January 29, 2008

The manga development cycle


Manga in Japan demonstrate how an artistic property can be leveraged to take advantage of every possible audience niche, but with low up-front investments and long-tail paybacks. The budget backing an artistic property only expands to the degree justified by that market and audience.

Which is identified precisely and catered to faithfully.

This approach doesn't guarantee more winners than losers. Simply more of everything, winners as well as losers. At its most basic, it could be described as a way of letting the readers sort through the slush pile.

American television approximates this model, and that's where you find the real fonts of creativity in Hollywood these days. Still, with the cost of a pilot at two million bucks a pop, and most of those never reaching syndication where they can break even, I can understand why the AMPTP is digging in its heels with the WGA.

Here is the manga typical development cycle:

1. Manga writer (working as an independent contractor and retaining copyright) sells serial publication rights to a manga magazine (biweekly, monthly, quarterly). These magazines at best break even.

2. Successful manga series are compiled in higher-quality (tankoubon) paperback books. And if those are successful, followed by special editions (for example, including more color inserts). This is where the publisher begins to make money.

3. A "radio drama" version is produced in CD format. (This is also true for "light novels.")

4. A television anime series is produced, usually based closely on the original manga series (often featuring the voice talent from the drama CD). These series usually run a fixed number of episodes.

Open auditions for voice talent (a la American Idol) are sometimes held to promote the anime series.

5. The opening and closing themes for the anime are released as singles. A soundtrack CD may be released.

6. Direct-to-video animated movie(s) are produced. The movie(s) either recapitulate the series or serve as prequels/sequels for which new material is created either by the original author or a writing team.

7. Animated theatrical movie(s) are produced. Ditto above.

8. Live action television series and/or movies are produced.

Along the way, the typical product licensing takes place, including some you won't find in the U.S., such as figurines. Other artistic properties tap into this process as well. The popular Twelve Kingdoms novels were produced as an anime by NHK and then released as a manga series.

Popular genre authors often collaborate and write manga scripts. (Neil Gaiman did this with the Sandman series he wrote for Vertigo.)

Yuri Hime is a quarterly manga magazine whose authors I follow. A typical issue runs 400 pages, including 20 serials or short stories. The old Hollywood studio system had a similar production-line quality to it that resembled modern manga publishing more than the current one-off or (at best) sequel-based Hollywood movie-making approach.

Recent trends do suggest that Hollywood is turning more in this direction, with studios calling for more scripts but fewer pilots. Judging a show from a storyboard alone is essentially the same as reading the manga first.

But the reason television series are so consistently better than feature films in the first place is because television couples lower risk with more chances to "get it right." And get it wrong without busting the bank. That's the manga formula.

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