Streamline Pictures was one of the first American companies formed to license Japanese animation for American distribution – with the goal of presenting the original anime uncut, leaving the original music and sound effects intact, and providing an accurate English language dub. “The first” depends on whether you go by theatrical or video releases. Streamline Pictures released its first theatrical feature in March 1989, but its first video was not until February 1990, while The Right Stuf released its first video in June 1989.
I was an anime fan throughout the 1980s. I was also on the organizational committee of the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention, in Los Angeles on August 30 – September 4 (L.A.con II). I was responsible for that Worldcon’s bringing Yoshiyuki Tomino from Tokyo as a special guest, and for inviting Harmony Gold U.S.A. and its producer Carl Macek to give a presentation on the Japanese Macross TV cartoon series that it had just licensed for the first legal (as opposed to illegal fan video copying) anime home video sales in America. Harmony Gold only produced the first episode of Macross before the series was sold to American TV as the first part of Robotech. (It looked until almost the last minute that the Worldcon would have to cancel its announced Macross #1 video premiere, but Macek got it finished the day before its scheduled Worldcon premiere.) Macek became the producer of Robotech. I later interviewed him at the Harmony Gold offices in Los Angeles for a lengthy article on Robotech in Fantagraphics’ then-monthly magazine, Amazing Heroes: “ROBOTECH: Japanimation Invades Comics With a Trio of Comico Titles” in Amazing Heroes #75, July 15, 1985, pgs. 25-34 (pictured at right).
As an active member of L.A.’s Cartoon/Fantasy Organization chapter, I was marginally aware post-Robotech that Macek had left Harmony Gold, had partnered with Jerry Beck who had come to Hollywood from NYC’s C/FO chapter, and that they planned to start a company to professionally license Japanese animation for America. I and the L.A. C/FO enthusiastically encouraged them. When they got started around late 1988, I gave them free consulting on what anime movies and TV series were the most popular with American fans, and would be the best to license for the public. I also wrote the first articles about the company and its titles for the new American animation magazines: “Laputa & Twilight of the Cockroaches” in Animation Magazine #8, Spring 1989, pgs. 21 [and] 59, and “Japanese Animation: The Cult Grows Up” in Animation Magazine #12, v.3 #4, Summer 1990, pgs. 28-30.
When I was laid off from my 20+-year job as a corporate technical librarian at Hughes Aircraft Company in mid-1990, Carl & Jerry persuaded me to become a full-time Streamline Pictures employee, its first, instead of looking for another librarian job. I joined Streamline in January 1991, and was its last employee when Streamline went out of business in March 2002.This series of posts are my observations of events at Streamline Pictures during my tenure. But first, let’s go back a few years to see how the company came together and what it had achieved before I joined up.
Jerry Beck – who edits this esteemed website – had a background in film distribution, having worked by day for United Artists, MGM and Orion in New York City. In his off hours he was writing books and articles about Hollywood animation and running the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization-N.Y. He was the first person to show anime in 16mm at the New York Comic Cons – borrowing 16mm prints from Tōei’s New York offices. He never forgot how Great Mazinger looked like on the big screen – and the fan reaction to seeing anime on the big screen.
Jerry moved to L.A. in 1986 to work with Terry Thoren’s Expanded Entertainment – distributing independent and foreign shorts, packaged as festivals, to theaters; starting Animation Magazine; and curating events for a local international animation festival (Animation Celebration) held in 1985, 1987, 1989, and 1991. (He worked on the 1987 one.) Beck encouraged Thoren to screen of Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle In The Sky and Carl Macek’s Robotech: The Movie at the Animation Celebration.
Carl Macek was an animation producer and writer who had become the mastermind behind Harmony Gold’s Robotech series. Macek and Beck had informally met at the 1986 Comic Con where Carl was selling animation cels on behalf of the producers of Heavy Metal (Carl wrote the official tie-in book, The Art of Heavy Metal, in 1981).As Beck recalls it, “Laputa and Robotech – and a Computer Animation program – were the only sold-out shows in advance of the Animation Celebration festival. I tried to talk Terry Thoren into picking these films up for us to distribute – but he wasn’t interested in distributing what he called “Saturday Morning Cartoons”. Terry had programmed Robotech: The Movie to run opposite an opening night party for the elite Hollywood animation crowd. Carl and I snuck away from the party to watch the crowd reaction to Robotech. I still recall both the reactions of the audience – they were totally involved – and was impressed how good the anime looked on the big screen.
