What Ever Happened To Manga Entertainment?
by Justin Sevakis,
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I've always loved most of Manga Entertainment's output but it seems as they get older they do less and less. They used to co-produce stuff like Ghost in the Shell and video game tie-ins like Dead Space and Dante's Inferno, and have a pretty healthy library of licensed content. Now they just seem to distribute Right Stuf's catalog online, alongside their older titles. It also looks like to me their UK division is also becoming less and less active as well. It seems like their parent, Starz, doesn't quite know what to do with them anymore. Is the parent company to blame for their decreased output or did something else happen? Will they ever get back into the licensing/co-producing game again?
Once the biggest name in anime, Manga Entertainment today is a shadow of its former self. The history behind the label is a fascinating one, because unlike most of the other anime publishers, they were owned not by a Japanese company, but by a large Western entertainment publisher. Their story is one of extreme highs and lows, buyouts upon buyouts, and seeming abandonment.
Their story began in the late 1980s in London, when music producer and publishing manganate Chris Blackwell started a new subsidiary of his highly successful record label, Island Records, to distribute music videos and concert films for their musical acts. The division was called Island Visual Arts, and to run it, Blackwell promoted his prodigal marketing director Andy Frain to be in charge of the division. The division produced and distributed music-related films and videos from bands like U2, Bob Marley, Grace Jones, and many others, and also dabbled into nature documentaries. In 1991 the company got the distribution rights to Akira, and released it into cinemas. Its enormous success took the company by surprise.
Suddenly aware of the huge potential of anime, Frain quickly established a specialized label: Manga Video, and appointed Laurence Guinness to run day-to-day operations. Their timing was such that they were able to license nearly all of the big VHS-era hits for the UK market, and establish a partnership with American publisher Central Park Media to split the costs of dubbing. For a good few years, the company released some of the best anime feature films to UK cinemas, and pumped out tons of VHS releases. Frain noticed that Akira's biggest draw tended to be with rebellious young men, and so he fashioned the label's marketing as edgy and cyberpunk; dubs had profanity added to boost the mandatory BBFC age rating on the packaging. (UK anime fans, often bemoaning the company's lack of subtitled releases, really resented the implication that anime was basically just shy of a constant blood orgy.)
The label was successful, and eventually set up distribution through partners in Australia as well. But Frain hadn't found anything that came close to Akira's level of success. In 1994, Production I.G was planning the release of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell feature. Sensing its potential, Frain bought his way into the production committee as a co-executive producer, offering the ability to release the film worldwide simultaneously. He bought the American anime licensing company L.A. Hero, which was owned by future Bandai Entertainment president Ken Iyadomi, and who had been providing Books Nippan with shows to release under their fledgling US Renditions label. Thus, was born Manga Video USA. Iyadomi proved invaluable in getting some major new titles like Macross Plus, and also brought with him a decent catalog of shows that had not been dubbed. The new company then released a ton of VHS releases at very low prices (typically 2 OVA episodes for $14.95 -- a good $10 less than other publishers), and used its music industry connections to aggressively drive its products onto retail shelves.
Ghost in the Shell came out near the end of 1995, and while it surprised film critics and did reasonably well for a small independent release, it was hardly the blow-the-doors-off success Frain needed. In fact, its success was actually upstaged by another Manga Video release, Ninja Scroll, which was released direct-to-video a few months earlier and had cost the company far less. Having spent a small fortune on Ghost in the Shell, Frain stepped down as head of the company. (He went on to form his own company and produce animation for the local UK market.)
For a while the label struggled to find its footing, having to resort to cheaper licenses and sometimes marginal quality dubs. (Vampire Wars and Sword for Truth, anyone?) Eventually the money coming in from its EXTREMELY successful catalog titles led them to recovery. The subsequent years, under CEO Marvin Gleicher, were spotty. The company also didn't weather the transition to DVD particularly well, as they were outsourcing all of their production to companies far, far away from their offices in Chicago. In an era when things like multiple language tracks and subtitles were becoming very difficult to juggle from a distance, the company faced a high number of technical screw-ups. In 1999, with the UK anime market in decline, the company's original London office was closed, with all operations to be remote controlled from the US. This is also the era where Pioneer, Bandai and ADV were becoming juggernauts, and without their own immediate source of licensing funds, Manga Entertainment had a hard time competing.
