It's been close to a year since the last real edition of "Speculation Corner" (or over a month, if you count the "unofficial" one that tail-ended last year), HardDoor's little space of guesstimation and rumor mill mongering. The record has been, well, spectacularly wrong for the most part, but yet here we are again. There will always be an unlicensed show out there with some dangling strings to it that may (or often, may not) lead to a possible announcement by a stateside distributor in the future, so "Speculation Corner" will always have something to ponder on. And without further ado, we take a look at a major title that supposedly has little to no chance at coming to North America--so we're believed.
The Macross franchise is one of the most storied in Japan and is second to Gundam as the biggest "real robot" franchise there. However, it has perhaps the most convoluted rights issue this side of Space Battleship Yamato. The problems stem from the production of the very first series, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which was spearheaded by advertising firm Big West, Studio Nue, and Tatsunoko Pro. The details are well explained here (covered in given section and the one following it), but overall, the first two wrangled with the latter over numerous property claims, one of those being distribution rights (Note: I usually like to refrain from linking to Wikipedia, but in this case, someone(s) did a very good and thorough job at explaining it). Tatsunoko was given worldwide authority as part of its production deal, and would later subcontract those rights to Harmony Gold USA, Inc., who with Tatsunoko's blessing used the series to create its Robotech amalgam. As such, HG is a staunch enforcer of its given rights and has been a major roadblock in allowing Macross titles and merchandise in English-speaking countries, where their jurisdictions lie. Additionally, music has played a critical role both in the series itself and its merchandising success, and as such, obtaining music rights and handling royalty fees have made Macross and its subsequent iterations a difficult, and by account from other distributors, a near impossibility to bring over from Japan. However, the newest addition to its family may change all of this.
Macross Frontier, which commemorated the franchise's 25th anniversary, was by all accounts a megahit and one of the best series in the past year. In Japan, its sales and publicity were phenomenal by anime standards, with its music albums frequently reaching into the Top 3 on billboard charts and its disc sales, particularly Blu-ray, were very strong. Its popularity is not restrained only to Japan, as it has found a large following in North America. The potential success in the region has surely not been lost on the producers of the series nor on Harmony Gold, but whenever stateside distributors have been asked about it, they have often stated "they would like to" have it but HG is the major obstacle standing in the way.
In spite of this, time is of the essence and those involved with MacrossF would certainly like strike while the iron is hot. Also, with knowledge that Macross II and Macross Plus came (via Manga Ent.) without incident (or dealing through HG), and because of HG's allowance for the original Macross to come out for the first time unaltered (first through AnimEigo, then through Robotech distributor ADV Films), there is still a possibility to see MacrossF arrive here. Smoothing the path are two distributors who have two very different, but credible, chances at being awarded the most potentially lucrative, and hardest-to-obtain, property in anime right now.
Bandai Entertainment may currently be going through a restructuring phase during this dire worldwide economic period, but they still have shown that they are willing to license "strong titles". In Macross Frontier's case, the company has the distinction of being associated with Bandai Visual, who has served as the domestic distributor for every Macross anime since the first. The corporation of Bandai as a whole (Bandai Namco) has begun to stress brand name promotion and integration for the last few years, with the failing Bandai Visual USA branch being absorbed by Bandai Ent. (while retaining the Honneamise label that was used on its high-quality releases on both sides of the Pacific) and the manufacturing of its Honneamise and Blu-ray discs being done in Japan.
The in-house promotion has also naturally extended to Bandai Ent. getting a hold of properties that were distributed by BV. In the past, a title like Tide-Line Blue might have gotten picked up by another company, but instead it stayed in the Bandai family. Even Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, formerly distributed by Dreamwork SKG's Go Fish Pictures, and the Blu-ray release of Akira, whose DVD run was handled by Geneon USA (now in partnership with BR-capable FUNimation) went from Bandai Visual's hands to U.S. unit Bandai Ent.'s.
Bringing this back to Macross Frontier, one would be hard-pressed to believe that BV, as the distributor of such a major title, would allow any other company to license, and subsequently make money off of, it other than one of "their own"--Bandai Ent.--and keep the money flow "in the family". If given the license, and with access to BV's services, Bandai Ent. would perhaps have an easier avenue of dealing with the music rights and royalties, and would also be able to utilize the BR production process "back at home" in Japan for a North American release. The music produced for MacrossF was major draw on both coasts, and with Bandai Ent.'s experience in releasing soundtracks and singles from its shows, the process of translating, manufacturing, and selling the collections in N. America could be assured and prove to be another major source in revenue.
One major sign that might be pointing to Bandai Ent. potentially having the license can be observed on their YouTube page. Listed in its "Subscription" section, among the links to its corporate siblings and Lantis, the Japanese music giant whose Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya singles were handled by the company in N. America, is Big West, Macross' long-time producer, including for Frontier. The firm, whose YT page contains solely material from that show, "returned the favor" by featuring Bandai Ent. in its own "Subscription" section. While it also features the same other Bandai subsidiaries, only Bandai Ent. handles the major anime work in N. America. On Bandai Ent.'s end, it is odd that they would subscribe to a company they have no current dealings with (compared to the others listed), especially one that is advertising a show they do not have. Another, albeit smaller, sign can be found in their site's front page source code, which periodically drops cryptic hints on what the company is currently doing or is planning in the future. On a few occasions, they have quoted or ad-libbed a popular line from Macross 7, which also pops up in Frontier: "Listen to my song!"
If Bandai Ent. were to truly have the license to Macross Frontier, they would certainly have the ability to handle its video and music distribution as well as broadcasting (most likely Sci-Fi Channel and/or Anime Selects) and webcasting (YT). Having the backing of Bandai Visual is the chief reason why they have as strong a chance at obtaining the valuable license.
FUNimation Productions, LTD., however, is another company that also stands a strong chance at getting Macross Frontier. Aside from being the largest, and arguably the most powerful, anime distributor in North America, they also have deep pockets and a strong corporate backing in Navarre Corporation. The show and its hefty package of rights and royalties could feasibly be obtained by them, who have even managed to pick up the very expensive license to the movie Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone. FUNimation also has experience in manufacturing Blu-ray discs and while their soundtrack distribution is rather limited, they certainly have the capability and expertise to handle digital distribution--more so than Bandai Ent. Additionally, they have a great deal of experience in handling music production and transitioning Japanese songs to English ones, skills that would be of great use for a show like MacrossF.
What may be a deciding factor, ultimately, is FUNimation's relationship with Macross international licensor Harmony Gold. They released the 2005 OVA Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, and with ADV Films, the franchise's primary N. American distributor, in a quieted rebuilding stage in the aftermath of a failed business venture with Sojitz, FUNimation (who, ironically, was the main benefactor of it) stands as the one company they dealt with who has the capacity to carry and market it.
In some sense, the fate of Macross Frontier rests with who has the most say over its license for release outside of Japan: Bandai Visual or Harmony Gold. Macross II and Plus showed that it is possible to circumvent the latter, but neither of those two where as directly related to the original Macross (where HG's jurisdiction chiefly lies) as Frontier is, its 25th anniversary show. Unless the producers of the show, such as Big West, and/or BV pulled enough strings to bypass their authority, HG still has the final word. That being said, it can be argued that Frontier is nearly as distant from the original as two others considering its events and time gap. While MacrossF is the primary subject here, all of this may be pointing to Macross Zero, the prequel to the original that premiere earlier in the decade. It would have a more difficult time bypassing HG due to that very fact, and because it plays a sizable role in Frontier, it could also be argued that Frontier is retroactively connected to the original via Zero.
Macross Frontier's licensing, like much of the rest of the Macross franchise, is a tricky, sinewy one with many rights and legal issues attached to it. Both Bandai Ent. and FUNimation, the only two real major distributors in N. America, can feasibly get it for the reasons discussed above. However, I personally believe that based on the evidence and facts, Bandai Ent. stands the best chance at becoming its possessor. It's been shown that HG can be bypassed and Bandai Visual would more than likely help to get it into their hands. The Big West-YouTube "clue" is a curious one that bodes well in supporting the belief that they are either close to or already have it. Of course, it's not entirely out of the question that Harmony Gold gave them their blessing. Whether Macross Zero is involved as well is uncertain, though it would not only be a good complement to Frontier, but another lucrative acquisition, as well.
In HardDoor's end-of-the-year post for 2008, I predicted that Macross Frontier would be licensed this year, and while I have now favored Bandai Ent. to get it and not FUNimation, I still firmly believe either way that it will be acquired. The show's producers and others involve know that the clock is ticking and now is the time to act--just perhaps Bandai Ent. might be the one to deal with it.