How Much Control Do Manga Artists Have Over Hollywood Adaptations?
by Justin Sevakis,
With Kazuhiko Torishima stating how much money he'd have to pay to supervise the movie Dragonball: Evolution, and the infamy that's attributed to how Hollywood film adaptations of anime/manga fail to capture the source material's essence, how much veto power does the Japanese author have to supervise, or be consulted about how the American adaptation should be realized?
Zero. Manga artists get zero say in how their creations are treated in the hands of Hollywood. Once they sign away the rights and deposit the check, their involvement is purely at the whim of the producers, the ones paying for everything. This is in stark contrast to the Japanese "gensakusha" system, by which the creator of a story (or their agents) get to approve just about everything.
The gensakusha system can be good or bad. The good is obvious: they could prevent an out-of-control Hollywood machine from utterly destroying the original story. But most manga artists don't understand filmmaking, and meddling from a total newbie (especially one drunk on power or access to movie stars) can slow down a production or even bring it to a total halt. (This actually has happened many times with domestically produced adaptations, both anime and live-action.)
For years, agencies representing manga publishers and artists had been courting Hollywood studios. Studios pay big money for the right to develop a film project based on something else, and the vast majority of these projects never see the light of day — nothing ever gets made, and the rights expire, and that's that. It's essentially free money for manga artists and other creators. And on the off chance something does get made, it's pretty cool that your manga got made into a big Hollywood movie, right?
Losing control over the potential adaptation was basically just the cost of doing business. Most movie producers resist having to answer to anybody else's creative whims at all costs. Developing, financing and making a movie is already indescribably hard, and the additional need to get a creator to sign off on every creative choice — let alone one in another country, through an English-speaking middleman — would be a deal-breaker to most producers. And so, when manga artists and other creators signed away their rights to the Americans, all they could do was hope for the best.
After Dragonball: Evolution, everybody thinks twice about that. For the Japanese creator community, it was like witnessing a good friend's prodigal child get into a rocket ship, and then seeing that rocket ship explode on the launch pad. Everybody basically went, "oh, god, what if they do that to MY baby?!" And for a little while — maybe about a year— these deals to Hollywood studios pretty much stopped.
But man, that's a lot of money to turn down, and there's always a chance that a movie adaptation could turn out well, like Alita: Battle Angel did. But having some oversight over its development would be a big relief to the creators, and insurance that the whole thing wouldn't go ENTIRELY off the rails. There are two ways of getting that kind of power. The first is political, like E.L. James and her infamously tight grip over the 50 Shades of Grey movies. But the only way a producer would agree to that is if they absolutely HAD to in order to land a HUGE, MUST-HAVE deal. Anime and manga simply don't get American producers that excited.
The other way is to essentially buy a certain amount of control over the production, thus becoming a co-producer. This is what former Dragonball editor Kazuhiko Torishima was talking about when he said that, in order to gain veto power over Dragonball Evolution, Shueisha would've had to pony up around ¥5 billion (US$45 million). That would've been the buy-in to be a major investor for the film, big enough to call the shots when it came to creative choices. For that investment, Shueisha would've owned a bigger piece of the movie, and perhaps gotten to sell the distribution rights to some places outside of the US.
There's a whole lot of unknowns about this what-if scenario, in the case of Dragonball. We don't know if Torishima could've negotiated a lower buy-in, or what else he could've gotten for his investment. It was just too much money for Shueisha at the time, so they didn't consider it. Whether investing that money would've changed anything or made for a better movie is anybody's guess (though it sure couldn't have hurt).
It was too late to take that course of action with a lot of anime adaptations, which had already been in the works for years: Live-action Ghost in the Shell, Alita Battle Angel and the soon-to-start-shooting Akira were already in pre-production before Dragonball Evolution face-planted, so the contracts were already signed. And that sort of investment is an INSANE amount of money for a Japanese media company, and film projects are notoriously risky. So I don't expect Japanese financial involvement with every anime adaptation that happens.
But at least one company is heeding the lesson and becoming extremely involved in their stories getting remade. The forthcoming Cowboy Bebop limited series is being co-produced by Sunrise. At least with a Netflix series, they don't have to worry about it bombing at the box office and losing their shirts.
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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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