Complicating all of this is the fact that Manga Entertainment has never owned itself, and has been subject to some extreme volatility on the part of its corporate overlords. Island World Communications was itself owned by PolyGram, which was owned by Seagram. However, by the late 90s the music business was in its Napster-era shambles, and with Seagram ready to merge PolyGram into Universal Music Group, Blackwell bought back his company. For a few years, he tried to streamline it to run in partnership with his indie film distribution label Palm Pictures, but the two companies had little in common, and the fact that Palm Pictures was in New York City (Manga Entertainment was in Chicago) didn't help matters. Finally, around 2004 the label was purchased by discount home video distributor IDT Entertainment, better known to consumers as Anchor Bay. Gleicher left the company around this time, leaving their licensing guy Kaoru Mfaume to run things.
Mfaume tried to get the ball rolling again, with shows like Karas, Tactics, Strait Jacket and Noein - to your other self. Mfaume also brokered a deal with Bandai Entertainment to release Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which Manga automatically owned (due to being co-producers on the first movie) but lacked the resources to release and market properly. But Manga's new parent company was already in trouble. This was the era of the retail returns that were hammering ADV, Geneon, and every other DVD publisher. Two of Anchor Bay's former executives were in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, who alleged that the company engaged in millions of dollars worth of sham transactions to essentially look like they were selling mountains of unsold/returned inventory, but then secretly buying it back. The company had to redo its financial statements and, with the company now deeply in the red, ended up selling itself to Liberty Media, owner of the Starz cable channel in 2006.
The new company, Starz Media, would be headquartered in Los Angeles and New York City. They shut down both Anchor Bay's Detroit area office and Manga's Chicago office, laid off their staff, and absorbed all of Manga Entertainment's rights and identity. It's at this point that Manga basically went into "slumber" -- having no dedicated staff and no separate office. This buyout also severely disrupted any communication or relationship with Japanese licensors. There was simply nobody left to talk to.
But Starz knew that the Manga name had value, and a few dedicated individuals within Starz tried to get anime-related projects started again. In the early days of anime streaming, they took what was left of their own catalog and licensed streaming rights from Central Park Media, Right Stuf, Voyager and a handful of others, and offered those shows on digital platforms, some successful (like Hulu) and some not (like Joost). The same team also produced an anime, manga and video game review web series called Manga Minutes. Starz' home video label has re-released new versions of the first Ghost in the Shell movie as they've been allowed to, and continued to keep whatever hasn't expired of the Manga Entertainment library in print. They've also released a few marketing-related productions like EA's Dead Space: Downfall and Dante's Inferno under the Manga Entertainment brand. (They also released Redline, although that was in production for so long, I can't tell what regime licensed it.)
It's my impression that when these new video releases come up, Starz is treating them like any other film in their library. As nobody there is an anime specialist, they're simply doing what they can (which isn't always acceptable to anime fans). It's also my impression that the person who was driving anime web video initiatives is no longer at the company, leaving their continued interest in anime somewhat in doubt.
Meanwhile, Manga Entertainment's UK office was restarted as its own separate division in 2005, and the company has spent the last few years releasing UK editions of anime in cooperation with Funimation, Viz and Sentai Filmworks. Their catalog is now quite vast and valuable, but now things are changing. A few months ago two of their key executives, Jerome Mazandarani and Andrew Hewson, have left to start their own anime company called Animatsu Entertainment. Given that the new company has already announced quite a few titles for the UK market, including Knights of Sidonia, A Certain Magical Index, Beyond the Boundary and Nadia, they seem to be picking up the slack for what's left of Manga UK.
I can't tell what's left of Manga UK exactly. Their official Twitter feed is quite active, and they recently worked with Funimation to do UK screenings of Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F', but their website seems moribund, as does their new release calendar. Web sales are being fulfilled by Wales-based competitor MVM. It is worrying.
Have we seen the last of Manga Video? Who can tell? That imprint has had a bizarre lifespan, and it wouldn't surprise me if some executive saw fit to dust it off and give the anime business another go with it. But then, this is also a company whose heyday was in the late 90s, and has little to no relevance to modern anime fans (except in the UK). It could be that it is, in fact, destined to be just a memory.
Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
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