Look Back In Manga (Part II)

Wednesday, July 13 2011
Look Back In Manga (Part II)

In the second part of our personal history of Manga, as told by some of the people who were there, we look at some of its doldrums and its subsequent renaissance after the arrival of current UK head of marketing and acquisitions, Jerome Mazandarani. He gives his thoughts, but we kick off with anime aficionado Jonathan Clements …

“After Manga bought Dark Horse UK, the comics company was run out of a pre-fab shed behind the main offices, creating an odd mismatch of comics geekery and coke-fuelled refugees from the music business. The comics people felt left-out, particularly when the old music biz staff would commission cover or ad art without consulting them. I remember Cefn Ridout, the editor of Manga Mania magazine, getting agitated in the office about someone’s decision to draw a mascot woman for the new Manga ‘fashion’ line (cruelly also known as the Milletts Collection), without coming to him and asking if he knew any… well, professional artists.

“The 1990s were not a fan-friendly time. Before dual-track DVDs arrived at the turn of the century, stores were deeply reluctant to carry subtitled VHS. Dubs sold better, and it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, Manga Entertainment in the 1990s was not a “fan-friendly” company. Or rather, it rejected the premise that the 600 people watching subtitled VHS in a hotel conference suite were really its “fans”. Instead, it pandered to a significantly larger, audience, the tens of thousands of consumers who bought Akira and might be persuaded to come back for more. There was a demonstrable demographic of 4000 or so young British males who could be counted on to habitually buy 18-rated cartoons, dubbed into English. Mike Preece spoke of the ‘beer-and-curry’ crowd who would enjoy anime in a raucous environment. We started calling such notional viewers ‘Mangatykes’, and as the decade wore on they began to crowd out the original fans, even at conventions.

“The company really worked hard to get their attention. The price point on Guyver was so low that it made Manga Entertainment barely 40p per unit, but teenage boys were encouraged to put down a fiver for a 30 minute anime on tape. It helped foster brand loyalty for when they were a little older.

“I applied for a job in the main building once, only to see it go to yet another Manga Babe. I did confront Mike about this, and asked if I stood a better chance in a miniskirt. He laughed and said that he liked to surround himself with beautiful people, and I wasn’t his type…

“At a time when Manga Entertainment and anime fandom were not on speaking terms, the Manga Babes helped push the brand into the hipper, club-focused scene, which certainly didn’t do it any harm. Their ideas were sometimes a little misguided, though. I remember the ‘manga art festival’ at the Ritzy, which amounted to a couple of dozen video covers in frames. One of the Manga Babes asked a passer-by what he thought of the exhibition. ‘I’ve, erm, seen them already,’ he replied diplomatically.

“I turned up at the Manga Mania shed one day to drop off some articles, and found the staff had already gone down the pub after being given some news. ‘We’ve been sold to Titan,’ lamented Cefn gloomily. The entire company, including its staff, was expected to relocate to a new office, as part of another company. To his credit, Mike Preece followed us down there and tried to give a pep talk about opportunities – a brave and gutsy thing for him to do. (It certainly turned into an opportunity for me. Two years later, I became the editor of the now-renamed Manga Max).

“Such putsches, including the eventual departure of Preece himself, were all part of the fall-out from the company’s late 1990s doldrums. Ghost In The Shell made huge waves, but burned so much money in production that the company had to scale back drastically. After forging ahead as a UK market leader, Manga Entertainment faced competition from a dozen other companies like Kiseki, East2West and Crusader Video. This didn’t just dilute the customer base, but also pushed up the cost of rights back in Japan. UK conventions were still hovering around the 600-attendee mark, and five or six companies would be in a bidding war to buy cartoons they hadn’t even seen. This was partly why Manga Entertainment sunk a million into the production of Ghost in the Shell in the first place – to ensure that it didn’t have to get into a bidding war over the rights. Manga Entertainment was so strapped for cash by 1997 that it was obliged to release the left-overs and offcuts that had been attached to other deals: awful bin-scrapings like Vampire Wars and Red Hawk: Weapon of Death.

“The company only really climbed out its two-year recession with its release of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue in 1999. By that time, Manga Entertainment Ltd had shrunk from its peak to a single desk at someone else’s company. The Manga Babes left for richer pickings, but with classic titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell on the backlist, the company was able to coast along under several caretakers, effectively running on empty.