“I told Carl, there and then, if we could get other anime features, and if he could dub them, I could put them into movie theatres. This led to many meetings in coffee shops to discuss the realities of this idea. I had sold my Looney Tunes book (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide To The Warner Bros. Cartoons) and was working on that for a year – Carl was writing C.O.P.S. for DIC and had deals with Bill Kroyer (Computer Warriors) and John K. (he was an original partner in Spümcø). During this time we would go to the AFM (American Film Market – where we first saw the feature Twilight Of The Cockroaches), and visit anime producers who had offices in town (Tokuma and Tōei were at the top of our list).”
Jerry Beck also remembers that the idea for the Streamline Pictures name and logo were his. Jerry: “We were going to meet with GaGa and Tokuma to discuss distributing anime to movie theaters. [Tokuma Shoten and Gaga Communications supplied Streamlines’ first two movies; Laputa: The Castle in the Sky and Twilight of the Cockroaches. Gaga was aggressively trying to promote Japanese animation in the U.S. at the time – see their 1988 showreel at right – with almost no success.] We hadn’t formally formed a company. We were just two guys with an idea. We decided it would be good to have a company name established before the meeting – maybe even have business cards. Personally I didn’t want a name that reflected anime – because I had always hoped to distribute animation besides anime. Both Carl and I love classic Hollywood films… and we needed a name and a logo in a hurry. In New York, my friends (from childhood) Mark Trost and Mark Heller had a stock footage company called Streamline Film Archives (still in business at Streamline Stock Footage). I asked if we could borrow their name (changing it to Streamline Pictures) and adapt their logo for my purposes… I recall asking Carl if he had any problem with the name Streamline Pictures because, if not, I could get a professional logo immediately for the business cards and meeting. He agreed to use the name and the rest is history.”
I appointed myself the company historian, but I could never find out when Streamline Pictures officially turned from Carl & Jerry’s informal idea into a legal business. Neither had any sense of historiography, and to them a business license with a date, and the paperwork of their licensing of the first Streamline title, was just useless bureaucracy to be lost or thrown out after it was no longer needed. If I had asked Los Angeles’ Office of Finance’s Custodian of Records at the time, I probably could have found out, but today all records that old have been destroyed. The best backdating that I could do was that the company got its business license and filed its fictitious name notification around October or November 1988, when Carl & Jerry were still operating from their homes, a couple of months before Streamline Pictures opened its first business office. That was in February 1989, at 5625 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, CA (taking over a two-room office suite from Quality Sound, the facility used to dub Totoro and Kiki), sharing the space with John Kricfalusi’s fledgling Spümcø animation studio.Streamline’s first release, a 35mm English-dubbed print of Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (Streamline got one print, already dubbed for Japan Air Lines’ in-flight entertainment, from Tokuma Shoten), premiered at the Roxy Screening Rooms in Philadelphia, PA, on March 24 – April 6, 1989. Streamline got a very short one-year license for Laputa, from March 1989 through February 1990, renewed once for March 1990 through February 1991. Tokuma would not renew it again.
Jerry Beck also says: “The first trailer we made was an edited version of the Japanese trailer for Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Chris Casady (a special effects animator we knew) shot the Laputa title and edited the trailer. Chris had worked on Terminator 2. While we were preparing the trailer, we discussed the idea of a Streamline Pictures film logo. Chris went to his file cabinet and pulled out a rolling fireball effects shot from Terminator 2 which he could combine with the Streamline logo… and that’s how our on-screen logo was created.” (All of the Castle In The Sky trailers on YouTube today are of the Disney dubbed version.)
Streamline revved up during 1989. Its second theatrical release was Hiroaki Yoshida’s allegorical live-action/animated Twilight of the Cockroaches (subtitled), which premiered at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL, as a Friday Midnight Special on May 5, 12, and 19. It played a two-day engagement on May 25-26.
Streamline’s third release was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which played for 2½ weeks at The Biograph in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., from December 25, 1989 to January 11, 1990. Streamline got two 35mm prints of Akira, and showed the second at an overlapping screening at the Cinema 21 in Portland, OR from December 29, 1989 to January 4, 1990.
