Reintroducing Iconic Japanese Superhero ULTRAMAN To Audiences Worldwide
An inside look at how the legendary character’s resurgence in the global entertainment marketplace is being accomplished through transmedia storytelling and multi-platform licensing.
While Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and other dashing superheroes from the DC and Marvel Comics stables have entertained generations of audiences worldwide, Japan has exported its own towering force of superhero might in the form of the legendary character Ultraman.
First premiering on Japanese television in 1966 and created by special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya (who also co-created the iconic Godzilla character), the original Ultraman series ran for less than a year, but the title character’s exciting battles with gruesome monsters and otherworldly evil-doers went on to spawn decades of movie and TV offshoots that would comprise the larger Ultraman multiverse, while gripping viewers far beyond the Land of the Rising Sun.
One of those viewers was Jeff Gomez, who in his adolescence began following Ultraman’s exploits through syndicated — and Spanish-dubbed — reruns of the series that aired in Puerto Rico. Today, Gomez is the CEO of production firm Starlight Runner Entertainment, a company known for developing effective transmedia campaigns for brands like Coca-Cola, plus hit movies like Avatar, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Men In Black and Spider-Man.
Given Gomez’s decades-long love of Ultraman, the series’ worldwide distributor Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd. has offered Gomez what could be considered the assignment of his dreams: bringing back Ultraman to American audiences through a multifaceted system of brand licensing and transmedia storytelling.
Joining forces with Danny Simon, legendary licensing expert/CEO of The Licensing Group Ltd., