Look Back In Manga (Part I)

Monday, July 11 2011
Look Back In Manga (Part I)

Happy 20th birthday, Manga. The pioneering anime label which virtually singlehandedly launched the phenomenon in the UK has notched up two decades at the top of its games in the UK. 

So to mark its anniversary, we asked some of the players in and around both the label’s inception, its history and its recent renaissance, as well as people who’ve witnessed its illustrious past, to talk about their memories of Manga…

And it’s so long, we’ve split it into two parts; here’s our first thoughts, with more to follow shortly… 

“If I said that Manga and the release of animé in Britain was a strategically constructed marketing plan that was orchestrated to perfection…I’d be lying through my teeth. A lot of historical egos associated with the brand might like to think that was the case but in fact the launch of animé as an entertainment entity was pretty much an accident. 

“Island World’s md in 1991 was Andy Frain, one of Chris Blackwell’s ex-record industry men. Andy wanted to release art films and educational titles and picked up Akira as a UK video distribution deal from the Institute of Contemporary Arts who had UK theatrical rights.

“I was sales and marketing director at Island and duly dished Akira out with the rest of the fodder of the day…having little clue of its pending impact.

“Within a couple of months of its release we had sold over 30,000 units. As this was more than the total output of the entire company, we quickly decided the genre had some legs.

“What happened next however, WAS reasonably well planned and executed. 

“As a company with a music foundation, Island decided we should “label” the animé genre the same way as the record company did with music genres like blues or jazz. Our consultant art director (Bruno Tilley) used to work for Island Records and simply came up with the Manga brand as a vehicle for the aspiring animé “label” within the Island stable. Its ironic that the Manga logo that everyone thought originated from some huge corporation in Japan, was actually created in a few days at Bruno’s studio in Fulham. 

“At the same time my old boss Stewart Till was just starting PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and approached me to run its new rental division. Not a hard choice…I was off-ski… but flatteringly, as I handed in my notice, I was dragged out to meet Island impresario Chris Blackwell at his UK residence near Reading. Puffed up with the arrogance of a new job, I told Chris and Andy that they needed to concentrate on Manga as Island’s main thrust of distribution and quit with the art stuff as it wasn’t making them any money, it was a drain on resources and that Manga was more than capable of making it as a standalone business. I left them obscured by a cloud of eye-watering ganja, happy that at least I’d had “my say” and looking forward to joining PolyGram.

“On my way back home at 03.45 on a wet Saturday morning on the M4, I get a call from Andy Frain. ‘We’ll change the company name to Manga Entertainment, make you a share-owning Director, give you a pension deal and a pay rise, if you stay and help launch the new company.’

“One of those rare moments in your life when you’re faced with a win-win situation…looking back I probably should’ve joined PolyGram BUT I stayed with Manga and the rest is history.”

“The next week we moved like lightning. Andy flew into Tokyo to secure as much animé as he could round up, while I went to work planning and delivering a UK sales and marketing campaign.

“At one stage over the next twelve months Manga had seven titles in the sell through [retail] video top 10. It was simply a phenomenon. We caught the market absolutely at the right time and became that culturally historical bridge between the re-birth of cinematographic animation and the X-box.

“We lived with Virgin Megastores. We worked hand in glove with Sega (remember them?). We owned HMV shelf-space, creating our own genre with branded shelf-talkers, a first for video. We were the first UK video company to go live with a website and an online based fan club, exercising interactive social media way before Facebook or Twitter were even thought of. We moved into merchandise and for a few months in ’93 every one of Virgin’s top ten t-shirts was from the Manga stable. We started a Manga club scene and distributed clips for wall projections at some of the happening London club venues such as the Ministry of Sound. We created a Manga Art festival which launched at The Ritzy in Brixton. We bought an ailing comic company and turned ourselves into publishers, producing Manga Mania. We licenced the brand to the US, France, Italy, Australia and Spain where Manga soon became an international smash and the Manga brand became synonymous with all that was edgy and cool.

“Then we started to believe our own hype… Andy became entrenched in Japan for months on end, spending too much on too little, in terms of product regeneration. Ghost In The Shell was executive produced by Frain but proved to be his parting shot with Island. We had recklessly gone into computer generated animation, buying up several silicon graphic generators housed in a studio in Stoke-On-Trent of all places. Our diversity drew investment from our core business and I became md with a remit to cut costs and reign ourselves in.

“Within six months I’d sold the publishing business to the owners of Forbidden Planet and closed the fledgling animation studio.

“From 1996 onwards the US administered Manga from Chicago and I finally did join Stewart Till at PolyGram in October 1997.

“The professional highlights of Manga for me was winning the 1993 Video Business Marketing awards for our presentation of the Manga catalogue, in fact a very slim and youthful Tim Murray handed me the award. We beat the Aliens Trilogy package from Fox who had ironically fired me in 1992 because they wanted to combine sales and marketing into a single dDirector and didn’t think I had good enough marketing skills to take the position. I joined Island from Fox…it was my first job in marketing.

