From the Archives: Bandai Entertainment Interview

From the Archives header
From the Archives header

From the Archives is a deep dive into MAHQ’s history that revisits some old content that still has historical value.

This edition of From the Archives travels back to March 2005 and an interview I did with Jerry Chu, then-marketing manager for the defunct Bandai Entertainment. In retrospect, it was a huge deal that MAHQ got to break the news about Gundam SEED DESTINY being licensed for North American release, and it’s the only time in our 23 year history that such a thing ever happened. Looking at the interview as a whole, it’s a good window into a time when the North American anime industry was very different from how it is now. I’ll draw special attention to Chu’s prescient comment about the anime market bursting after being flooded with too many subpar titles.

The following is a transcript of a phone interview I conducted with Jerry Chu on March 7, 2005. Jerry works as the marketing manager for Bandai Entertainment, Inc. (herein referred to as ‘BEI’). Please note that the comments and views expressed by Jerry in this interview do not reflect the official positions or opinions of BEI.

Chris: The year 2004 saw a number of Gundam releases, including Zeta Gundam, Gundam SEED, Gundam F91 and SD Gundam Force. Can you give us any indication on what to expect on the Gundam front in 2005?

Jerry: Right now the focus is still on the Gundam SEED series on Cartoon Network and the final volume of the DVD release will be out soon. We also have on tap the release of the Gundam SEED movies [Ed- Special Edition compilation specials] which will be released on DVD in the summertime, similar to the original series movies. There will be additional never-before-seen animation with both scenes and mecha, totaling more than 20 min. I believe we have also finally received the SEED epilogue from Sunrise and will be releasing that with the movies. And yes, production will begin soon on Gundam SEED DESTINY. That means it’s licensed.

Chris: DESTINY being licensed is big news. Do you plan to officially announce it at any upcoming conventions?

Jerry: I’m announcing it now. It has been said before and it will be said again, BEI is committed to the release of this extraordinary and long running franchise and we plan on releasing all the Gundams. Broadcast has not been set yet, but we’re shooting for possible first volume DVD release of DESTINY…soon.

Chris: Although fans were happy to get their hands on the long-delayed Zeta Gundam DVD set, many were disappointed by the change of the OP/ED music as well as the dubtitles. While the music changes were due to rights issues, is there a reason why Sunrise chose to dubtitle an older, niche release?

Jerry: Certain parts may be dubtitled, but we continue to remind them [Sunrise] that fans demand accurate subtitle translation (we had to go through this before with Pilot Candidate, trust me, we didn’t want to go through it again). I’d chalk it up to the English production staff for honestly believing that this is what fans wanted. As far as BEI’s responsibilities are in regards to Zeta, we worked very hard covering the packaging end including the shiny DVD box, collectible pencil sharpener figures, booklet, and the illustration by Mr. Kotobuki. We [BEI] wanted to take all the comments and suggestions from fans and make it a reality for this release – for example: fans these days are increasingly requesting thinpack packaging, and while we can’t do that with our normal releases…with a release like Zeta Gundam, we can do it, and we did. And while things may have been out of our control (opening/ending songs for example), we did what we could and followed the directions given to us by our licensor and Mr. Tomino.

Chris: What would you say was BEI’s best-performing title in 2004, in terms of TV ratings, DVD sales and other merchandising?

Jerry: Hands down, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series. It has become the best-selling anime TV series on DVD to date according to Nielsen Videoscan. With a tag team punch on Adult Swim, along with Fullmetal Alchemist as a lead in to GitS: SAC, exposure for high quality anime series is rising. Following closely to GitS: SAC would be Wolf’s Rain and Gundam SEED. And of course catalog DVD sales of Cowboy Bebop and Witch Hunter Robin continue to do very well.

Chris: Gundam SEED is doing well even though it isn’t on Toonami anymore and airs on a rather obscure 1 A.M. time slot?

Jerry: The ratings are doing well within this time slot and has been very strong for Cartoon Network.

Chris: For several years, the average 26 episode TV series has been released on 6 DVDs. Now, many 26 episode series are being released across 7 discs. Is there any reason for this industry-wide change?

Jerry: We have to go back a few years back when we [BEI] began releasing DVDs. We [BEI] initiated the 6 volume release format for most of our titles like Cowboy Bebop and even took it a step further with releases of Silent Mobius and Outlaw Star. And while we [BEI] continue to maintain good sales numbers with this release format…current market conditions are seriously impacting the industry’s bottom line. The market’s become too saturated with titles, licenses have become astronomically expensive that our competitors need to offset these costs to help eek out some profit. These titles are becoming huge money pits threatening to swallow up companies. Thus you’ll see more and more of these companies going to a 7 volume release format or whatever to help offset all these costs.

And while we [BEI] continue to maintain as much as possible our current 6 volume release format, somewhere down the line, we may have to go the way of our competitors.

Obviously there’s always more to it, for example, an OVA series like Yukikaze we wanted to keep it compact to 2 volumes, but due to actual animation production delays with the OVAs in Japan, we felt that going as a 3 volume release format instead would make more sense in order to get it to those customers who’ve purchased the first volume and have been patiently waiting.

Chris: Anime DVDs aren’t usually known for having many special features. However, Bandai’s upcoming releases of Planetes and Cowboy Bebop Remix are as packed as the average live action special edition. Does this represent a change in BEI’s production of DVDs, and if so, why?

