's their call, not ours. But they are available if they want them.
You mentioned that you had done some animation work in the '70s. In what capacity was that?
I produced and directed several animated TV commercials, and produced an eighteen-minute fundraising film for the United Way, and produced a Duke Ellington mail-order thing with dancing musical notes and things like that. But the fundraising film was pretty big, and I worked on a couple of other commercial accounts that used animation in their commercials. So I had some experience with cel animation, and shot cel animation before I directed. I'm not an artist, but I can produce it.
What is your exact title within Manga Entertainment?
I'm the CEO of Manga Entertainment worldwide.
So in that respect you're actually a cut above a producer.
Oh no, I can't get to spend as much time in the studio as I want to now.
So what you're doing now is mostly administration. You don't work as much with lining up talent, but more with overseeing the big picture.
That's correct. There's a fellow in London, his name is Laurence Guinness, and he is in charge of all of our productions from the point of doing all the dubbing. He's the point person for acquisitions in Japan as well. We also have a comic book company and a book publishing company in England that produces manga books and comics and graphic novels.
Are these derivative works, or translations of existing works?
They're translations of original works. We have the license for the X-Files
comics and books in the UK as well, besides publishing comics like Mortal Kombat
or Tank Girl
or things of that nature. We put out a magazine there too, called Manga Mania