It’s not exactly a great secret that Robotech has long been one of my all-time favorite shows. When I was a little kid, I’d get up early every Saturday morning to watch an hour of the show. (It was a source of irritation to me for years that I had to be away on a school trip and miss the last two episodes—and the TV station had stopped airing the show before they came around again. So for years, all I had was an audio recording of them and my imagination, until I got to college and found someone with copies of the tapes. But that’s another story.)
When I got to college and found the Internet, and everyone was coming up with handles or nicknames to use on MUCKs, the obvious choice for me was Robotech_Master. Though I never thought of myself as one of those elderly robe-wearing people from the second series. I used it in a more generic sense, and always imagined myself in one of those cool Cyclones…
From there, I got into Internet Robotech fandom, made friends who’ve stayed with me for years, and got my first real lesson in how polarizing different beliefs could be. If you think the 2016 election year infighting between Republicans and Democrats has been vicious, you should have been there on the Robotech mailing list when TV show “purists” had it out with McKinney-novel fans, week in and week out for years. I’m pretty sure that level of fighting effectively killed the Robotech FIDOnet echo when FIDOnet set up an Internet mailing list gateway for them.
But as time has gone by, Robotech fandom hasn’t been quite as lucky as fans of other shows from that era. The fandom’s numbers have dwindled but it has remained more-or-less alive, but the level of support the fans have seen from franchise-owner Harmony Gold has been erratic at best. A number of Robotech fans have gotten quite bitter about the company’s treatment of the show, in fact. (It’s not coincidental that one of the Facebook Robotech fandom groups is actually called “Robotech Fans Against Harmony Gold.” It has 1,700 members—that’s a lot of embittered Robotech fans!) Personally, I’m inclined to cut Harmony Gold some slack—and I’m still on pretty good terms with the company’s reps Tommy Yune and Kevin McKeever, who are still willing to pop up on my podcast and engage with the fans. That’s more than a lot of franchise owners are willing to do these days.
But still, I can see where the problems are. While other shows and movies have been remade, revamped, revised, reissued, and so on, Robotech has largely languished—and Harmony Gold isn’t exactly blameless in that matter.
The problems started when the TV series first came out. There was an abortive attempt at a theatrical movie (adapting anime OAV Megazone 23) that failed due to an inability to properly promote it. (Despite what some say, the movie actually wasn’t laughably bad, and test audiences loved it—but according to Robotech creator Carl Macek when I interviewed him, those audiences skewed much older than Canon Films wanted to target, and they couldn’t get another ad campaign together in time to hit a release date.) There was an abortive attempt at a sequel in the late ’80s that was torpedoed by a toy company sponsorship deal falling through.
Then all we had were a series of rubber-stamped licensee comic books (some okay, some politically-motivated, some outright bizarre), while Harmony Gold effectively forgot about Robotech for ten or fifteen years. It came back just in time to get involved in the legal imbroglio surrounding the Japanese ownership of the Macross franchise whose original series comprised part of Robotech, hence preventing any new Macross material after Macross II and Macross Plus from showing up on American shores. (It also tried to shut down toy retailers importing foreign-made toys for local sale, not endearing it to a lot of American anime fans.)
Then there was the separate three-cornered imbroglio concerning Playmates ripping off BattleTech mecha designs from FASA for its ExoSquad line, and FASA licensing a number of Macross mecha designs for its BattleTech game from a model company who didn’t have the rights to license them. It’s a little sad when the company that’s supposed to be producing new shows seems to be doing more in a courtroom than in a production studio.
But that’s not to say it didn’t produce a new show. Indeed, it’s been just about ten years since Harmony Gold managed to produce the first new Robotech show in over twenty years: Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. While it wasn’t perfect, at least it was something. It was new material, with voice actors including superb villain voicer Mark Hamill. (Amusingly, in a bid to keep the identity of the villains under wraps, Harmony Gold’s publicity material promoted Hamill’s secondary role as a minor character who only got about three lines of dialogue before getting killed off. They couldn’t come out and say who his main role was.) It was starting to get people interested in Robotech again.
But right about the same time, Harmony Gold managed to get Warner Brothers and Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire interested in making a Robotech live-action movie—and for God-and-the-lawyers-only-know-what-reasons, this deal apparently required Harmony Gold to cease and desist making new Robotech movies of its own.
So, right at the time Harmony Gold had just managed to reawaken some interest in Robotech, and had planned to make at least two more Shadow Chronicles movies to capitalize on it, it had to clam up and shut down, for the sake of a live-action movie that might never—and, as it turns out, did never—go into production. They had a bird in the hand—but someone heard there might be a whole flock of them in the forest over yonder, so let’s forget about that one and go look for all the others!
Hindsight is, of course, 20-20, and I’m sure there are plenty of details that I will never know about the matter, but it seems to me as though any company as deeply entrenched in Hollywood as Harmony Gold should have known that selling movie rights didn’t mean a movie would ever get made. And if selling the rights to WB was going to come at the cost of letting it strike while the iron was hot in other media, HG should have kept right on shopping the rights around; surely someone else would have been interested on less restrictive terms.
Since then, what has Harmony Gold done? It produced Robotech: Love, Live, Alive, which was effectively a clip show with about three minutes of actual new animation, ten minutes of new-to-the-US animation taken from a Japanese OAV (much of which was recycled by looping the same footage over and over—that reporter kept on stopping and restarting her recorder, over and over again), and a little new voice work.
