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Since the end of the Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood anime in 2010, and even earlier, the fans have been asking the obvious question: When will a live action film be made, based on this epic story?
Being a film producer myself and having become a huge fan of the story during the past several years, I asked myself the same question.
In my opinion, FMA is at least as good as the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings stories. In its own way, it tells a unique and timeless tale of good vs. evil, redemption and the human condition.
Its characters and over-all plot are entertaining, action-packed and dramatic. Edward and Alphonse Elric are truly inspiring heroes. Since the end of the second anime series "Brotherhood," two "spin-off" animated films have been made by the duo that owns the rights to FMA, Square Enix (manga) and Bones (anime). In countless articles, blogs, wikis and other online media, I have seen this same question asked over and over: Why no live-action films?
The Rights and Wrongs of FMA
Finally, I came to the point when I felt it would be possible for me to put together an Asian consortium of companies to do justice to the Brotherhood series. I even had a screenplay draft of a first film in a projected series of films (called a "franchise" in the film business). Living in Asia myself (though I'm from the U.S. and lived in LA for many years), I felt uniquely suited to be a producer of such films. So I finally came to the point where my group and I were ready to move ahead with a credible film production.
Of course, as most people know, when you do any kind of film, cartoon, anime or other adaptation of someone else's material, it's under copyright and owned by them. Therefore, you must buy the rights to the material in question, usally through negotiations and the signing of a contract.
The companies that own the primary rights to FMA are Square Enix and Bones. However, here lies the problem. These companies refuse to sell the rights. They refuse to even talk or negotiate. The want to keep the rights to themselves. When the group I was working with, which even included an interested Japanese company, came up against this wall, everything stopped. The deal fell apart, and that was it.
A Long, Long, Long Time
How long does a copyright last? Here is what the U.S. copyright office has to say:
- For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire [FMA was done for hire], the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
As you can see from the above paragraph, Square Enix and Bones own a choke hold on the rights to FMA, and these rights will last for many years. If they want merely to release an animated film every two years of so, they could be on Star of Milos, Part 60 by the time their rights expired!
Now, there is nothing illegal or unethical about such actions. If I owned, for example, the "Mona Lisa" painting and wanted to keep it locked in a cellar for 120 years or even more, it would be within my rights to do so. I wouldn't have to let another soul see it but myself. However, this would be such a loss to all of humanity!
I argue that FMA is such a mythical, legendary and completely awesome creation that it deserves more than jsut a "Shamballa" or "Milos" knock-off every couple of years until long after we're all dead. Yet, obviously the current rights holders believe otherwise. What do you think?
I Know You Have Questions - So Do I
After knowing all of this, several questions immediately came to mind. Why are the FMA rights holders taking this approach? Couldn't they make a lot more money by leasing out the rights to a live-action film? A live -ction film would gain a much wider audience than the current anime versions. The great things that FMA has to say would be out there for many more folks to enjoy and benefit from, especially young people. So why confine FMA to the much smaller audience it now has.
Yes, the current audience is narrow, no matter how much all of us LOVE the Elric brothers and their story. Even though the series is well known in Japan and eastern Asia, it is unknown or almost so to the rest of the world, relative to the total populations of course. Last year, I was in Mongolia, and asked several people about anime, and they had never heard of it. However, they watch all the latest western movies. Other continents, with the exception of just a few countries, hardly get any anime at all. However, they do watch American films.
What about the U.S. and Canada? Well, the largest film audiences in the world live there, but ask most of the folks in those countries about FMA, and your answer will likely be "Fullmetal what?" My best estimation is that only about ten percent or so of the entertainment audiences in North America have even heard of FMA and only about five are genuine fans. Making this story into a live-action film franchise like Harry Potter would change all this. Wouldn't that be a good thing?
Well, unfortunately, not so in the estimation of Square Enix and Bones. In my opinion, this is really sad and a great loss to the world.
Controlling the Controllers: Impossible
So, to repeat one of my earlier questions, why do these two companies sit on the rights so totally and hoard them only to themselves? Why do they want to maintain total control over FMA? Well, again, in my opinion, it's all about just that: control.
After getting the door slammed in my face on trying to film FMA, I did some research and asking around. My first surmise was that, to do this story justice in film, the effort would have to be international in scope and the movie done in the English language. To make it accessible to audiences that don't necessarily know much about Japanese anime, a lot of what's called "mediation" would have to be done. To accompish all this, westerners and "foreigners" (to Japan) would have to be brought on board to translate the language and culture into western terms, including the conventions of anime itself.
Now, I'm not going to go into the fine points of what such mediation would entail, but it happens in all adaptations of works from one medium to another. Things that work in a novel or stage play do not work in film. Elements of William Shakespeare that experts on his work take for granted would have to be changed, explained or just left out in making a movie based on, for example Romeo and Juliet. Those of you who are familiar with Harry Potter or Romeo and Juliet know what I'm talking about. The rest of you can look it up on the Internet for gosh sakes!
In order to complete this process of converting FMA from Japanese anime to international live-action film in English would require those who now control the rights to give up a large measure of that control. This they are simply unwilling to do. They believe it makes better business sense to hold onto that control and just do what they know best how to do: more anime FMA knock-offs.
The bottom line is that Square Enix and Bones don't want to risk losing control of what is to them an important treasure. Yes, it is! I don't disagree with that. What they're doing is legal and ethical and there's nothing anyone else can do to change it. I'm also aware of all that - now. They also seem to believe that even though they might make a lot of money and even gain fame in the short term, in the long run they will lose control of their product. They feel such a loss would be the worst possible outcome for them.
So that's the way it is. Try to tell these companies anything otherwise, and, in a nice way, they will tell you to go straight to - Shamballa!
What Can Anyone Else Do?
Well, that depends on them. Write Bones or Square Enix? If a lot of people write them, it might change their minds, but again it might not. You could just get a nice - or not so nice - invitation to get lost. They may say they care about the fans of FMA, their fans, but in my experience and from what I've learned, they do not. As long as the fan base keeps on buying and viewing more Shamballa and Milos type films, they will be happy.
Will you be happy? That depends on you. Will the audience for FMA broaden in any signigicant way? Not really. However, unless one or both of the companies mentioned either collapses (not likely), gets bought out by another company (slightly possible) or sells their rights to FMA (impossible), there will never be any FMA livve-action films.
So don't worry, be happy and get used to it. Is there anyone out there who's ready for Shamballa Meets Milos? Hey, I can hardly wait.