Eric P. Sherman, President of Bang Zoom! Entertainmentby Zac Bertschy,
ANN: How did this studio get started?
SHERMAN: Well, I'll try to keep this short; my background is in filmmaking. I'd been working as a writer on low-budget features. I had a film that I'd written and was going to direct but it got pulled due to financing, and at the time my wife and I had been working on dubbing shows into Japanese. Right at that moment when my movie tanked, Media Blasters had a film they wanted to dub into English called Zero Woman. They said “we don't know how to dub this”; it was a no-brainer for me, since I had filmmaking experience. We brought in actors, and a composer, and all that. So we dubbed it into English and they loved it, so they asked me if I was interested in dubbing anime.
Since I had lived in Japan, and was a huge fan of anime and manga, I was like “Oh my God! Please, yes!”. So we did Ninja Cadets, and then they gave us another one called Fake, and then came the big one: Magic Knight Rayearth. That lead to Rurouni Kenshin – and at this point we were doing pretty much only Media Blasters titles – and it all blossomed from there.
So how did you pick the name “Bang Zoom”, and when did you officially become a studio?
I've been a huge Honeymooners fan all my life; that's where the name came from. We really became a studio back when we were contacted by WOWOW, a Japanese satellite TV station; they were showing Melrose Place at the time, and they hired me to do a series of little videos on “the real Melrose”, which we were paid dirt for. That lead to a bunch of other video projects; that's really how it all came together, we kinda fell into it.
What drew you to anime specifically? You mentioned you lived in Japan – were you a big anime fan then?
Yeah, I just didn't call myself an anime fan then, I just liked it. The first manga I read in Japanese was Maison Ikkoku. When they started coming out with the English version of that, which I read, but I kept reading the Japanese version with my Kanji dictionary just to experience it in its pure form. Prior to that I'd read things like Barefoot Gen… basically, I've always been really in to Japanese pop culture.
Over the last 14 years – you founded the studio in 1993 – if you had to pick one, which would you say was the most personally satisfying project you've worked on?
Well, that's a really difficult decision. Can I pick a couple?
Well, honestly, Magic Knight Rayearth, obviously. Rurouni Kenshin, Last Exile and Samurai Champloo… I'm also very proud of Chobits. I feel the dub was very true to the original… and I think Crispin Freeman is the reason for that.
Simultaneously – and I know you're probably not going to want to answer this question – what would be your biggest letdown? Maybe not a specific project – maybe something that didn't happen or fell through?
I'm trying to think of a project I really wanted and didn't get, and I know there were a couple I wish we had done. To be frank, I wish we'd done Cowboy Bebop.
[laughs] Yeah, I think there are a lot of studios who wish they'd done that one.
[laughs] So maybe that's not a great answer…
Well, are there any projects you personally wanted to do and couldn't?
This might sound boring but I really, really wanted to do Maison Ikkoku. I actually tried to get in touch with Viz, and I was going to offer to do it for free, the whole thing. Just so I could do it. Never happened, obviously.
So what's your take on the convention experience? What's your personal take on dealing with the fans?
This sounds hokey – but it is true – I've had nothing but positive experiences with fans at conventions. The only frustrations I've dealt with are with how the conventions themselves are run. They could be run more professionally, especially since they're getting bigger, bringing in more money… they could definitely be trying harder on that.
One of the tough things we deal with in regards to con management is the roadblocks we hit when we're trying to come up with programming or events that would make the experience better for the fans – there's always something in con management that holds us up. But in regards to the fans, I've never met anyone I wanted to get away from.
Switching gears, you're moving into producing a lot of live-action stuff.
Original content, yeah.
What spurned that?
That's just me – my filmmaker roots. I have a lot of ideas, and it's a creative team here, and we all have lots of ideas. The projects you're seeing out of Bang Zoom right now are things we've sat around and discussed and asked “what can we produce entirely ourselves, see through to completion and actually release?” And it was like, well, one thing we can do is a documentary about voice acting – so that project, Adventures in Voice Acting, is what went into production first.
AnimeTV is something we decided we'd like to see, since there's nothing like it on TV. We thought it was perfect for G4, so we decided to make it and pitch it to them – we wanted to make a show featuring real fans talking about anime. That was our second project, even though it came out first.
So these are basically passion projects, rather than potential revenue streams.
Yeah, definitely. It's on Comcast on-demand and we didn't get a dime for that – it's all free.
I have a personal criticism of AnimeTV – one I've levied against the program many times. The show reviews a lot of Bang Zoom product… there's an obvious conflict of interest there. Can you explain that?
I welcome the opportunity to answer that, actually.
When we sat down originally and came up with a huge list of titles to review, we really tried to be sure that – believe it or not – we weren't too heavily covering any one anime distributor's titles. We put them all into the mix and tried to be balanced. We also made sure we weren't too heavy on Bang Zoom titles. We did try to address that fact.
That's really as far as my involvement went , and really anyone on staff's involvement went, as far as reviews are concerned. What we decided to do was bring in these anime fans, and cast them in the show; we worked hard to find people who were outspoken and opinionated. We said we'd like them to watch these shows, and shoot your discussion, that's it.
In fact, with Planetes they completely panned it.
I don't recall them ever really hating on anything, actually.
Well, some of them are more outspoken than others when they dislike something. Maybe that's a critique of AnimeTV – maybe they need to hate things more.
But the other aspect of it was that we needed another way to further extricate ourselves from the review process, and so we decided we needed fans who watch the show to give their reviews too. So they could write in, and become a reviewer. We would take their scores and add them up and added to the program.
So basically, the show had to be autonomous from Bang Zoom. I felt we were OK producing the show so long as we in no way influenced the outcome of the reviews.
