Answerman Special - The Sad Tale of Anime Crashby Justin Sevakis,
I'm on vacation this week, so I'm dedicating this entire column to answering a single question. Even if you're too new to the scene to know what this is about, hopefully their story is entertaining enough that you won't care.
Reed Nelson asks:
So my day job is working the used video game and movie store that I'm a partial owner of. Lately, we've had this former seaman bringing in tote box after tote box of B-grade anime he bought while he was rolling in the proverbial dough, most of which I've heard of before. But then I was going through his latest wave of trade-ins and found three volumes of "Geisters," a show that sounded vaguely familiar. But what was totally unfamiliar was the label: Anime Crash. I like to think I'm mostly familiar with North American anime industry developments, but this one flew completely under my radar. ANN's Encyclopedia says they licensed some other Korea-developed shows (apparently Geisters was a Japan-Korea collab, which I thought all anime was these days), and they dissolved their business in 2007. But who were these guys exactly, and what happened to them?
Reed asked this on Twitter, and I told him to send it in here, so I could answer it long form. It's too long and weird a story for 140 characters. (Since this is just going to be one long bit of text, I'll turn off bold caps now.)
Anime Crash is a company that many East Coast anime fans that were active in the 90s might just barely remember. Their long and odd history stretches across nearly every aspect of the anime business, and yet for being in business over a decade, they had surprisingly little to show for it. I had a few run-ins with the Anime Crash crew over the years, but I never really got a complete account of what happened. Luckily, through the magic of Facebook, I stayed in touch with James Veronico, who was incredibly helpful in filling in the cracks. James was an early employee at the retail store, and was there all the way through the end of the company, serving as VP of Sales and Marketing right up until he went to work one day to find an eviction notice on the door.
Part 1: Retail
Anime Crash started life as a retail store. Or I should say, it started as a section of a retail store: the anime and manga section of Little Nemo's Comics, in Queens, New York City (now defunct). With anime becoming more and more of a thing, in 1995 store owner Chris Parente decided to go big, and cater directly to the sort of fan that was becoming a staple of the anime section in his little shop: the college nerd. So he opened a decent sized storefront in Manhattan, right on 4th Street and Broadway, near both New York University and the giant Tower Records superstore that dominated that corner. (Veronico states that the store was initially launched with help from Image Anime, but the partnership quickly soured and Parente ended up owning 97% of the company. Nobody from Image Anime replied to my emails asking for confirmation.)
The store must've seemed pretty cool back when it opened: it was stocked not just with the latest anime VHS releases, but also martial arts movies, toys, wall scrolls, ridiculously expensive import CDs, and of course Ramune and Pocky. The store was slick and well-lit, and didn't have that sweaty, skeevy feel that so many comic shops and Chinatown shops had. This was a place you could bring your girlfriend or your kids. News media doing puff pieces on this hot new "annie-may" trend often used Anime Crash as a backdrop.
The store was so popular that Parente opened a second, bigger location in Boston, right on the edge of the Harvard campus and a 20-minute walk from MIT, and moved there himself. (It was also just down the block from another anime store, Tokyo Kid, then called Man From Atlantis.) The store attracted a lot of attention outside. Inside this one was a video rental, Laserdiscs, and TVs -- which were usually playing a violent OAV like Ninja Scroll or somesuch. (Ninja Scroll was their all-time best-selling item ever, both on VHS and DVD.)
Mike Toole, whom ANN readers know, was a frequent visitor to this location, and credits store manager Rob Stowell with giving him his first gig writing about anime in the store newsletter. "[It was] nothing much, just a 4-page pamphlet assembled with a pirated copy of Quark XPress," Mike recalls. Still, it led immediately to bigger things: they paid him by letting him take from the huge pile of screener tapes, which came in handy when writing for Viz's Animerica Magazine.
The store was a major stop for anyone who was anyone in the anime scene. Yoshitaka Amano and Mamoru Oshii both made public appearances there. Industry figures like Central Park Media's VP of Sales Mike Pascuzzi and Media Blasters' John Sirabella would stop in often. The store hosted screenings, and featured as emcee a young, attractive blonde dancer/aspiring actress who went by the name of Apollo Smile. Big-eyed and slender, the store branded her the "live action anime girl," and tried to turn her into something of a local idol. It was all in the name of marketing to the young, male college student. (Ms. Smile took her mascot/hosting act to Sci Fi Channel before fading into obscurity.)
The two stores, and later a third store in Providence, Rhode Island, had their own managers, but Parente made frequent visits to both. Mike remembers him as "very reserved and quiet, playing the 'silent partner' role well." Far more prominent was his second-in-command, a loud, brash guy named Scott Mauriello. Scott was a character -- fast talking, more than a little slick, and seemingly inexhaustible. (He also owned the other 3% of Crash.) Veronico remembers neither store's management being particularly responsible, leading to some monetary losses.
