This is part one of a new three-part series from Theodore Jefferson, whose new book, The Incredible Untold Story of Sailor Moon, is available now. You can read part one of the Spider Man and Sailor Moon saga right here.
What do we mean when we say “mishandled character rights?” The answer is complex, but it also shines a bright spotlight on the very basis of what we all value when it comes to being fans of great franchises like Spider-Man and Sailor Moon. Mishandled character rights are their shared enemy, and far more dangerous than any super-villain.
The truth is none of these stories would ever see the light of day were it not for the potential business they represent. Spider-Man was invented to sell comics. Sailor Moon was invented to sell magazines. Later, they both were licensed to sell action figures and costumes and toys and television ads. This much later came to be known as what I call the “Character Equity Engine.”
In his book Comic Wars, author Dan Raviv tells the story of how Ronald Perelman’s Marvel tried to reinvigorate its business in 1996. The “comics unit” of the company, which created the characters upon which everything else is based, came up with an explanation of how merchandising works which is as brilliant as it is simple.
The “circle,” as it were, begins with “character equity.” These are the characters themselves: Spider-Man, Sailor Mars, Green Goblin, Professor Tomoe, etc.
Character equity leads to “Licensed Product.” This is everything based on the characters: movies, television, toys, dolls, and so forth.
Licensed Product leads to “Ads and Promotions.” These are the movie trailers, posters, magazine covers, YouTube previews, and anything creative used to promote the products being sold.
Finally, Ads and Promotions leads to Retail Sales. You create a character called Sailor Moon. Then you make a doll that looks like her. Then you advertise it and someone buys it. That’s all four steps.
The reason this is an engine is because Retail Sales increases Character Equity. Every doll, t-shirt, sticker, lunchbox, wallscroll, DVD and keychain fob makes the character itself more valuable. When the characters become more valuable, that’s when companies get to make audience-pleasing things like feature films, video games, television specials, expensive collectible books, and so forth.
All four of these phases of building value are the “Character Equity Engine.” Managed properly, this process leads to character franchises like Spider-Man in the 1980s, Sailor Moon in the early 1990s, Pokémon, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.
But when this gets mismanaged the characters stagnate, because without increasing character equity, nobody can make a business case for expanding the property. So no video games, no movies, no mobile apps, no big splashy crowd-pleasers. It doesn’t make any difference how amazing the character is or what it accomplished back in the day. The only thing that matters is the Character Equity Engine. It’s the only thing that works.
Spider-Man’s engine broke down in the mid-1990s, along with nearly all of Marvel’s character licenses at step two. They had the comics, they had the character equity, but they couldn’t make the movies. That meant they never got to Ads and Promotions or Retail Sales or increased Character Equity. Result? Bankruptcy.
After the bankruptcy, everything got back up to speed. Marvel finally got to make their Spider-Man film in 2002, which led to huge ads and promotions and retail sales. The reflected glow from that campaign led to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sailor Moon’s engine broke down at step three. We have the character equity and all kinds of licensed products. Toei and Bandai have never had a problem coming up with a 600-page product catalog.
But without a coherent, focused advertising and promotional strategy, sufficient sales simply won’t happen. Without those sales, we can’t increase character equity and that means no film, no video games, no mobile apps, no big win for Sailor Moon.
All fans of these characters want them to grow and succeed culturally and financially. Every Sailor Moon fan has told their friends about the show and the story. Takeuchi-sensei’s characters have forged deep emotional connections with their audience in much the same way as Miyazaki-sensei’s, Pixar’s, Tolkien’s or Rowling’s characters have.
Harry Potter is a near perfect example of what happens when the Character Equity Engine succeeds. Rowling didn’t need fifty years like Spider-Man did, either. Why is Harry Potter so much more well known than Sailor Moon? It’s because you couldn’t find a channel that wasn’t running a Harry Potter story every time a new book came out! Those ads led to retail sales, then increased character equity and then films. Eight films later, fans are still delighted.
What Toei and Bandai should have done five years ago is build the groundwork for re-introducing the show in the U.S. like they did in Italy. They should have licensed a U.S. company (like they licensed Backstage) to take the word to the streets, establish strategic partnerships and pave the way for a new era. They could have brought it all to market at once: television show, video game, film announcement, merchandise, web site, fan community, YouTube channel, mobile apps, apparel, collectibles.
Toei and Bandai should have done the same thing in 2003 instead of putting the characters in hibernation for ten years. They had everything they needed then including the world’s greatest children’s television producer. The ensuing ten years could have been spent building the character equity and showing the market what it was missing.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. For some reason when it comes to America and Canada, Sailor Moon doesn’t get the necessary advantages like it does elsewhere.
Pokemon banked another $20 billion, though.
In Part Three of this three-part series, we’ll take a look at the future for Sailor Moon. She can have a bright future, and the guy who is going to show us the way is none other than your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
Theodore Jefferson is the author of The Incredible Untold Story of Sailor Moon,the definitive history of the world-famous animated television series in the United States and other English-speaking territories. Mr. Jefferson is a founding member of the Lexicon Hollow Authors Guild and also writes for Moon Game.
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