“The arrival of Jerome Mazandarani in 2005 really, radically changed things. By this time, Manga Entertainment has been sold again, to Anchor Bay, where it could have easily just turned over reissues of old favourites. But Jerome went after fandom in a really pro-active way. He took the company back to conventions. He bought fan-friendly product that was a world away from the material Manga Entertainment was releasing five years earlier. The company under Laurence Guinness, Mike Preece or Marvin Gleicher would have never touched Naruto with a barge pole. The company’s own figures sales figures argued very persuasively for staying away from TV shows or shojo (girls’) material But Jerome jumped in with both feet. He kept the old customers but he completely repositioned Manga Entertainment as a company that listened to the fans.

“Manga Entertainment isn’t just a brand any more; it’s a conversation. It’s an ongoing chat over at www.mangauk.com, with Jerome daily tweeting new releases, arguing with hecklers, and talking through company decisions with a younger crowd of post-Pokémon consumers. The company’s really grabbed social media with both hands, and that’s one of the things that’s keeping it vibrant and dynamic, ready for the next twenty years.”

Jonathan Clements, then a Japanese translator and editor of Manga Max, now author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. See here for more…

“My tenure at Manga Entertainment has been a happy accident. I was simply in the right place at the right time.

“After a six month sabbatical in Canada I had returned to London and immediately started working at Pinnacle Vision (the games distributor) as their trade marketing manager. My good friends at Pinnacle Vision, Mark Anderson (High Fliers) and Samantha Lawrie (now Glasscoe and at  Warner Bros) were one day sitting at their desks with a mountain of Manga DVDs in front of them wondering what the hell they were going to do with it. I couldn’t help myself when I saw them. I totally geeked out and told them everything I know about Ghost In The Shell, Akira, Blood The Last Vampire and many more of my favourite anime movies. I gave them a quick tutorial in the joys of all things anime and Manga and from that day on I was Pinnacle’s ‘Manga expert’.

“Shortly after  I was invited to meet Anchor Bay Entertainment’s md, industry legend Mo Claridge and Manga’s then head of acquisitions, Kaoru Mfaume, two of the nicest blokes you’re ever likely to meet. I started working at Manga Entertainment on January 10 2005 as marketing executive. It was a great foot in the door and I was overjoyed to be working in film and home video. I inherited the brand new Ghost In The Shell TV series, Stand Alone Complex, which has gone on to sell over 250,000 copies in the UK. I had started bugging DreamWorks for details on their new Ghost In The Shell movie, Innocence; I discovered that the UK rights were up for sale and begged Mo to acquire them at the Berlin Film Festival. Once again, I was in the right place at the right time. We released Innocence theatrically on about 15 screens in October 2005. Tragically, Mo passed away suddenly on Christmas Day 2005 and he never did get to see Manga release Innocence on DVD that February, entering the chart at number 32 and selling more than 9,500 copies week one. It has since sold over 100,000 copies in the UK and it is one of my biggest achievements to date. It’s even more important to me how well it did, as the company was undergoing massive restructuring in the wake of Mo’s passing and with no md in place until the middle of 2006.

“When Anchor Bay acquired Manga in 2003 I don’t think they realized quite what they had on their hands. Manga was an ailing brand. The fans hated us and often referred to us as Mangled Entertainment for our shoddy dubs, poor subtitling and glitchy discs. We had been eclipsed by smaller indie anime distributors like ADV and MVM who had seen the huge potential for anime TV series DVD box set releases. I think it was my second week at Manga when I sat down with Anchor Bay’s PR team, The Associates and had a chat with Almar Haflidason, who later became our PR account manager. Almar set me straight on where Manga was and where we could be. I took his excellent advice onboard and I am happy to say we really managed to do a great job turning Manga around. We acquired the UK rights to Naruto in the summer of 2006 and have not looked back since turning an ailing brand back into the fan favourite label it should have always been.

“The home video industry is at a crossroads right now. Anime fans being youthful and always at the cutting edge of new media and technology have shown us the way forward for our business. I believe we will always be a premium, cult label with an avid collector base, but we have heeded the fan’s calls and we are now one of the most prominent UK entertainment brands on Twitter, Facebook and online. We are moving with the times while never forgetting what made Manga an exciting and engaging brand in the first place. As long as the Japanese keep creating amazing content we will keep selling it for them here in the UK and beyond. Here’s to another 20 years.”

Jerome Mazandarani, head of marketing and acquisitions

Manga Entertainment (UK) Ltd

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