Tales Of The Industry
They Shoot Their Hostages, Don't They?
by Justin Sevakis,
Welcome to “Tales of the Industry,” a column where we will share stories from real working professionals in the anime business. These stories will be anonymous, and told in the first person. Names and unimportant details have been changed to protect people's jobs, but the stories are otherwise 100% true. They might've taken place last year, they might've taken place a decade ago. They're the things that the pros wish they could tell you.
Are you a current or former member of the anime business or convention staff? Do you have a story you've been dying to tell, but just can't tell it the normal way? Get in touch with Justin Sevakis through any social media you like. His Twitter account is @WorldOfCrap, if you aren't acquainted.
My name is Brad, and I used to work as a marketing manager for an anime publisher. A “marketing manager” as it applies to anime, is a central cog in a pretty unique system, putting you between fans on one end and the licensors and sales guys on the other. It's a system that works pretty well when it comes to something where a whole lot of people really care a lot about a show: it was my job to know exactly what the fans wanted, and work with everybody to guide the show along the path from its masters arriving at our door, to the final product going out the door. That includes marketing. A lot of marketing.
Anyway, I was pretty new to the job, but I had worked on a couple of shows before this, and had previously worked doing marketing in the industry, so I pretty much knew what I was doing at this point. At our usual meeting with the licensing department, we were going down the list of new shows that we were getting, and deciding who would be assigned to what. I walked out of that meeting with my first long-running TV series, a 100+ episode show called Mechanical Godless RINNA-CHAN.
I had heard of the show before – it was something of a cult hit in the latter-day VHS fansub era – but I'd never watched it myself. I popped in an episode of the raw Japanese version (I know some Japanese but I'm far from fluent), and I knew I was in for a challenge. The show was fast-paced, had a TON of dialogue, and a decent amount of action and comedy. It was also pretty cheap looking, and a little girly, which meant it would be a challenge to get retailers to stock it. It was definitely a weird show, but it was similar in both demographic and tone with one of our bestsellers, so we expected it to be at least a cult hit. I was excited.
I reached out to the contact at the licensor, a guy named Kazuhiro at a company called Japan Codex Systems. I introduced myself.
Hi there, nice to meet you! My name is Brad Hall, and I'm the brand manager at Genom Corp. that's been assigned to work on Mechanical Godless RINNA-CHAN. I will be your point person for all materials delivery, approvals, and other matters going forward.
Since Japan is on the opposite side of the world, it was the next morning when I got a reply. Kazuhiro seemed nice enough.
Thank you for your email. It is very nice to meet you over email. We are very much looking forward to working with you to facilitate a quality release of RINNA-CHAN to North American market. I will leave this important matter to you.
A translator was assigned to the show, and I set to work coming up with a list of bullet points to go over with Kazuhiro. Things like how names should be spelled, logo design, etc. Initial conversation was good, even if it took Kazuhiro days – sometimes as long as a week – to reply. One early point of contention is that the sales guys were REALLY nervous about having the word “Godless” in the title (the last thing we needed was a Rush Limbaugh-type stumbling across THAT at a video store), so we ended up using the shortened Japanese nickname for the show, “Mecha-RIN.” It got the point across well enough.
After a few episodes, the translator hated his life. HATED his life. The show was chock-full of terrible Japanese puns that were impossible to translate, and there was so much dialogue (including obscure technical jargon) that it took him twice as long to get through an episode as normal. The dub team was having similar problems. There barely any artwork at all – the show was from the mid-90s, so all the licensor had to send us was a pile of blurry 35mm slides. We'd dealt with a few issues like this before, and the solution was to have an artist throw scans of the slides into Adobe Illustrator and ray-trace over them. I emailed Kazuhiro to explain the process to him, and he agreed, so long as he could approve what the final art looked like.
This was the era of the single disc release, and that meant we were going to be releasing a lot of volumes of Mecha-RIN. It was always a challenge to keep people buying each volume of a long series, so we'd started releasing volume 1's with an empty box, which obsessive fans would HAVE to fill up, or it would gnaw away at them. We always filled the empty space with a fun pack-in of some kind: a T-shirt, a CD soundtrack, or some such.
There's a cute animal mascot named Mu-sama that features very prominently in the show. People love Mu-sama. For Mecha-RIN, I came up with the BRILLIANT idea of making a squishy foam rubber keychain of the little guy. The fans would love it! We found a vendor in China that could easily make a prototype, and we sent them all the artwork we had of him. The problem was that, analog film being what it was, we weren't entirely sure exactly what color he was supposed to be. In some slides, he looked eggshell, almost beige. In other shots, he was optic white. Sometimes he even seemed to have a blue tinge.
