Why Were TV Series Cut Into "Movies" For The US?

by Justin Sevakis,

Beth asked:

It used to be fairly common for a TV series to be released as a compilation movie of some sort when it was released in English. A series with 26 or 50 episodes might get released as a movie consisting of three or so TV episodes spliced together, and for years that would be the only way to see certain anime like Thumbelina and Minky Momo (though we knew her as "Gigi" at the time). Was the licensing for these sorts of movies handled differently than if it was the full series? Who picked which episodes to use?

The anime business -- or at least, the US side of the anime business, was a very different world in the 1970s and 80s. The home video market barely existed, and animation for teens and adults only existed as underground cult films. Even in Japan, most TV anime was aimed at a children's market. While, by the end of the 80s, the home video and cable TV markets were starting to come of age, for most of the decade the family television set was ruled by broadcast TV channels: both the big national networks (NBC, ABC and CBS -- FOX didn't launch until 1986) and smaller independent channels.

Animation in those days was entirely relegated to kids' programming blocks, which ran Saturday mornings on the big networks, and early morning and afternoon weekday timeslots (and sometimes weekends too) on the local channels. The networks were big enough and had enough money to directly fund original programming for their kids' blocks. But there was a lot of money to be made in selling broadcast rights to the local channels.

Tons of boutique media companies sprang up over the decades, aimed at procuring the rights to independent productions, and turning them into something that could be sold to these local TV networks. Companies like we know today like Harmony Gold, Sandy Frank and Enoki Films USA, as well as less-remembered companies like Ziv International, Worldvision Entertainment, and many others served this market, known as "syndication." And they did a whole lot more than cartoons. They bought anything they thought they could rework and sell, from any country.

Syndication companies eager for children's content would go to international content markets like MIPCOM and American Film Market, and would find all sorts of international producers, eager for a way into the lucrative American broadcast market. There were only two formats for kids' programming that were worth much of anything to the US market: TV series over 65 episodes (the minimum number of episodes for a show to be sold in syndication as a monday-through-friday "strip" series), or as a feature-length "TV movie."

Unfortunately very few anime series ever ran that number of episodes, but many syndicates thought they could patch together a TV movie with a few episodes. Since communicating overseas was very difficult and expensive in those days (air mail, expensive long distance phone calls, and fax machines were pretty much it), the companies got little help -- or supervision -- from the Japanese producers. A deal was done, master tapes or film elements were delivered, and that was that. In rare cases, some licensors provided a rough photocopied translation of the dialogue, but that was pretty rare. Usually there was never even a proper translation of the show.

The syndicate would basically hire a writer to sit and look at the footage, and try to piece together a story that could be told with the already-existing animation. Entirely new dialogue would be written, based on what the writer THOUGHT was happening. English voices and a new musical score would be recorded, and the final product would be presented to TV networks for broadcast. It was all very ramshackle by today's standards.

If the reworked version was headed for syndication, you got series like Robotech and Macron 1, cobbled together from different anime series and rescored, but usually more or less in order, depending on what the writers and producers were trying to do. The original series was something that nobody could understand (and nobody was trying very hard to) -- it was basically just stock footage from which something new could be made.

And when those series were too short to be sold as a series to syndication, a handful of episodes would be selected, and those would be hastily edited together and presented as a "movie." Some of those movies were sold to home video publishers. More often than not, these were just the first four episodes of a series. I'd attribute that to early episodes having an introductory nature, but to be honest, it was probably just laziness on the part of the producers. These companies were pretty non-glamourous, and the people working there weren't paid very much. Very few of those guys thought of what they were doing as "art."

The resulting productions often served as cheap filler for broadcasters. And since so much of it was imported and hastily dubbed, much of it was bizarre. America got its first tastes of tokusatsu, kung fu movies, and any number of esoteric cult shows like this. You never knew what you were going to find on small independent channels.

Cable TV started catching on towards the end of the 80s, and while was initially a boon for syndication companies, the media business consolidated heavily in the 90s. Competition from cable hit the local TV stations hard, and many resorted to carrying Home Shopping Network and religious programming rather than paying for content. Kids' broadcast television blocks also started fading away from the scene in the late 90s and early 2000s. The major studios, looking to amass large libraries of content, bought out the companies who had the best libraries. By the late 90s most independent TV content was being sold into syndication by major studios like Sony Pictures and Buena Vista/Disney.

Up until about 10 years ago, many of the smaller syndication companies were still around, usually run by one or two old dudes and their assistants, sitting on piles of slowly disintegrating analog videotapes. (Some had amassed quite a wide and diverse catalog, and fueled the mountain of DVD shovelware that came out in the early 2000s.) When everything went HD, all of that old content became completely unsellable.

Some of us might long for the 80s, but it really was a time when America was culturally at its least curious and open-minded. Nobody was even considering taking these crazy cartoons from Japan as a serious art form. At least, not until some rag-tag groups of nerds started popping up around the country, demanding subtitles. The rest, as they say, is history.

As an aside, I remember in my TV licensing days actually getting a phone call from Sandy "Battle of the Planets" Frank himself, obviously quite old and offering me awkwardly dubbed children's kung-fu TV series that were clearly at least a decade old. I wasn't interested.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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