And it ran a Kickstarter to try to launch a new Robotech Academy animated series. The Kickstarter underperformed so badly that Harmony Gold pulled the plug on it 6 days before it was due to end so it wouldn’t show up as having “failed.” The Kickstarter’s goal was to raise $500,000 to produce a 24-minute TV episode pilot. However, it only managed to draw about $195,000 worth of pledges. Harmony Gold representatives said they would be looking into other options for funding the show, but nothing else has been heard about it since.
A lot of nostalgia-revival Kickstarters have succeeded. Mystery Science Theater 3000 raised $6.3 million on a $2 million goal, and they’re making an entire season of their new show out of that. Where did Harmony Gold go wrong?
First off, I remember that a lot of fans at the time complained that Harmony Gold should be entirely able to fund the production of such a pilot itself, so what is it shaking its tin cup at us for? It funded a ninety-minute movie without needing to busk to the fans, didn’t it? More charitably, I suspect that Harmony Gold might have been trying to “reach out” to fans and let them feel “invested” in the show’s success, but if so, the company misjudged badly.
And yet, even so, fans were still willing to pledge nearly $200,000, and that’s not pocket change. If Harmony Gold had set its sights a little lower, and committed to producing something on a lower budget, it could have succeeded. I’m pretty sure plenty of half-hour animated episodes have been produced for less than $200,000. Indeed, given how cheap and easy CGI animation has become these days, I think lots of shows are getting by on less than that. I’d be surprised if Rooster Teeth’s animated show RWBY had $200,000 worth of budget for its entire two-hour first season. Maybe both the first and second seasons put together.
In any event, here it is 2016, and the latest news to come out is that the Robotech live-action movie property has migrated from WB to Sony, with James Wan (known for the Saw franchise, a Fast and Furious movie, and the upcoming Aquaman project for WB) attached to direct. Since Sony is being a lot less restrictive than WB was, Tommy Yune and Kevin McKeever are waxing optimistic that they can finally continue Shadow Chronicles and perhaps produce a new Robotech series after all.
But is it too late by now? I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions with other fans on my Space Station Liberty podcast, and some of them believe that there’s just not enough interest in the show anymore to bring it back, and Harmony Gold has wasted its chances. They also doubt that a live-action movie, even if it does eventually get off the ground, will necessarily be good or successful. They point to Sony’s failure with the female Ghostbusters reboot as an example.
I’m not sure I’d agree, and I’ll certainly be interested in seeing anything Harmony Gold can manage to produce. It will be interesting to hear what Tommy Yune has to say if I can get him to show up in a future Space Station Liberty episode. If Harmony Gold could manage to produce something like the recent Netflix Voltron reboot, and get it onto Netflix for people to watch, then who knows? Perhaps it could have a shot at stirring some interest back up.
Matters are complicated by that Japanese rights snafu I mentioned earlier, though. Apparently Japanese company Big West owns the rights to make derivative properties of Macross—not Tatsunoko which licensed its Macross rights to Harmony Gold. Does that mean Harmony Gold couldn’t make a Macross-derived Robotech sequel? And does that mean the live-action movie can’t be Macross-derived, either? (Or might Sony be willing and able to drop a pile of cash on Big West to license those rights?)
Meanwhile, I’m impressed by the number of shows that are emerging, combining professional production values with lower budgets. Rooster Teeth’s RWBY is one of my favorite new shows, which I never miss week to week—and it was started by a talented (and since deceased) machinima animator on a shoestring budget. Indeed, it seems that more and more fan production companies are making high-quality stuff on low budgets. Just look at Star Trek: Renegades, for example. There’s a Mystery Science Theater take-off called Incognito Cinema Warriors that is also doing an excellent show on a low budget. And then there are The Nostalgia Critic and all the other Channel Awesome shows.
Of course, this is also a time when fans who produce material like that are coming into conflict with the rights holders, as in the case of Star Trek: Axanar, which is involved in copyright litigation with Paramount Pictures and CBS that it seems terribly unlikely it could possibly win. And Robotech has had its own brush with this, in the form of a slick, professional-looking, live-action-and-CGI Argentine film called Robotech: Valkyrie Project, which Harmony Gold cease-and-desisted in 2014. (Wikipedia states that the team behind Valkyrie Project was hired to do CGI effects for Robotech Academy, though.)
Against this backdrop, Harmony Gold’s old-school studio system is starting to seem increasingly outdated. Independent studios like Rooster Teeth are producing some pretty great work on low budgets, and getting it out there to people independently—not unlike the way self-publishing writers have been going direct to their readers via stores like Amazon. If Harmony Gold wants to get Robotech in the public eye again, perhaps it should look into doing a web series like that. (Maybe fund the Valkyrie Project people to produce it, if it was willing to hire them to work on its new TV series.) It could still go on with its traditional movie and TV series projects, but something at least as good, fast, and cheap as RWBY could serve to attract new audiences without as much in the way of production costs.
In any event, there are a lot of other great shows to watch now, so the lack of more Robotech might not be as keenly felt by fans who have since had the time and opportunity to refocus on other things. I personally hope that Harmony Gold does manage to get its act together and produce something new to satisfy the old fans while bringing in new people—even if it is a Netflix-Voltron-style “reimagining” rather than a direct sequel.
But if that doesn’t happen, at least we’ve still got the old stuff to tide us over. It might not bring in many new fans, as dated as the animation has become, but it will keep the older ones’ hopes alive.