The mid ‘90s was a different time. You watched movies at the movies and TV shows on the TV. The internet was something that a mate’s cousin had, and his mum yelled at him for tying up the phone line, so your home viewing options were mainly limited to video rentals. Seeing anything outside of the mainstream meant keeping an eye on the listings in the newspaper and trekking to your nearest arthouse fleapit for the invariably very limited season that foreign fare received. And while mature-themed Japanese animation wasn’t an alien concept – Akira had been released back in 1988 – it was a pretty outré affair. You might stumble across the odd title, such as the notorious Legend Of The Overfiend, carelessly misfiled in the children’s section of your local video store, but they were few and far between.
Around this time, Tim Anderson and Paul Wiegard met while students at Melbourne University. They knew each other socially through the rowing team and being at the same college. In 1996, enthused by the Japanese animation that they saw beginning to trickle into the US and UK markets, mainly through licensees such as Manga Entertainment, they founded Madman Entertainment, hoping to capitalise on the same trends in Australia. Now, two decades later, it’s easy to say that they were wildly successful, but it was by no means a sure thing at the outset.
It was, Wiegard recalls, a very humble beginning. “You know how these sorts of businesses first form – they don’t start with a three or a five-year plan, they start with very rudimentary beginnings, like ‘Gee, we like this stuff and we can’t get it. There must be other people like us.’ And one thing leads to another,” he tells FilmInk. “I had finished off an arts and sciences degree, and I was working at a record company. In those days, that meant looking after all the indent services for a lot of those great British magazines, such as NME and Q.” It was through advertisements and articles in such periodicals that he became aware of the Japanese product beginning to become available in the West, and realised that there was little to no similar distribution locally.
Anderson picks up the thread. “I was actually still a student and basically not a very good student at that,” he smiles. “Paul and I spent a lot of time together, but looking at other opportunities that might attract my interest. I was a bit of a nerd, and Paul is too, but he wouldn’t admit to it. We were both watching plenty of movies together, and really from the bedroom pretty much started up what was to become Madman, importing Japanese animation, sci-fi, and that kind of thing. We were effectively running a mail order business from the bedroom. So that’s how Madman first became established. It started as a very small business and it effectively ran that way for a couple of years.”
After a couple of years, Wiegard committed to the business full time, and Madman rapidly expanded, quickly growing from side hustle to a significant presence in the Australian distribution scene. It’s important to realise, however, that the brand wasn’t just cashing in on existing trends, but creating new ones, exposing Australian audiences to the heretofore unseen wonders of Japanese animation and Sain fantasy cinema.
“Back when we were young fellas, there was stuff like Robotech, Astroboy, and Battle Of The Planets,” Anderson recalls. “That kind of thing was really big on television, but there wasn’t an awareness that this was Japanese animation back in the day – it was more stuff that enterprising yanks had bought the rights to, adapted to Western markets, and then broadcast as general animation. It was really as a young adult that you become aware that there’s all this interesting stuff happening in Japan, but the short answer is that you just couldn’t get that stuff in Australia – there was a very rare, expensive smattering of imports in a very small number of specialty comic book stores, and they were really coming from the very early anime distribution businesses in the US and the UK.”
“It was the era of faxes,” Wiegard adds. “It was pre-internet. It was even before DVD as we know it. At that point in time, independent cinema was starting to be on the rise, thanks to Miramax and those sorts of pioneers, and Sundance was coming into its own. It was the beginning of the sources of what we now know as a pretty vibrant world cinema landscape.”
It was also, serendipitously enough, the dawn of the buy-to-own age, when consumers began purchasing their favourite films on VHS to own, if not forever, then until the next format change. “I remember as a young fella being mad on Transformers and the like,” Anderson says. “I would literally walk from video rental store to video rental store checking what second hand videos they had for sale, trying to buy up my Transformers collection, because video retail as it stood wasn’t really a thing.”
“Now there’s no such thing as scarcity,” Wiegard declares. “We can get everything any time we want, so why collect? But prior to our beginning, there was no real major retail support in terms of buying to own. God, I’d almost put it down to The Lion King and possibly even The Wiggles opening up retail in Australia and New Zealand, and the idea of buying to own. We were very fortunate to be in on the ground floor.”