“A similar highlight came from renowned publication Screen Digest whose md Allan Hardy used Manga as a workshop exemplar for brand marketing at the 1996 PEVE conference in Montpellier. Again for a guy who had never been trained in marketing, it was quite a personal triumph.

“Emotionally and in retrospect, the whole Manga saga was the most fun I had in my 25 years in the entertainment business. I hand-picked six bright, sexy and gregarious young women to work with me who became known as the Manga Babes and we partied solid for three years. We hadn’t got a clue what everyone saw in the product because none of us understood it. None of us were Otaku (fans), none of us saw any great depth to it. We knew it was highly controversial and we knew how to collaborate with our customer base in order to maximise Manga’s potential. We were with it but just far enough removed so as not to become of it and I really believe that’s why it was successful, as up to then the genre had lent itself to those who become so fixated with the product that objectivity for its marketability is blinded by passion for content.   

“If I could change anything?…deffo the dubbing… It was heinous and I fought to change it at every opportunity. Unfortunately it wasn’t in my hands and I was as embarrassed by it, as I’m sure most of the fans were. I often think it would’ve been better to have sub-titled but I guess then it may never have crossed over to mainstream.

“I still keep in touch with most of Team Manga from my idyll here in New Zealand…some are now married with kids, others remain in the film business…my right hand woman, Nancy (Pearmain) is now International Director of Operations at Paramount!

All of us agree… 20 years ago, Manga was the place to be and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Mike Preece, former md Manga Video, now in New Zealand and running G8 consultancy, specialising in marketing, mentoring, recruitment and the likes. For more see here 

 “I recall clearly it was my boss at the time, Sian Ellis Thomas who met with Mike Preece. He had just joined this new animation company called Manga from his job at Fox Home Video and was looking for someone to support this strange new product with a title called Akira. We jumped at the chance and installed the main windows of the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore with huge displays of Manga imagery staring out at the public and announcing the arrival of something new, something edgy, something Manga. Ad as we had thought, the product was an instant hit and we were THE first high street retailer to install dedicated Manga Sections in all Virgin Megastores in the UK. 

“My other fond memory of Manga and its unique team of people was a trip to Cannes with Mike Preece to the Midem Event in the early 90s where Manga was establishing its presence across Europe, I remember being invited to meet Chris Blackwell on his yacht for a Thank You Party, the memory goes blank from that point, Rather as it should on those video industry trips. Then there was the Manga convention in Barcelona when we Introduced Manga titles to our Virgin Megastores in Spain, Europe then the US.”

Mark Oakley, then head of video at Virgin Megastores, now owner of the Eagle, Vauxhall, London, home to Horse Meat Disco, the capital’s best night out…

“Never forget Mike Preece (only Birmingham City fan I know), coming into sell to us at HMV monthly – pretty much had to take his word on what was going to be a good seller and more often than not he was true to his word. Between HMV and Virgin, we helped create a brand, Manga, a rarity in the video industry. 
20 years on, still have my Manga jacket.
Viva Manga and Preecey!”

Pete Kalhan, then head of video at HMV, now senior vp at Fremantle…

“I remember the buzz around Akira and some industry friends in the know tipping me off about Japanese anime. So when the first title, Akira, was sent over, I put it on fairly sharpish, and was blown away by what I saw. Never mind that I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, this was truly exciting stuff. I already knew Mike and remember his enthusiasm for the anime material. The other Island World Communications stuff that the company was handling paled alongside Akira and the early releases, Preece and the company wisely soon concentrated all their efforts on the Manga side, being smart enough to use the generic word for the label. Pretty soon my daily post bag on the trade press was full with other anime imprints that arrived from nowhere (as one buyer said to me at the time, our industry is full of “me-too” operations), but having the brand behind it helped Manga throughout the years. 

“I vividly remember the excitement as titles like Urotsukidoji, aka Legend Of The Overfiend, arrived, and then sitting open-mouthed while viewing. I still have my uncut preview VHS tape somewhere, to record how it was before the BBFC took its scissors to it, 

“What I don’t have, sadly, is either my copy of Ogenki Clinic, which I lent to a former chief executive of a big player. As legend has it, Preece unofficially submitted this piece of, ahem, adult anime, to the BBFC and asked what kind of cuts he’d have to make to get it an 18 certificate. They said it’d probably have enough for a trailer’s worth of material, so extreme was its content…

“Also lost along the way: two gorgeous Manga jackets, an Akira varsity jacket and a Manga windcheater, that disappeared in a move. Both were essential 90s industry clothing items. 

“What I have got left are a lot of memories of the early days; the sheer enthusiasm and the feeling that the label was entering uncharted territories. There were some amazing parties too – one at Heaven stands out in the mind. And in later years, the label consistently managed to pull out some great titles, interesting marketing and, yes, great bashes too. 

“In recent years, the label has undergone something of a renaissance under Jerome Mazandarani’s stewardship, enjoyed something of a renaissance, driven by his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of the market.    

“In a digital age it has seized upon social networking and other new ways of communicating its releases, and has further expanded its market. 

“Here’s to the next 20 years…”

Tim Murray, then at Video Business magazine, now, timecode and RRP later, at The Raygun…

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