At any rate, the stores' success was short-lived. By 1997, anime was being stocked in huge sections by every major video store, usually at a discount. (Anime Crash sold everything at full SRP.) Worse, DVD was starting to become a big thing, meaning that the huge inventory of VHS that the store was sitting on was becoming worth less and less with each passing day. "The store started to not have new releases, then gaps formed in their catalog," Mike recalls. "They weren't buying DVDs to sell, and the toys and collectibles sat there and got sun-baked and dusty. They started renting fansubs and bootlegs to make up for this." The NYC location in particular was facing a huge rent hike. When it hit $20,000 a month, the location closed. The Boston location followed, and eventually the Providence one did too.
Part 2: DVD
The slow decline of the retail space was evident for a few years by this point, and Mauriello had bigger plans anyway: he wanted to be a DVD publisher and rights holder. After all, that's where the real money was in that era. With Parente backing him, Mauriello launched Crash Media Group, with the intent to get into the DVD publishing business. He first started with low-hanging fruit: the 1970s kung-fu movies that had fallen into public domain. Eventually, the group expanded to licensing more movies, many of which had never had been released on DVD before. By the time the retail stores were winding down, the home video label was in full swing, and had a string of hits. Its marketing smartly cashed in on the popularity of Wu Tang Clan and its mix of urban culture with martial arts. First distributed by CPM, and then by Ventura, and finally by Sony's RED Distribution, the company amassed a library of nearly 200 live action titles.
Despite these successes, Veronico does not look back on this time fondly. "From 2001-2007, I was Crash Media Group's sole, single employee. That company ran with one employee; me. We had Chris, the owner, some freelance artists of course, and our distribution partners did a lot of logistics, but crash was a company with one employee and one owner who was in Boston who acted as if he had better things to do. If you ever got an email from Scott Mauriello, it's because I wrote it, most of the time with him standing over my shoulder or otherwise micromanaging." (I could not find Mauriello or Parente to ask for comment for this article.)
The company also forged an unusual partnership with a company known as Abrams Gentile Entertainment, or AGE. AGE was once known as Mego Toys, and owned partial rights to a handful of mostly-forgotten American cartoons like Bucky O'Hare and Rambo. They also owned T-ink, a conductive ink that was touch responsive - your finger closed an electrical circuit - that, when hooked up to electronics, allowed any cheaply printed paper to be touch sensitive. It was the technology inside the old Nintendo Power Glove. Their most recent success had been Sky Dancers, the mid-90s doll line, which had brought in hundreds of million dollars worldwide.
AGE gave Crash Media some office space on 54th Street (in the same building as the infamous Studio54), and also gave them access to their recording studio and operating capital. In exchange, AGE got equity and the use of Crash's distribution network for their animated library. Unfortunately, most of those titles were stinkers. Veronico recalls, "We even got stuck with a cartoon for fundamentalist Christians called 'The Hugglers' which the studio eventually demanded we recall (after Crash went something like $150K deep into) because other Crash films had the naked boobies in them and the [producers] didn't want to be associated with them." Crash Media was also called on to help sell T-ink. The company saw it as a natural fit for manga (the ink could be attached to a battery and voice box, and suddenly you had Talking Manga), and Mauriello tried for years to pitch this technology to manga companies. Nobody was even vaguely interested.
Weird bedfellows aside, the company now had a pretty decent distribution network in place and a toy company in the same office. They were a natural fit to go after bigger Kids' properties. Together, Crash and AGE went after two Korean anime TV series: Olympus Guardians, a fantasy about Greek Gods; and Ki Fighter Taerang, a cute Tae Kwon Do fighting show. The goal was to dub them and try and get them on American television.
On the Japan side of things, old school writer and producer Kimio Ikeda, best known for his work on Speed Racer decades earlier, approached AGE about making a more modern car racing anime for tween and teen audiences. The companies formulated a plan to get licensing in place for a simultaneous release in the US and Japan (both for video and merchandising). The series was to be called "Shiden". Designs were made, Crash Media's go-to designer Tasayu Tasnaphun designed the main race car, the rest of the design was done in Japan, and an entire 30-minute pilot episode was produced.
The project got quite a bit of attention. Crash presented the show at anime conventions, and got written up in magazines like Anime Insider. Mauriello flew to Tokyo Anime Fair 2004 to present the pilot. Meetings were held, business trips were made, but the Japanese side and the American side both were struggling to find investors in the project. And just then, after months of effort and work, the elder Ikeda passed away. And with him, so did the project.
