The Ties That Bind

tied in coverWhen I was a kid, novelisations were the way you could experience an AA- or X-rated film without breaking the law. They were a way of re-entering and re-watching movie texts that meant a lot to you, and they were often a means of finding out all the bits of the film that had been left on the cutting room floor. I even knew a boy at school who once bragged that he only read movie novelisations, as if this were some sort of badge of sophistication. As an occasional tie-in writer myself, I now know his boast for what it was – the literary equivalent of crowing that you only ever ate fast food. It’s not unusual for a movie novelisation to get cranked out in two weeks flat, by an author fuelled on various medications and, erm… enhancers.

I once finished writing a film novelisation bang on time, only to re-read my contract and realise that I was three thousand words short. So I went back in and wrote a whole new chapter, implied but never seen in the script itself, a massive funeral sequence that tied up a bunch of loose ends from the script, and fleshed out some character motivations that were otherwise vague. I’ve seen other authors do this. Arthur Byron Cover, in his novelisation of Flash Gordon, threw dozens of curve-balls into his book, with bonus asides and little scenes that had all sorts of implications. My favourite was when Flash silences Dale Arden with a kiss and says: “Let’s save it for our kids.” That’s in the script.

But in Cover’s novel, Dale thinks to herself: “Kids? Should I tell him about my operation…?” Very confusing for the eight-year-old me.

Zarkov-Dale-and-FlashLicensors can be arseholes. According to Tied In: The Business History and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing, edited by Lee Goldberg, Max Allan Collins was obliged to cut 60,000 words from his novelisation of Road to Perdition (itself based on comic by one Max Allan Collins), because the stuff he added “wasn’t in the script”. He confesses that this situation is “fairly rare” (certainly, nobody has ever stopped me adding extras, and indeed my editors have normally welcomed them). But Collins clearly wasn’t dealing with one of the nice licensors who see a novelisation as a bonus exercise in metatextuality; he was dealing with a literal-minded bean counter who saw a novelisation as an advert for the film, that cannot cross any bland boundaries of expectation.

Licensors can also offer wildly varying degrees of support and interference. The most unwatchably bad franchise I have ever written for happened to have the best-written, most helpful style guide I have ever seen, in any medium. The franchise I’ve most enjoyed writing for was also the least supportive, offering a single line of advice before packing me off to write 80,000 words – presumably, hopefully confident that I knew what I was doing. They then spent a month cordially attacking my work with scissors. Seriously, they could have saved everybody a lot more time by just telling us beforehand a couple of ground rules that they’d kept to themselves.

Tie-in writers can also be arseholes. Some of my best friends are tie-in writers, but our world is orbited by an Oort cloud of dicks, without an original thought in their heads, fighting tooth and claw over the scraps that drop from producers’ tables, bragging desperately of their fannish connection to this TV show or that franchise, and often pissing away their creative lives in serial, flat-fee write-a-thons, with limited artistic heritage and no long tail. I couldn’t care less what those people have to say about their profession, but I am deeply interested in the thoughts and experiences of their smarter colleagues – people who thrive on the discipline and energy of diving briefly into someone else’s world, and turning around a story using the characters and the mood they have been dealt. This is, after all, how Hollywood itself seems to work most of the time, and it’s a skill that any jobbing writer would do well to cultivate.

dick tracyI bought Tied In because I was curious if they could pull it off – and, largely, they do. The multiple authors deal to some extent with the peculiar condition of the tie-in world, such as the possibility that a book with your name on it will get kited into the bestseller lists, but only because it has someone else’s name on it as well.

It helps that Max Allan Collins is on board – an author with enough clout in his own right to get away with naming names when it comes to some of the disasters of his tie-in career. There are some real shockers, beginning with his first job on Dick Tracy, when he was made to rewrite his novelisation from the ground-up, and drop the ending from the film itself, by editors who were petrified that the OMG OMG shock twist ending would be revealed by readers before people had seen the film.

