Addendum: Much of the information brought to light by the commenters has forced me to rethink my position on this whole issue, since the facts simply don't support it anymore. I'm grateful to have been set straight, if also rather red-faced. That said, I shouldn't make it seem like one there ought to be room for both Macross and Robotech alike in the market; there should be room for both, without one coming at the expense of the other. I'm leaving the article up for the sake of continuity, though. See my follow-up piece for more.

Few things make fans simultaneously happier and more uneasy than word of a live-action version of a beloved property. When it's a foundational property, the unease multiplies tenfold. Sony has, whether or not they know it, jacked up fan unease an order of magnitude by landing the rights to a live-action remake of Robotech, after said rights had languished in development hell at Warner Brothers for some time.

But the crucial word there is Robotech, not Macross -- one of the franchises underlying Robotech*, and the victim of a contentious rights dispute that has all but destroyed chances of having the franchise rediscovered by future generations. Speculative as it might be to say this, my hope is that Sony will use this as an excuse to untangle the terrible legal Gordian Knot that's surrounded Macross in the West — and satisfy more than one kind of fan of the original.

The nostalgia merchants

There's one obvious and easy reason why Sony is making a Robotech movie and not a Macross one, but it's not a reason I think makes as much difference as some people would want to believe: Branding.

The idea, as best I can grasp it, is that there are far more people who recognize the name "Robotech" than there are people who recognize the name "Macross", so why not make the safe bet? The problem is, it's a silly strategy, because in both cases the number of people involved is not nearly enough to motivate the production of a nine-figure tentpole release.

If I sound all too willing to attribute this strategy to Sony, it's only because so far that has been the exact strategy used in the drumming-up of attention around every single major anime-to-live-action property in the West. Dragonball: Evolution (my fingers cramped up against themselves just typing that name), Evangelion, Astro-Boy, AKIRA — all of which are name brands to the few people who know them, and to absolutely no one else. Let us not delude ourselves about how big an audience we are; the fact that "anime is going mainstream" says more about our ability to market ourselves to ourselves than it says anything about the awareness of your average punter.

But there are plenty of signs that's precisely the approach they're taking. The writer's chair is currently occupied by Michael Gordon, he who was tasked with turning GI JOE into a live-action project, with predictably dismal results. The fact that Robotech is a name brand to someone out there is what matters most here, even if that name brand is nothing more a distant echo.

My thesis as to why this keeps happening, in the face of any evidence to support that it's a good business strategy, is that the very people involved — the producers, the executives, the directors, the screenwriters — are themselves of the very generations that came of age with this material. They are the ones to whom Robotech is a name brand. It's nice, I suppose, that they want to lay claim to being part of that pack, but grossly overestimating the appeal of their projects isn't the way to do it.

Lest I sound like I am compelling all who enter here to abandon hope, I will say that it's generally the duty of any Hollywood-grade adaptor to use the material as a starting point and a resource from which to draw on. Hundreds of millions of dollars at stake is a strong incentive to create something that will reach all the quadrants they're trying to market to. With Macross — sorry, Robotech — they might have half a chance of pulling that off, given how Western-audience-friendly the core material is. How would an elevator pitch put it? Top Gun meets Battlestar Galactica, maybe? There are worse high concepts out there, I guess.

Unraveling the Gordian Knot

Nostalgia value aside, there's another good reason why this is a Robotech project and not a Macross one. It is the truly staggering legal struggle that exists between Harmony Gold, the U.S. licensor of Macross (from which Robotech is derived), and Big West, the Japanese financiers of the property. The condensed version, as run down by the folks at Kotaku and Macross World, unfolds something like this.

  1. Harmony Gold licensed Macross for U.S. distribution from Big West Tatsunoko, one of the show's merchandisers and for a while created a tidy little Stateside empire dealing in Robotech merchandise and IP.
  2. Then, in the early 2000s, perhaps spurred by the seeing the importation and release of other Macross titles like Macross II and Macross Plus, Harmony Gold started using a willfully misinterpreted clause in their contract to claim that because of their arrangements with the show's merchandisers in Japan (Studio Nue and Tatsunoko), they alone had the right to deal in all Macross-related properties as far as the U.S. was concerned.
  3. Big West, Sudio Nue, and Tatsunoko filed suit against Harmony Gold and asserted their right to market Macross as they pleased.
  4. Unfortunately, Harmony Gold had already filed trademark status on the term "Macross" in the U.S., thus making it all but impossible for other parties to deal with anything bearing that name in the country. (And possibly in other territories where Harmony Gold has business interests, as the Kotaku piece also noted.)

[Updated 2015/03/29: Commentor "Ren" has provided details about the legal struggle. "Harmony Gold did not procure the rights to Macross from Big West, they did so from Tatsunoko, and continue to renew that contract routinely to this day. The lawsuit in Japan was thus Tatsunoko versus BigWest and Studio Nue, (emphasis mine), for the purpose of sorting out who owns what. At first glance it would seem that HG was not involved in that, but when you consider that Japanese society is nowhere near as litiguious as the US then it makes sense that it was HG forcing Tatsunoko to get their act together."]

This has to stand as one of the most duplicitous abuses of intellectual property law I have ever seen. It means that apart from Robotech, the original Macross series, Macross II and Macross Plus, every single other product of that franchise is unavailable to the U.S., possibly in perpetuity. Those works admittedly vary in quality — I actually like Macross 7 despite myself — but even the lamest representatives of that franchise deserve a chance to be seen outside of the bootleg or cost-plus import circuits.

(A quick check of the USPTO database shows that "Macross" is still listed as a registered trademark of Harmony Gold USA Inc., serial number 76382155. Registered 2002/10/15, renewed 2012/03/01.)

With this news, though, there comes to mind a way to unravel this knot in one stroke: Have Sony buy Harmony Gold.

The outlay for a company of that size ought to be less than the catering budget for Sony's Tokyo headquarters. Sony could then nullify the U.S. trademark for "Macross" (or at the very least reassign it properly), and clear the way for the rest of the franchise to be marketed properly by the people who actually own it.

Aside from being logistically straightforward and legally sound, such a tactic would dole out a nice heap of just deserts. I've long been annoyed by the self-serving attitude Harmony Gold has taken with their property — not in the sense that I don't think Carl Macek deserves credit for being a major force in bringing anime to a domestic audience, but in the sense that his company's self-importance about its achievements has become odious. For them to stump for their own Robotech Chronicles production while at the same time blocking imports of other work done for the franchise they derived it from is the height of hypocrisy.

Sony, do us all a solid. Don't just remake Robotech, er, Macross. Liberate it. You'll make us a lot happier than you would with just a remake.

[* Commentor "Brookyn Red Leg" has provided more details about the franchises: "More of what became Robotech story-wise was actually taken from Super Dimension Cavalry: Southern Cross than from Super Dimension Fortress: Macross. You also seem to conveniently be forgetting the third act of the series which came from Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. The overwhelming majority of the episodes that became Robotech are NOT Macross (36 episodes for Macross vs. 49 for Southern Cross/MOSPEADA). Furthermore, subsequent productions have all NOT been Macross: Robotech the Movie (which was originally simply an adaptation of MegaZone 23 Pt 1), Robotech II: The Sentinels (3 episodes of animation, none of which included actual designs from SDF Macross, but the catalog of vehicles did have some INSPIRED by Macross, but also a vast wealth of Southern Cross and MOSPEADA mecha), Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles and Robotech: Love, Live Alive which both were basically continuations (design-wise, in the case of Shadow Chronicles, story-wise in LLA) of Gensis Climber MOSPEADA."]



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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