Part 3: Downfall
I remember Geisters from my time at Central Park Media. One day, a Korean man in a rumpled suit, reeking of booze, came wandering into the CPM office. He asked to speak to CEO John O'Donnell. The next week, John announced to the company that we had acquired the rights to Geisters - Fractions of the Earth, a 26-episode hard sci-fi anime that also happened to be a Korean/Japanese co-production. It looked pretty cool initially, with quite a bit of CG and very shiny looking designs. We waited, but never heard about Geisters again. I asked John what had happened, and he told me that the sales agent came back and said the producers weren't satisfied and wanted more money, and wouldn't honor the signed contract. John angrily threw him out of the office, and that was that.
I have no idea which of the three companies that produced Geisters that the drunk guy was from. The three were constantly feuding, each claiming that none of the others had the rights to license the show. Veronico didn't know any of that had transpired when he ran into a Mr. Kim at Licensing Expo 2004, offering to license the first 13 episodes to him. They signed, they paid, they got the masters. This was to be, at long last, Crash Media's first real anime DVD release. It was also to be their last.
With access to AGE's audio studio in-house, the two companies set to work dubbing the show, which was something of a disaster. The studio ended up charging Crash way more than market rate for the studio time, and with budget running thin, Crash got everyone they could to act for free. Veronico and his wife are both in it, people from Wizard were in it (so they'd write about it), and AGE's higher-ups got in there and rewrote the thing, adding dialogue and making up new names.
In the end, the show was met with a lukewarm response from anime fans, and the release was never finished. Crash's licensor went out of business, and the other two producers wouldn't talk, so that was it -- they only had half of the show. ("It's a massive shame too, because I actually saw the whole thing, and the 2nd half is much better -- deeper plot, much better animation, and some Game of Thrones level political craziness. Though it ends like a Guyver rip-off," remarks Veronico.)
But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Under the false assumption that the Samurai Trilogy, a live action film series staring Toshiro Mifune, was in the public domain, Crash released them as "The Book of Five Rings Collection." This did not bode well with The Criterion Collection, who actually had the rights to the films. Lawyers exchanged some papers. I can't find evidence if a lawsuit was actually filed or not, but the end result was not good. Sony RED Distribution was furious; putting something into distribution without owning the rights was a total violation of their contract, with heavy financial penalties for the offending party. The two parted ways, and suddenly Crash was left without a distributor. Desperate, and their reputation in shambles, Crash ended up with Koch Distribution -- but with terms that weren't exactly favorable.
The timing could not have been worse. This was the era in which the DVD market was starting to retract, and bad business practices by retailers were really putting the squeeze on distributors. Large retail chains would regularly buy tens of thousands of units strictly for accounting purposes, let the stock sit in their distribution warehouse, and then return them by the truckload. This badly damaged nearly every player in the DVD business. "Our returns were downright fatal, sometimes 70%, and when we refused to fill such obviously ludicrous orders like 50,000 units, we were fined by our distributor," says Veronico.
In a last ditch effort to save the business, Crash joined forces with similarly beleaguered publisher Inspired Corporation, in New Jersey. Inspired was formerly called Peter Pan Industries (PPI), best known for their children's records, and had a large library of mass-market video products that few people wanted anymore. (Stuff like exercise videos, B-movies from the 1970s, and even videos of naked women smoking cigars.) However, they had one thing Crash didn't: a massive warehouse and sales network. The new joint venture was called Fusian Films, and it was a way around Crash's agreement with Koch.
The new venture didn't last long. Inspired was in bad shape as well, and between returns, low sales, and everything else, the writing was on the wall.
In 2007, Crash Media finally closed. Veronico worked without health insurance for the final year, then eventually his paychecks started bouncing, and finally an eviction notice was served on their office space. "The locks were changed the day I left," he recalls.
Now, some seven years hence, there's little to remember Crash Media by. Their kung fu DVDs were low-priced and mostly from poorly sourced masters -- better, remastered versions have mostly replaced them. Those three volumes of Geisters that Crash managed to release are all that remain. Olympus Guardians and Ki Fighter Taerang both got lost in the mess that followed the Samurai Trilogy incident. I'd love to hear another perspective on all of this, but I couldn't track down either Parente or Mauriello online.
I can't decide what to think about Crash Media, in the end. A victim of bad market timing and, perhaps, not being business savvy enough? Of biting off more than they could chew? Almost certainly. But more than anything, I think it's indicative of that era, when anime was growing out of control, and fans with no real expertise or knowledge could enter the business and get taken seriously for just long enough for all of their dreams to blow up in their faces. That sort of thing doesn't really happen anymore, and the fact that it doesn't probably means we have a mature, and hopefully, a more stable market. Or so I hope.
Special thanks to James Veronico for being so forthcoming with his story, and for supplying these pictures.
And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.
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