I emailed Kazuhiro to see if he could give us some direction. “He is supposed to be eggshell, like this picture,” he replied, identifying one of the JPEGs I'd sent him. Great! We sent the image to the toymaker, who quickly turned around a very adorable prototype. We put in the order quickly, since stuff made in China takes forever to arrive. This particular project was expected at six months. BARELY enough time to get it to the replicator, have the package assembled, and make our street date.
The production team soldiered on. It was a grueling project for them. “I don't know if I want this show to be a mega-hit, or for it to fail spectacularly so I never have to work on it again,” one ADR writer moaned. They were working on volume 5 or 6 by the time volume 1 hit the shelves.
To my delight (and that ADR writer's deep conflict), it sold pretty well! People loved the keychain. Musicland and FYE sold a few thousand copies each, which didn't blow the roof off, but could definitely be considered a hit.
And then, one morning, I get an email. A very panicked email. From Kazuhiro.
Mu-chan is the wrong color. He should be optic white, like the color of snow. You need to change this immediately!
What? Immediately? The show had literally been selling for a week! I told him, we'd be happy to address it in the next print run, but since ordering more keychains would take another six months, it'd be some time before that could happen. And besides, we had the email telling us he should be eggshell. I forwarded it to him, along with the offer of fixing it on the next run.
He answered quickly. We cannot allow this doll to be sold to the public. Every unit must be recalled immediately and destroyed. The product must be reprinted immediately, at your company's expense.
Note that he completely ignores the proof that HE TOLD US TO USE EGGSHELL. But whatever. I tell him that the most we could do is recall the product off of store shelves and destroy them, but many had already sold to end consumers. We'd have to wait six months for the new dolls to arrive. That meant volume 3 would be out before volume 1, and the fans would just give up buying it. The show was selling OK, but what he was proposing would cost us a fortune – way more than the show was worth.
This is not acceptable solution on our end. We must insist that your company locate and retrieve every individual unit from end consumer and destroy all copies currently in existence.
Holy god, what are we, the Gestapo?! How does ANYBODY find every copy of a disc in circulation and somehow get back every single unit of a keychain?! By this point we were in a panic over what he was asking – we were having meetings, and the CEO of the company was being CC'ed. What he was asking for was literally impossible, even if you have a whole lot of guns.
Finally, we wrote a reply to him telling him this, and held our breath. After what seemed like an eternity, a reply came…
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Huh. That's it? O---kay, I guess.
The next week, I emailed Kazuhiro some samples of an ad we were planning to run for a forthcoming volume. He didn't reply. Several days later I sent him a follow-up email, politely reminding him to please approve the ad. Nothing.
The licensor was giving us the silent treatment. Like a fricking 6th grader.
We kept trying. For months, we would come up with ads and send them to Kazuhiro, the only point of contact we were supposed to use. (The department for these things at that licensor is very small.) He inevitably either never replied to us, or waited until well past the deadline, whereupon he would ask for changes. He was screwing with us.
We could still keep releasing the discs themselves, thanks to a clause in the contract that only gave the licensor a certain amount of time to get back to us with approvals or changes, but ads and marketing? Forget it. We were never able to produce so much as a web banner for Mecha-RIN after that.
This was the height of the mid-2000s anime DVD boom. There was so much stuff coming out that the only way fans even noticed new releases was with ads in Anime Insider, ANN, AnimeOnDVD and several other places. You had to really market these shows to stand out. Without any marketing, sales of Mecha-RIN fell off a cliff and never recovered. The show was dead. We repackaged the discs in a ThinPak, but couldn't do any marketing for that either. It was over.
This was early in my career. I've since learned that this is not the norm, and that many licensors are perfectly nice, reasonable people. But then, once in a while, you get something like this. You can't say anything to the fans. You can't explain to people what happened. And it could be over ANYTHING.
There was a lot more of Mechanical Godless RINNA-CHAN… further TV seasons, OAVs, movies. We did not license any further installments of Mechanical Godless RINNA-CHAN. I'm not sure we even could if we wanted to. As far as I know, nobody else has either. But the fans still give us grief for it. It's been almost a decade – those guys hold a grudge. And we still can't say anything.
The names of individuals, companies, and franchises referred to in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of all those involved. Any opinions expressed above are those of the expressing party and do not necessarily reflect those of Anime News Network, it's staff, or it's owners. While Anime News Network will never knowingly publish a false or inaccurate story, please remember that there are two (or more) sides to every story.
If you are a current or former anime industry professional and have a story to share (we can keep everyone anonymous), get in touch with Justin Sevakis via social media.
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