I think it's difficult to express that disconnection while still being associated with the product. ADV had to overcome that with Newtype – everyone talked about how it was going to be an ADV product catalogue. It's not – it's very separate – ADV's marketing department has no say in what goes on in Newtype's pages, and this is something I've personally confirmed at many levels within the company. But even that “illusion” – the very notion there's a conflict of interest causes a problem. It certainly prevented me from taking the show seriously.
I think a lot of people around here would even say the same thing – we're frustrated with that notion. We have a lot of pride in our product.
Just to make this comment, during the time where I was familiarizing myself with the show, most of them covered Bang Zoom shows. Even the host of the show was in the series being reviewed. Is there an attempt to move away from reviewing Bang Zoom titles on the show?
I think we could do less Bang Zoom product. I don't think I need to stay away specifically from our shows, but we did want to make sure we didn't cover too many of the titles we worked on – we wanted to cover shows dubbed by all the other studios, like New Gen, or Studiopolis.
That's an interesting point you bring up – I could pull up the list of AnimeTV shows and see, but I'm hopeful (unless the lineup got changed around) that we didn't cover too many BZ shows. I know we started with Haruhi, and that's because we had access to it. We could scoop it – we could show it to people before it came out, and that was cool.
Once we were out there, we had great conversations with other studios, and they knew who we were so we were able to get other material. At first, though, that was out of necessity; “what could we do that we have access to?” From what I remember though, the second and third shows were not Bang Zoom titles.
[at this point an extended discussion of how many of the shows AnimeTV covered were Bang Zoom titles ensued; a call to someone who worked on the show revealed that the majority of the series discussed on the show were in fact Bang Zoom titles. ]
Well, that's a legitimate question, and I want to make it clear that we are doing our best to address it.
Moving on, I'm sure you've noticed the industry is in a bit of a downturn at the moment. Geneon has closed up shop for all intents and purposes; they in particular gave you a lot of work. How has their situation impacted your studio, and are you still working with any of their titles?
I'll take the last one first. Yes, we are still working on Geneon titles. One of them is Rozen Maiden, we're finishing up the second season. We're also finishing the first season of When They Cry. We're also just getting started on Seirei no Moribito.
The impact of Geneon's situation has been that we had to finish up these titles a little faster than we'd anticipated; they gave us until the end of the year to finish up these shows. Down the road, I mean, there'll be less work.
It's already been really slow this year; it's our slowest year ever. I don't know there'll be that big a difference. We've seen the writing on the wall for a while now; since the end of 2005. We've been getting less work little by little since then, and we're starting to batten down the hatches and prepare for the storm. Nothing has really taken us by surprise – although Geneon's thing definitely was a shock.
But I'm not sure it's going to be that different next year, since 2007 has been so slow. Things have a way of balancing out, though; there are always new opportunities.
Speaking of Geneon, I had a question regarding some information that had been going around regarding a supposed contract that Bang Zoom had with Geneon. According to various sources, the contract would have entitled Bang Zoom to 200 episodes worth of Geneon content guaranteed, while also excluding any other American dub studios from obtaining Geneon series. Is there any truth to that?
Unfortunately, legally I can't actually discuss any details of any business contracts. But I will say that I don't think I would ever do a deal that excluded any other American studios from obtaining work from anyone. And this would probably not be good business practice for our clients. However, when we do a contract for any given series, for example, Samurai Champloo or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, etc, we are in a sense the exclusive audio services provider for that particular title.
How do you feel about those foreign studios?
I don't want to comment on Singapore, other than that I don't think the stuff that's come out of there has been noteworthy. But I will say that I think Canada – meaning Ocean – has done great work. I actually supervised some Gundam series that Bandai was doing with them, and there are a lot of great people up there.
Is it upsetting that this is work that could be going to you, but instead it's going to foreign companies that are doing it for a much lower price? Odex in Singapore does their dubs for a fraction of what American companies charge.
Well, it's cyclical. I'm not going to begrudge an anime company – if their focus is the bottom line and not quality, then that's their business. I run my business how I want to run it. But as I said, it's cyclical. I think they are getting what they pay for with some of those foreign studios, and we'll hang on and see how it goes. So far it's working out OK for us.
Speaking of the health of the industry, we have more and more fans, but DVD sales are going down. Some speculate that it has to do with the sum total of Japan's animated output being hosted on unauthorized torrent sites for free, and bootlegs. Given that that seems to be the way things are moving – we have more fans than ever, but fewer actual consumers – how big a concern is that for a studio like yours?
I think it's a huge concern. It's absolutely affected us. I think it's why we've seen a downturn in business – fansubs, bootlegs… and it's not just the fansubs, because even the dubs are available for free online. I see bootleg DVDs being sold around town where I'm actually credited on the pirated box art. It's affecting our clients, and it's affecting us.
Speaking on fansubs, I actually do think it's true that they do help promote the show, to an extent, that it can be a healthy thing, but I think it's gone way beyond that now. Anime downloads are more prevalent than porn on the internet right now. It is a serious problem, and it hurts everyone. If even one third of the people who downloaded Haruhi actually bought the DVD, it would have made our industry so much healthier; you wouldn't even believe it.
Where do you see things going for the anime industry?
Let me look into my crystal ball, I guess. I'm really not sure. I don't know where things are headed. I do think things will get worked out – at least in terms of illegal downloads and the industry will correct itself. But content will win in the end, and so long as you have something to do with production of content, you'll be OK. I am scared for the people in distribution right now, but it's also a great opportunity for them; there is a way to make money on this, and they need to figure it out.
Do you think things will get worse before they get better?
I do. At least a little bit.
So what projects do you have coming up?
I'm going to Japan to work on the Ayakashi Ayashi scripts, and I can also mention Lucky Star, we're working on that too. And of course, Seirei no Moribito.