There’s a great discussion section, involving over 20 authors, that doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty of advances and royalties, demonstrating just what kind of numbers are involved in putting that copy of the Pacific Rim novelisation on the shelf in Asda. Much of the craft of writing a tie-in is no different to the craft of writing any book, except possibly with a first-draft written by someone else in a script format. The forum members discuss the issues of “head-hopping” when a film changes point-of-view, or the particular problems of rendering a cross-cut movie scene into more traditional prose form. Collins in particular shines with some great ideas for original approaches, although his horror stories are so horrific you wonder how he still has the balls to try them. His solution for novelising the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Daylight, framing the whole thing as a documentary, is just great, but one unlucky dice roll with the licensors, and they would have made him throw it in the bin.

Several authors note the unique opportunity to fix plot holes and crappy bits in the script with the greater space afforded to prose. They note the opportunity afforded in a prose (or audio) tie-in for super-duper special effects or locations that are beyond the means of a TV show stuck in Vancouver (or Wales) all the time, or the chance for “Easter Eggs” that will only be noticed by hard-core fandom.

Kevin J. Anderson reveals that he gets a minion to type the whole script into a word processor with the tenses changed, so that when he sits down, he has, in his words, a “badly written” story that already hits 30% of his wordcount. It all sounds dreadfully hacky, but then again, as he points out, his main duty is to deliver a workmanlike 60,000 words to the licensor’s specifications, and what better way to reach that target than by recycling the pre-approved script.

It’s all too easy to sound defensive about a profession that I myself have previously described as the prison shower bitch of the literary world, but there are some interesting arguments to be had about the extra creativity needed to function within another creator’s limits. They’re all here, along with some top tips and some truly terrifying tales of licensing hell. True, some of the contributors seem to think they are promoting their work in a particular franchise rather than the craft that went into it, but Tied In still offers an intriguing glimpse of a part of the literary world that is ever on the bestseller lists, but rarely discussed by critics.

Jonathan Clements, under this name and others, is the author of tie-ins for over a dozen franchises, including Spartacus, Doctor Who, and Strontium Dog.

Economies of Knowledge

Ten years ago, I was a presenter on a short-lived TV show called Saiko Exciting. It was a two-hour umbrella under which huddled pop videos, games reviews, and two anime tentpoles – Evangelion and Nadesico. Like many organisations, the Sci Fi channel had believed the hype about anime taking the world by storm, and was hence rather surprised when its anime-themed prime-time show failed to attract significantly high ratings.

So they called in a consultant.

He crunched the numbers and evaluated the footage, and delivered his report, which, as far as I could tell, amounted to a suggestion that life would be a lot easier if the channel threw out all that irritating anime crap… from their anime-themed prime-time show.

I am sure that he made other recommendations, too. One of which may well have been that the two young ladies were very easy on the eye, but perhaps that unsmiling nerd spouting anime statistics was best moved to a late-night slot where only anime fans would see him – certainly, that’s where I soon ended up. But the Unhelpful Consultant has always been something of a running gag ever since, particularly after similar encounters in my Manga Max days, with another boffin who recommended to Titan Magazines that the thing that was really holding the title back was all the stuff in it about manga.

I have had to think managerially a lot more these days. Since starting my own company in 2003, I have had to think more commercially about culture and the arts, and parse ideas in terms of monetisation, amortisation and other words I may have just made up. I have long been fascinated by the early 20th century management theorists – Taylor suggesting that workmen be given bigger shovels in order to move more stuff with each heft; the Gilbreths noting that it would really help if the employees were happy; and Mayo realising that he was getting particular answers because he was there asking questions. The Gantt organisational chart, pioneered during the First World War, was soon adopted in the 1920s by numerous industries, not the least animation, where it formed the basis of the ‘dope sheet’ used to plan productions to this day. If you work in a company of any significant size, someone has sat in a room with a Power Point presentation where someone lectures them about ‘hierarchies of needs’ or ‘aristocracies of the capable’, and it has knock-on effects on all sorts of things from where the coffee machine is to what time you start work in the morning.