Streamline was also busy during the last half of 1989 dubbing Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service into English for Tokuma Enterprises Corporation (which still owned Studio Ghibli then), for Tokuma to sell as bilingual in-flight movies for Japan Air Lines’ trans-Pacific flights. Carl was the director, and Jerry is credited on screen as ‘production manager’. Carl didn’t think much of the dubbing that Tokuma had gotten, and boasted that he could do better. Tokuma gave him the chance to prove it with My Neighbor Totoro. Its and Kiki’s Delivery Service’s dubbings kept Carl busy during the last half of the year. Carl dubbed My Neighbor Totoro during September, and Tokuma was pleased enough with it that it gave him Kiki’s Delivery Service during November. But Tokuma would never license either movie to Streamline Pictures for theatrical release in America, although Carl’s English-language dub of My Neighbor Totoro was later licensed by Tokuma to Troma Inc.’s 50th Street Films for theatrical release during May 1993 (and later released on DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Video).
Streamline moved in January 1990 to the second floor of a larger office complex at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevards; 971 North La Cienega Boulevard, Suite 209, Los Angeles, CA 90069. On February 25th, at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, at the Shrine Hall near USC, Streamline premiered its first video tape, the 52-minute documentary Akira Production Report. Carl and Jerry personally introduced the film at its screening, and gave away Japanese Akira movie posters. (Coincidentally, Books Nippan’s U.S. Renditions also premiered its first two video releases, Dangaio #1 and GunBuster #1, at this same convention.)
In August, Streamline was an exhibitor at the San Diego Comic-Con the last year that it was at the downtown Convention and Performing Arts Center. Streamline also presented a Festival of Japanese Animation at the Spreckles Theater on August 2 – 4, for the attendees of the 1990 San Diego Comic-Con. The Festival included sneak previews of Lensman (with a Japanese promotional button), Robot Carnival, and Manie-Manie (Neo-Tokyo), which Streamline was producing for American theatrical release, along with Akira, Laputa, and Twilight of the Cockroaches. Lensman was theatrically premiered later that month on August 31, simultaneously at the Neptune Theatre, in Seattle, WA (to September 6), and at The Biograph, in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. (to September 13). Lensman, produced by Studio Madhouse, was one of the world’s first theatrical releases (as opposed to private computer-technology conventions) to feature computer graphic imagery (CGI).
In October Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator/director of Akira, came to America for its New York City premiere at the Film Forum, October 19 – 25. This was Streamline’s first notable release. Jerry Beck flew to NYC to supervise it, and the theater prominently displayed it, mostly with posters from its Japanese release; An Akira party/Otomo autograph signing was held at the Forbidden Planet comics & s-f bookstore on October 20th. (click photos below to enlarge)In December, Akira became Streamline’s second video release, and the first under Streamline’s Video Comics label, designed for promotion and sales in comics-specialty shops. Streamline also released the first episode of Zillion, the first anime dubbed especially for the American home video market. (The acquisition of Zillion reestablished Carl’s ties with Tatsunoko Production Co., Ltd., the original producers of the Japanese TV animation which he had made into Robotech for Harmony Gold U.S.A.) By then VHS had completely replaced the earlier Betamax format.
That is where Streamline was when I joined the company in January 1991. Jerry was concentrating on Streamline’s theatrical distribution – the company had Laputa, Twilight of the Cockroaches, Akira, and Lensman by then, and was just getting Robot Carnival that month – and Carl handled everything else, mostly all the dubbing of the theatrical features and the planned home video releases. Carl often worked, then and later, with independent film writers and voice actors such as Bob Bergen, Steve Bulen, Bill Capizzi, Frank Catalano, Ardwright Chamberlin, Michael Forest, Barbara Goodson, Steve Kramer, Wendee Lee, Melanie MacQueen, Michael McConnohie, Edie Mirman, Mike Reynolds, Cliff Wells, Jeff Winkless, and Tom Wyner on the dubbing. Streamline’s English-language theatrical posters were being designed and adapted from the original Japanese posters by Carl’s wife, Svea.
This column covered Streamline Pictures to about the beginning of 1991. More next week.