Robotech: its knotty history, and earlier movie attempts

As the Robotech film moves ahead, we look at the anime's history, knotty rights issues, cultural impact, and earlier failed film attempts.

“In the year 1999, high above Macross island in the South Pacific, a phenomenal event occurred in the skies which altered the cause of human history…”

With a blaze of animated light, a huge alien space craft bursts through Earth’s atmosphere and collides with a city, reducing its buildings to atoms in an instant.

That dramatic opening heralded the arrival of Robotech – and American television had never seen anything quite like it. Here was animated show which told a sprawling saga set across multiple epochs, full of alien invaders and exotic transforming robots. Its characters seemed low-key and somehow real; there were brave pilots, nervy new-recruits, romances and love triangles. There was action, but also comedy, tragedy and pathos. It even provided a generous helping of bubblegum pop music.

Robotech sees the people of Earth harness the advanced technology found in the wreckage of that mysterious, kilometre-long craft which crashed on Macross Island. Within years, the craft has been restored to something close to its former glory, and is now called the SDF-1. Meanwhile, the an entity called the Robotech Defence Force is set up, with its pilots flying high-tech aircraft which can transform into humanoid robots. These come in handy when, in 2009, an alien race of giants called the Zentraedi attack Earth. Their target: the SDF-1.

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Running for a total of 85 half-hour episodes from 1985 onwards, Robotech led a multimedia assault of toys, comics and spin-off movies. Its success arguably sparked a fresh wave of interest in anime among American audiences; sure, Japanese animation had appeared on US TV before, but none had the continuity and storytelling richness of Robotech. As a 2013 LA Weekly article pointed out, Robotech was enjoyed by kids and soap-opera-loving adults alike.

Yet Robotechs history is a knotty and sometimes controversial one, taking in disparate companies in Japan and America and legal battles over rights issues which still remain to this day. Thirty years on, and Sony Pictures has begun efforts to bring a live-action Robotech movie to the screen. But as we’ll see, attempts to make a big-screen Robotech have failed before – as Cannon Films found out in 1986…

Robotech: genesis

Before Robotech, there was The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which caused a sensation in Japan when it first aired in 1982.

A joint venture between animation house Studio Nue, advertising firm Big West and production company Tatsunoko, Macross was an unexpected hit, sparking a wave of toys, model kits and other merchandise.

This success caught the interest of American TV company Harmony Gold, who purchased the rights for Macross in 1984. At the time, model kit company Revell had been buying the rights to sell model robots from a range of Japanese shows, and was selling them under the collective name Robotech Defenders.

With the animated TV show He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe (1983) proving a hit at the time, and essentially serving as a regular half-hour advert for Mattel’s related line of toys, Harmony Gold had an idea. It could unite Revell’s line of mecha kits with Macross and sell it under a single name – Robotech.

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There was, however, a problem: the Macross saga was told over the course of 36 episodes. In order to get a series syndicated on US television – that is, sold and aired on local TV stations – a series had to run for a minimum of 65 episodes. To get around this, Harmony Gold purchased two other anime from Tatsunoko which, sci-fi trappings and long titles aside, were largely unrelated: these were called Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. When knited together, they’d bring the total of Robotech episodes up to 85.

The task of providing a sense of narrative unity to these three disparate shows fell to a producer named Carl Macek. In the 1980s, Macek ran an art gallery dedicated to displaying and selling anime cels. All that changed when an employee from Harmony Gold walked into the showroom one day and mentioned that his company had made a deal to distribute a number of Japanese TV shows in America.

Thanks to his anime knowledge, Macek was duly ushered in as writer and producer on Robotech – and under his stewardship, the series was an unexpectedly huge success.

Robotech: The Movie and a brush with Cannon Films

The success of the Robotech series was such that plans were made to produce a spin-off theatrical movie. For this, Macek turned to another unrelated anime, Megazone 23 – Part 1, about a delinquent bike rider in far-future Tokyo – a far cry from the space operatics of Macross.

Robotech: The Movie was made as a venture with the infamous Cannon Films, who’d agreed to handle the distribution. Cannon’s irascible producer Menahem Golan was unimpressed with Megazone 23 as it stood; there were, he said, “too many girls” in it.

“This is not a Cannon film!” Golan raged, according to a hilarious recollection from Carl Macek in 1990. “We want lots of guns! Lots of shooting! Lots of robots!”

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Macek was therefore given just one day to re-edit Megazone 23 into something more spicy. To do this, he took footage from Southern Cross, already used as the second segment in the Robotech TV series, and spliced it into Megazone 23.

The next day, Macek screened a videotape of the now edited film, and because the English dub hadn’t been finished yet, he had to go through the humiliating ordeal of acting out all the voices himself while the video ran in the background. Golan, thankfully, was appeased: “Now THAT is a Cannon movie,” he exclaimed.

Unfortunately for both Harmony Gold and Cannon, Robotech: The Movie wasn’t exactly a hit. The film was shown for about three weeks for test audiences in Texas theatres, before Cannon decided to quietly shelve it (the movie did make an appearance on VHS, however, and tapes even appeared in UK video libraries during the ’80s).