After reading The World’s Newest Profession, I have come to regard consultants in a new light. Christopher McKenna’s book goes a long way towards explaining what management consultants actually do, beginning with the shop-floor ‘scientific management’ of the early 20th century, right through the corporate trouble-shooting of modern times. He chronicles the strange admixture of accountancy and engineering that distinguished the early consultants and shows them at work fixing companies all around the world by trumpeting new buzzwords and shaking things up a bit.

As readers of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis know, I often work as a consultant myself these days, as institutional memory or advising on storylines for media companies. And I like to think that people get their money’s worth. I remember once being sat in a room with a producer for a Thursday and Friday, hammering out the outline of a computer game. He went off home, and I spent the weekend typing it up. On the Monday, he had a 13,000-word story breakdown, with characters and assets. I mention this because it had been assessed at the company as a job that would have probably been possible to do in-house, but would have taken up nine man-months. Thanks to my freelancer’s blindness to weekends, he had it in two working days. This is what Christopher McKenna calls an ‘economy of knowledge’, wherein a company realises that despite the high cost (and I was not cheap), it will still work out cheaper to bring in outside expertise. It’s easy to see how that might work with writers and artists. It’s easy to see how it works in everyday life – after all, what is a hairdresser if not someone who can do it better than you, for the hour that you need her? The real trick with the management consultants of the 20th century is that they applied to managing itself – whatever your company does, however it works, they can come in and make it work better. Some companies were so sure of this that they even offered to work for nothing if their fee was not justified by the saving.

The World’s Newest Profession talks through numerous incidences of corporate intrigue and subterfuge over the last century, including the rise of NASA, which McKenna provocatively parses as a committee that sub-contracts almost everything to outsiders. He paints a picture of grim-faced men in grey flannel suits, deliberately designed to mark them out as serious players in any corporate face-off, whispering suggestions in the chairman’s ear for loopholes, tax havens and legal wriggles that can help a company shave the bottom line. Although is the profession really that ‘new’? – elements of McKenna’s narrative are uncannily similar to tales of Confucius and Sun Tzu.

Sometimes, management consultants are necessary in a corporate environment for speaking unwelcome truths. Nobody at Sci Fi was going to say that a prime-time anime show would never get a million viewers in a country of only 60 million people, with 100 other channels to choose from. Irritating though the consultant’s comments were, they seem in hindsight to be rather honest. Sci Fi didn’t ask him to fix their anime show; they asked him how to make more people watch their channel. And he pointed out, with unwelcome precision, that the ratings went down every time the anime came on.

That doesn’t tell you that anime is toxic. It tells you that the people who watched Sci Fi were not keen on anime. Someone producing an anime show was never going to like hearing that, but they got the answer they needed to hear. Of course, he would have been more useful to me if he’d offered advice on how to sell what we already had, rather than giving what was, to a certain extent, the easy answer, that we should be selling something else.

I am not sure who advised them to change their name to SyFy, though. Sometimes management consultancy really is just bollocks.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. The World’s Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century is published by Cambridge University Press.

[Time travel footnote: eight years after writing this article, I know exactly why they changed the name to SyFy. Just as Sony deliberately mis-spelled Blu-ray, the switch to a term not already in common use meant it was possible to trademark and guarantee optimal tagging in social media.]

Digital Disruption

My review of Iordanova and Cunningham’s Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-Line is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s a very interesting walk through some of the issues facing “cinema” and “broadcasting”, in a globalised economy where nobody wants to pay for anything.

I particularly like the authors’ decision to eschew content, access and production, and to talk about matters of exhibition and distribution, which are all too often overlooked in film studies.


