Do Anime Studios Own The American Shows They Contributed To?

by Justin Sevakis,

BJ asked:

I have a weird question about contract work like what Toei did back in the 1980s on shows like Muppet Babies. Does a company like Toei own a small piece of whatever animation work they did on the show, or does it depend upon the terms of the contract? Like, for instance, would the terms of their contract have anything to do with why Muppet Babies is still not on DVD in any real capacity (save for a few single-episode releases and bootlegs out the wazoo, like Sailor Moon had been for the past few years while the licensing arrangements were allowed to lapse)?

No, of course they don't. That's the whole point of contract work, it's work-for-hire.

Muppet Babies, like pretty much every other part of the Muppets universe, is owned pretty much entirely by Disney at this point. Most vintage cartoons of the 80s aren't out on DVD, and as the DVD market has cooled, the major studios have been dumping less and less TV boxed sets on the market in general, because they simply don't sell enough for them to bother. The exceptions tended to be the ones with strong cult followings, or mega-hits that have spawned new intellectual property that's still relevant today -- Transformers, for example.

Muppet Babies was a major hit, but was itself the first of a trend of derivative 80s and 90s kids' content that made well-known existing characters into young children. The show was actually inspired by a scene from the 1984 Muppets Take Manhattan movie, in which Miss Piggy wonders what it would've been like had she and Kermit grown up together, and the show was put into production as part of a coordinated marketing push with the film, which came out in theaters two months before the show debuted. This set off a trend of re-inventing existing "adult" characters as babies or kids to reboot an old franchise. In an essay for Animation Magazine some years ago, animator John Kricfalusi labeled this trend "Super-Bastardization" (as it basically undermined the original characters and their creators for a cheap buck, he felt). At its best, this trend gave us shows like Tiny Toons Adventures, and at its worst we got crap like Tom And Jerry Kids. Regardless, most of this subsection of American-produced animation might have done well in the ratings, but aren't considered classic, and the majority haven't seen DVD releases. Given that the show was made starting in 1984, I'm sure the master tapes look terrible today, and would need lots of expensive remastering. The show also occasionally used clips from popular movies, which might not be cleared for home video use.

Several major Japanese anime studios, including Toei Animation, TMS, Topcraft, and several others were doing work-for-hire animation on Western cartoons in the 80s and 90s, since they were high in quality, but relatively cheap compared to hiring Western animators. By the late 90s Japan had become very expensive and more of the work went to Korea and other parts of Asia, but even today companies like Production I.G and Sunrise occasionally do work for Western producers. Most of the real creative work, including design, writing and direction, are done in the US, and Japan only really steps in to produce the animation itself. Toei was only even hired to do the first 3 seasons and some change; the show went to Korea's AKOM Productions after that.

Work-for-hire animation means that the studio is doing the work for a fee, as a service. Once the fee is paid, the producer, not the animation studio, owns the work in its entirety, and they can do with it what they want. Toei has absolutely no business interest in Muppet Babies, I assure you.

There are cases where the Japanese studio was NOT just a place to outsource, and was actually a co-producer on seemingly-American shows. Cybersix, Little Nemo and Galaxy High School were all actually owned by TMS, and the anime adaptation of Valerian and Laureline is controlled by Satelight. But these were rare, and are generally not the gigantic franchises of the 80s that you know and recognize.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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