Big West vs Harmony Gold – Is it over?

On the morning of April 9, 2021, I woke up to a surprising and monumental news related to the Big West vs Harmony Gold rift:

BIGWEST CO., LTD., STUDIO NUE, INC. and HARMONY GOLD U.S.A. ANNOUNCE EXPANSIVE AGREEMENT FOR THE FUTURE OF MACROSS AND ROBOTECH WORLDWIDE!

The long stand-off between Big West vs Harmony Gold may have finally come to an end! The 2 companies have come to a landmark agreement about the future of the Macross and Robotech franchises.

Below are the full details of this agreement, from the official Macross Japan website:

Why is this important?

Companies Big West and Harmony Gold have long been embroiled (read: decades!) in legal battles over the rights and distribution of these series. Media and merch releases for both Macross and Robotech franchises have been hampered one way or another by this legal feud. Fans have long accepted the fact that there won’t be any amicable settlement between the 2 parties.

I won’t be discussing plot specifics, as my focus is to provide background to this legal feud. However there will be links within the article that can provide decent synopsis for each series.

A brief history of Macross

Super Dimension Fortress Macross (超時空要塞マクロス, Choujikuu Yousai Makurosu) was an anime series created by Studio Nue. Shoji Kawamori wrote/produced the series, while Noboru Ishiguro was its director. It ran from 3 October 1982 – 26 June 1983 and spanned 36 episodes.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross Bluray box cover

The series depicts “a love triangle against the backdrop of great battles” as well as music. The series was revolutionary for introducing the signature transforming mecha called Variable Fighters (VF).

A group called Wiz (“Uizu”) initially funded the series, intending for it to be a space comedy. This clashed with Studio Nue’s original vision for the show to be a serious “space opera”. Eventually Wiz group went out of business. Studio Nue then bought the rights to the series and looked for a sponsor. Big West (BW) Advertising, looking to branch out to animation sponsorship, expressed interest and agreed to sponsor it.

Big West planned a leaner budget for the series than what Studio Nue originally proposed. But as production went on, it was apparent that it will cost more than initially planned. To secure the needed funds, they entered into a partnership with Tatsunoko Productions. In exchange for the funds, Tatsunoko secured the international distribution rights for the series.

The series was a hit, and spawned several sequels with similar storylines. The series recently celebrated it’s 38th anniversary and maintains a strong fanbase both within Japan and internationally.

A brief history of Robotech

Robotech was a science-fiction series produced by Harmony Gold USA in partnership with Tatsunoko Productions. It originally aired in 1985 in the US through the TV syndication model.

The series comprised of 3 originally unrelated but visually similar anime series:

  1. Super Dimension Fortress Macross (36 episodes)
  2. Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross (23 episodes)
  3. Genesis Climber Mospeada (25 episodes)

During the early 80s, anime was starting to get popular in the US. Harmony Gold wanted to ride along on this trend, and had their eye on the 3 anime series mentioned. However, US syndication rules back then required that TV series must have at least 65 episodes in length.

In order to solve this problem, they hired producer Carl Macek. He was instrumental in importing anime to the US, with notable titles like Captain Harlock and Lensman. He went on to “stitch” the said 3 anime series by altering the script and reordering some of the events. It should be pointed out that Robotech’s credits listed only the English adaptation’s production crew and two Tatsunoko producers.

Robotech was a successful series in its own rights, with a notable fanbase not just in the US but in many Latin American countries. There were several novels, comics and board/video games adaptations produced, along with other toys and merchandise. The series also spawned a handful of sequels, albeit none completed or as successful as the original. However, Tatsunoko Productions also sub-licensed the distribution rights of the Macross TV series to Harmony Gold. This will prove to be the spark to the long standing legal feud between Big West vs Harmony Gold.

The Clash of… licenses and distribution rights

The 2 franchises initially co-existed without issues, even after each franchise released new materials. Macross was restricted to a Japanese distribution, at least until the early 90s. That’s when the world got a taste of some new Macross series, in the form of Macross II: Lovers Again (1992/05-1992/11), Macross Plus (1994/08-1994/06), and the wildly successful Macross 7 (1994/10-1995/09).