From the very outset, Iwao Takamoto (1925-2007) was torn between his parents’ birthplace of Japan, and his own homeland of America. His autobiography, Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters, notes the uneasy situation in 1930s America, where Japanese immigrants were not permitted US citizenship, effectively ensuring that Takamoto grew up with a different nationality to his parents.

As a Japanese-American growing up during WW2, Takamoto’s dual ethnicity was a constant concern. He and his family were carted off to an incarceration camp in 1942, and spent the latter years of the war kicking their heels in the middle of the desert. As one inmate waggishly commented, if the Japanese win the war, Takamoto will be sent back to the camp, this time because he is American.

In 1945, Takamoto guilelessly turned up with a hastily drawn set of samples at Disney, where he was hired on the spot – it turned out that his ability to knock out a book full of sketches to order actually trumped the more considered portfolios of his fellow applicants. He arrived at a cash-strapped studio that had only made it through the 1940s on wartime government contracts, and which suddenly had to make money from entertainment cartoons again. His contributions included sequences and designs in Cinderella and Lady & the Tramp. There’s one intriguing aside where Takamoto brings up the subject of Yusaku Nakagawa, an animator sent from Japan to Disney to learn how things are done (and although Takamoto does not mention this, also the little brother of a famous Japanese film star). This is the same “Steve” Nakagawa who ends up a generation later working on a number of Japanese-American co-productions, including Frosty the Snowman and the ill-starred Metamorphoses, although there are allusions to behind-the-scenes skulduggery which kept his name off the credits.

In 1961, Takamoto ended up at Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he would eventually become “creative producer” – a made-up title for a series of responsibilities that, in Japan, would be parsed as character designer and supervising director. Takamoto would often be the point man who created specific looks and characters, storyboarded early shows, and then departed to set up the next project, leaving his creations to live on without him. He threw himself into work on The Flintstones, a show that had already established that it was, much to many animators’ surprise, possible to make a half-hour weekly TV show. He created characters for Wacky Races and Hong Kong Phooey, and most memorably came up with the “comedy dog” for a detective show who soon took over. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, with its counter-intuitive exclamation mark, is surely Takamoto’s most enduring creation, and dominated kids’ TV in America for decades. For what it’s worth, Takamoto also notes that he has always thought Scrappy-Doo was “a crummy idea.”

The autobiography itself is a work of academic brinkmanship. Takamoto died as the book was being laid out, which only adds to the sense of legacy and elegy in this excellent memoir. His collaborator Michael Mallory is deftly invisible, leaving Takamoto himself to do all the talking, in a story that spans six decades of animation, as well as tall tales of indoor archery and abuse of thumbtacks. Although of Japanese ancestry, Takamoto was never a “Japanese” animator, but his life-story only goes to demonstrate the transnational quality of the animation business – as The Jetsons is aired in Japan, in turn inspiring Tezuka to make Astro Boy, Go-Bots is made by the Taiwanese studio set up by Hanna-Barbera’s own James Wang, and Scooby-Doo ends up dubbed into Japanese under the hands of Satoshi Kato, an alumnus of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, who also worked on anime such as Berserk, Space Adventure Cobra and Tomorrow’s Joe.

In later years, Takamoto became less of an animator and more of a brand. Following the takeover of Hanna-Barbera by Warner Bros in 2001, Takamoto was wheeled out in countless public appearances at Warners stores around the world, to sign sketches and shill for merchandise. He seems to have embraced this “ambassadorial” role with great gusto, and gleefully reports his unexpected celebrity late in life, even down to the “respect” accorded him by unnamed rap stars when he appeared on The Big Breakfast.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters is published by the University Press of Mississippi. This article originally appeared on the Manga UK blog in May 2012. It has been reshared here after that site was disappeared in the 2021 Funimation putsches.

Anime's Media Mix

My review of Marc Steinberg’s new book Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan, is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s an incisive study of the way in which patterns of consumption have changed in Japan since 1963, placing Astro Boy and Haruhi Suzumiya front and centre in the story of how passive viewers have transformed into active fans.