Macek’s fast-and-loose approach to creating Robotech has made him something of a controversial figure among some anime fans, who argue that his approach paid little respect to the original creations. Yet Macek’s contribution to anime’s western popularity, between 1985 and his sad death in 2010, was huge; after Robotech, he oversaw the production and dubbing of a range of anime, including Vampire Hunter D, Fist Of The North Star, and, most famously, Akira. Macek’s passion for anime was obvious, and without him, the explosion of American interest in Japanese animation, which took hold in the ’80s and ’90s, may never have happened.

Macross: still big in Japan

While Harmony Gold’s attempts to make a second Robotech series ended in failure – the project was cancelled in 1986, with just three episodes produced – Macross continued to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the 80s and 90s. There were movies (including 1984’s Macross: Do You Remember Love?, which, mystifyingly, Harmony Gold didn’t use as a basis for a RoboTech movie), further TV series, and new toys, kits and videogames which are still coming out to this day.

But despite the enduring fan affection for Robotech, and by extension, Macross, hardly any of the more recent Macross shows, games and movies have appeared outside Japan. The reason? Rights issues.

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Harmony Gold, Veritechs and trademarks

If you want an illustration of how strange the rights issues surrounding Robotech and Macross are, look no further than the Super Valkyrie – or the Veritech Fighter as it was called in Robotech. Designed by Shoji Kawamori, who also wrote Macross, the Valkrie is one of the great icons of mecha design, and as much a part of the Macross and Robotech sagas as its myriad human and alien characters.

When Macross became a hit on Japanese TV, a company called Takatoku bought the rights to make a toy based on the Valkyrie – which transformed from fighter jet, to intermediate “GERWALK” mode, to robot and back again – just like the one in the TV Show.

The transforming Valkyrie caught the eye of American toy manufacturer Hasbro which, like Revell and Harmony Gold, had a magpie’s eye for the shiniest orbs in Japanese pop culture. It purchased the designs for the Valkrie from Takatoku, renamed it Jetfire, and folded it into its family of Transformers robots.

A couple of years later, Bandai ended up with the rights to the Valkyrie design, and began selling it in Japan to coincide with the release of the Macross: Do You Remember Love movie. Then, to add to the confusion, Harmony Gold put out Robotech on American television, which meant that Kawamori’s mecha was appearing in three separate properties under three different names.

Hasbro later radically changed the look of Jetfire to avoid the confusion, but the question as to who owned the rights to the Valkyrie design still lingered. In the 80s, Matchbox, who’d made a deal to sell Robotech toys, weren’t legally allowed to sell transforming versions of the Veritech fighter, so American kids had to make do with versions of the toy fixed in its fighter jet or robot poses.

The legal tussle over Macross and its merchandise continues. As this article over at io9 explains, Harmony Gold trademarked the Macross name in the late ’90s or early 2000s, and has since blocked attempts by rival companies to distribute Macross-related items outside Japan – which explains why, regretably, nothing has been seen of the franchise in Europe and America for nearly 15 years.

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Robotech in the 21st century, and Sony’s movie

Since the faltering Robotech II: The Sentinels series in 1987, several projects have emerged under the Robotech banner, with mixed success. Released in 2006, Robotech: Shadow Chronicles followed on from the end of the 1985 series. Robotech: Shadow Rising is a planned sequel which has so far failed to materialise. Robotech: Love Live Alive came out on DVD in 2013. A series called Robotech: Academy was put on Kickstarter in 2014, but failed to raise the requisite funding.

The big news came in 2007, when Warner Bros announced that it had snapped up the Robotech rights and was planning on making a live-action movie starring Tobey Maguire. The project received a huge boost one year later, when Lawrence Kasdan – the writer of the classic Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Arkand Return Of The Jedi – was brought aboard as writer.

Progress at Warner Bros seemed to be rather slow, however. By 2013, the Robotech film had made little headway, with directors still in talks, Child 44 writer Tom Rob Smith brought in to replace Kasdan and Leonardo DiCaprio joining the production as one of its stars.

By this point, the Star Wars franchise was in the process of being revived over at Disney, and with Guardians Of The Galaxy also on the horizon, space opera was suddenly a hot genre again. Behind the scenes, deals were being brokered over the rights to Robotech; we’ve since learned that the property is now owned by Sony Pictures, which has its own plans to turn it into a “future global franchise” with 300 and GI Joe writer Michael Gordon penning the screenplay. Reports in February suggested that Andy Muschietti, the filmmaker behind the horror, Mama, could be in line to direct.

With Robotech already having spent the best part of eight years in development hell, we’ll have to wait and see whether the film actually materialises – and if it does, how much of the original series’ classic design, energy and sheer goofy charm make it to the final cut. And given Macrosss ongoing popularity in Japan, how will Sony market it there? Are its confusing rights issues still a problem, or can Sony’s clout cut through all that?

Whatever happens, Robotechs work has, in many ways already been done; its ships, characters and theme music have etched themselves on the memories of a generation, and paving the way for a coming wave of anime fandom outside Japan.

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