Jerry: It isn’t really a change in BEI’s production or philosophy or anything like that – Just take a look at our releases in year’s past like Blue Submarine No. 6 Special Edition, Escaflowne the Movie, or Gundam F91 Special Edition. Our producers are big fans of the series they work on and we all believe that content is king. And we’re just doing what we feel the end customer, the fans, and us…want. Background information, clean opening/endings, interviews with the creative and voice staff, etc. – stuff that we as fans would also love to see.

For Planetes, which is a personal favorite, it just screams more background information and attention especially with all the details presented within the show itself. We want to bring those stories and information to create a better understanding to fans and viewers of the show. I mean, what better way to explain orbital space debris than by interviewing the actual NASA scientists in charge of orbital space debris in real life? It’s funny, the JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) scientists actually duped the show off TV there and send their colleagues at NASA a copy to check out. It’s stories like these that rounds out the greatness of the show and provides a unique glimpse into the impact of the show itself. And while its unfortunate that not every release can have a wealth of DVD extras and materials, we do our best to secure them or create them.

Chris: In the last few years, ADV Films has released several classic mecha series such as Aura Battler Dunbine, Megazone 23 and Five Star Stories. Is it possible that BEI will dip into the Sunrise archives and release some older shows such as Heavy Metal L.Gaim?

Jerry: Right now it remains to be seen. Unfortunately fans of those older shows should understand that historically these older shows do not do as well. In order for us to do something, it has to make sense financially.

Chris: Several years ago, BEI announced it had licensed Giant Gorg and Blue Comet SPT Layzner. What ever happened to these series?

Jerry: I don’t want to know; I haven’t asked.

Chris: The anime industry has fundamentally changed since BEI opened up shop as Anime Village in 1998. Where do you see the anime industry and Bandai in general 3 years from now?

Jerry: Bandai continues to be one of the strongest players. Right now what’s happening is a lot of consolidation. You have the ShoPro/Viz merger. You’re going to have a lot more Japanese companies involved internationally and in North America. It’s getting to be really crowded for a market that is still represented by barely 2% of all home video sales. There’s a lot of titles out there and the market’s getting really saturated. The end consumer is getting flooded with choices and with a limited budget, getting pickier.

Six years ago there wasn’t as much out there and almost everything could be released and subsequently eaten up by customers. But now, it’s getting harder. A lot of the new releases are going to be tailored for release in this market in order to perform well. Bandai will continue to concentrate on key hit releases such as Wolf’s Rain, Gundam SEED and Witch Hunter Robin because these are the titles that are garnering the exposure on television and combined with the fact that they’re good series to begin with, will do well in the marketplace. I strongly believe that many companies run a risk of collapse if they continue to release at breakneck speed those not-very-good or niche C and D titles. Just take a look at the manga business. So much product is flooding the market, I guarantee you that companies are taking a lot of returns on titles that may have sold during the initial boom of manga in North America. For our manga business we’re just going to focus on the best both licensed properties, original properties, and others.

Chris: Companies like ADV release a lot of manga titles that tie-in with their anime releases. Will BEI follow a pattern similar to this, and will they release titles that don’t necessarily have an anime tie-in?

Jerry: We’re not really looking at what a TOKYOPOP or an ADV is doing. Having a manga tie-in would be great, but especially these days with licensing complexity issues abound, it’s become very difficult to have something be perfect. We’re not following a particular model. Our manga division is looking at licensed manga properties, original manga properties, and more.

Chris: Is there a time frame for when the BEI manga line will take off?

Jerry: We’re working on something that should be launching sometime this summer. As soon as some contracts are signed, you’ll be hearing something shortly.

Chris: What do you think will be BEI’s biggest title in 2005?

Jerry: We’re continuing things on a couple of fronts. DESTINY will be big. Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig will be big. Scrapped Princess and Mars Daybreak will be big. Planetes is more of a sleeper title, but it’s a show I strongly feel all fans of the anime genre should take a look at. It’s a relationship show, but its something anyone can get into.

Chris: Personally, if there was one unlicensed title that you would like BEI to license, what would it be?

Jerry: This is a hard one to answer because we could have something in co-production right now or it could be licensed later. But looking around, I really wish we could have helped release Slam Dunk, but we aren’t.

Chris: ADV has The Anime Network (TAN) in several markets, and Sony is attempting to get an anime channel going. Do you see an anime channel as something that can be profitable and successful in the U.S.?

Jerry: At this moment, no. The only one that’s really done well with anime has been Cartoon Network. The reason they’re s successful is that they’re putting on good shows like Wolf’s Rain, Cowboy Bebop, Full Metal Alchemist, etc. These are quality shows that attract viewers and holds them. The library out there just isn’t strong enough to attract advertising revenue the life blood of any television endeavor. The TV world is a difficult place to look at. I don’t know how well TAN is doing or what Sony might be doing, but if it’s in limited markets, I don’t think it’ll have much of an impact.

Chris: It was recently announced that Bandai Visual is establishing a U.S. office to research the American market and release anime. How does this affect BEI? Will the two companies work together or as separate entities?

Jerry: It doesn’t. Bandai Visual will be opening an office in Los Angeles with efforts to increase its exposure and relationships with studios in Hollywood. I will assume the office will also be to help facilitate working communication between ourselves at Bandai Entertainment with Japan over licensor approvals, etc.

Chris: As a fellow fan of Initial D, I’m wondering what your favorite car is as well as favorite battle.

Jerry: The one I replay is the car jumping scene in the movie. Jumping cars never cease to amaze me, and that battle just went right down to the wire. You never knew a Corolla could jump like that without hurting something. Too bad he [Takumi] didn’t have the cup of water! The Mercedes-Benz that the mysterious man drives is a classic. Classy.


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