In 1999, Harmony Gold asserted their rights on the Macross franchise license. They followed this up with cease-and-desist letters to toy importers based in North America. The letters sent to Kevin Lam of Valkyrie Exchange, as well as to anime toy merchant Blasto Toys, are just some of the examples. Harmony Gold is essentially barring all Macross merchandise not imported by them from entering US soil.

As a counter-action, Big West and Studio Nue filed a case against Tatsunoko Productions in the Tokyo District Court in 1999. This is to determine once and for all who has the rights to the Macross series. While the court rulings were not totally in favor of Big West/Studio Nue, it also did not guarantee 100% ownership for Tatsunoko Productions.

What will follow then are years of court battles between Big West vs Harmony Gold, across many countries. I have followed the proceedings as best as I could, and it seems like Big West has been winning most of the international cases. Please keep in mind that I am not a legal expert myself. This is just my interpretation of what few info I can scrape up. They’re also moot and academic at this point, given this agreement between the 2 companies.

Kiss and make up

So, what does this landmark agreement mean to a Macross fan like me? Let’s summarize the points:

“Immediately permits worldwide distribution of most of the Macross films and television sequels worldwide

This means almost all Macross TV series and movies from Japan can now be imported direct into the US. However, take note that they used the word “sequels” specifically. Now in relation to that, a new Macross Big West account was created on Twitter. Check out its cover photo, notice anything?

That’s right, the logos for “Super Dimension Fortress Macross” and “Do You Remember Love?” are both conspicuously missing!

This seems to indicate that they will not be included in the international distribution by Big West. They will most probably be released under license from Harmony Gold. Many fans, including me, would probably still prefer a Japanese release. But hey, if this ensures more new Macross releases, then maybe it’s the bitter pill to swallow.

“Big West will not oppose the Japanese release of an anticipated upcoming live-action Robotech film

As far back as 2017, Harmony Gold has floated the idea of doing a live-action adaptation of Robotech. As expected with the embattled franchise, there have been a lot of blockers to this effort. It looks like there won’t be any, this time around. I’m interested to see whether this will pan out or not, but… I’m not holding my breath.

“Recognizes Harmony Gold’s longstanding exclusive license with Tatsunoko for the use of the 41 Macross characters and mecha in the Robotech television series and related merchandise throughout the world excluding Japan

This includes Hikaru, Minmay, Misa, Roy Focker, Max Jenius, and all the named cast. This also includes the original VF-1 designs, the Destroids, and even the SDF-1 and Zentradi mecha. Take note, the Robotech TV series was based on original footage from Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Hence they can’t use any designs from the “Do You Remember Love?” movie.

“Both parties will cooperate on distribution regarding future Macross and Robotech projects for the benefit of both franchises

This is interesting, as it implies future projects from one company will also be distributed by the other. Does this mean Big West will be importing the planned live-action Robotech to Japan? Or that Harmony Gold will also release the upcoming Macross Frontier and Macross Delta movies? It’s too early to tell, and we have sparse info at the moment.

What the future holds for both franchises

To be honest, the biggest and immediate beneficiary of this agreement are the North American fans. They can now import Macross merch and media from Japan without having to license to Harmony Gold (for the most part).

However, animation and media distribution is a very complicated business that relies on free and fair trade. More often than not, distribution channels are only created if there is a profitable and unhindered business in a targeted region.

With the new setup, we will see a ramp up in demand within the North American and European market. This will in turn prompt the creation of newer distribution channels not just in those regions but within other regions like the ASEAN. So the effect may not be immediate, but hopefully we will all be able to have access to Macross merch and media in the long run.

Do I think Shoji Kawamori-sensei has some bitter feelings for the deal? If you ask any creator or artist who encountered the same situation as he did with his creation, I think the immediate answer is “Yes”. Surprisingly though, he seems to be taking this all in stride, as shown in his Twitter post:

Even famed mecha artist Hidetaka Tenjin, who has contributed a lot of his talent to the Macross franchise, is in a celebratory mood:

If you asked me a month ago whether this kind of thing is possible, I would have given an unequivocal “HECK NO!” This is definitely a step in the right direction for both Big West and Harmony Gold, and their respective franchises, Macross and Robotech. As a fan, I am just glad that all the drama between Big West vs Harmony Gold seems to be finally over, and we can all enjoy more Macross goodness. I leave you with a meme created by a good friend and fellow Macross fan MechaAddict. Thank you for reading my article!

DEKARUCHA!!

Meme created by MechaAddict

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