Madman were well positioned to take advantage of that changing market, being effectively the only game in town in terms of the genres that they preferred to deal in. The incredibly fast growth of the home collector market soon saw them jumping on board the next tech wave in order to keep up. “We were the second business in Australia to get an authoring suite to actually create DVDs in-house,” Wiegard tells us. “That provided a great deal of agility and flexibility, and we were able to curate and put in a little extra time and effort and care into what we were putting into the market space. We were running with that idea of, ‘By fans, for fans.’ At the peak of that, probably 10 years after we first began, we had anywhere up to 30 people just authoring and encoding for physical media.” Their first DVD release was, auspiciously enough, the 1995 animated cyberpunk classic, Ghost In The Shell.
However, one of the biggest upturns in Madman’s fortunes took place not on the big screen or even in the home market, but on television, with the company brokering a sale to SBS that was to bring in an entire new crop of anime fans: the groundbreaking series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. “In 1998, we licensed Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was a real break out success,” Anderson recalls. “Before we even released it, we had sold it to SBS. It was a significant success on broadcast, and the videos did incredibly well too. It really introduced a new generation of fans to that sort of real mature, darker, deeper, and more complex storylines. That was a real turning point, and because it did so well, that money got reinvested into buying more titles and expanding very rapidly.”
“SBS were running the series just after South Park,” Wiegard adds. “So just as South Park was exploding, we had people drifting into Evangelion.”
In Australia, Evangelion was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It was appointment television for students and the like who would gather in front of the television on Saturday night for a dose of Japanese surrealism and teen angst before heading out into the weekend. It marked a definite upswing in the popularity of manga and anime in this country, and remains hugely successful to this day. “The other turning point as an anime distribution business from a crossover perspective was Dragon Ball Z,” Anderson continues. “We released that around 2000, and that was a staggering success. It actually remains an incredibly great performer in the catalogue.”
Shortly thereafter, Madman made the leap to theatrical distribution, beginning with a co-presentation with Niche Pictures in 2002 of Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed fantasy feature, Spirited Away. “You couldn’t want for a better first experience than putting out an Oscar winning feature animation,” Wiegard says. “That launched what is, to this day, an ongoing relationship with Studio Ghibli, which is one of the pillars of the Madman business.” Spirited Away remains one of the most critically respected animated films of all time. Madman quickly cemented a strong working relationship with Studio Ghibli, the film’s producers, and today distribute the bulk of their product in Australia.
At the height of its powers in 2006, Madman was purchased by publicly listed toy company Funtastic for $34.5million. However, in 2014, Madman’s original founders and an investor bought the company back.
The world has changed greatly since Madman’s entrance to Australia, with digital distribution and streaming services rapidly becoming the norm and taking a big bite out of theatrical and home revenues. Much like the rest of the industry, Madman has been affected by the tech-driven shift, and are adopting a new posture to take best advantage of the new landscape. “We really take it as a challenge, “Anderson says. “We’re an office with many early adopters in it, as nerdy places tend to be. We’d like to think that we’re amongst those leading the charge for change – there’s no denial in our office. It’s really changed the dynamic from those explosive days of home entertainment growth when the challenge was really throwing stuff at the market fast enough and getting it out the door, whereas now with massive fragmentation and enormous amounts of audience choice, business complexity has really grown.”
Today they’re putting an increasing focus on special one-off premiere theatrical exhibitions and events such as the recent Madman Anime Convention in Melbourne – the sort of experiences that can’t be replicated in the home. And, of course, they have their own streaming platform, AnimeLab, which boasts almost half a million subscribers for its free content, and hosts over 6000 episodes of anime across 250 titles. “It’s been a huge success and very well received by the fans, Anderson says. “So we’re really evolving rapidly in that space.”
Looking at those numbers, Anderson is being incredibly modest, but he credits the label’s popularity to a strong customer focus and a now decades-old community that has grown up around their onscreen offerings. “We’ve always had a very strong online community, particularly around the anime space,” he explains. “Before social media was really a big thing online, we still had a large bulletin board system and a large mailing list. Because we’re very audience-focused, our Facebook pages collectively have over 1.5 million followers. We’ve got very strong followings on Twitter, YouTube, and all the other key social accounts, which has enabled us to create new opportunities like the Madman Anime Festival. There’s no way that we could have activated more than 10,000 people to come down to The Melbourne Convention Centre on the kind of marketing budgets that we had without having that kind of direct contact with the community. We’re also mobilising large numbers of fans to come and support our theatrical special events.”
“Shin Godzilla is an example of that,” Wiegard says, referring to their recent special release of Toho’s latest giant monster movie, which eschewed wide advertising for targeted marketing at Madman’s built-in fan base. “We try to move with the times and we enjoy it,” Anderson sums up. It seems to be working. Doubtless we’ll pick up the conversation again in another 20 years.
For more on Madman Entertainment, head to the official website.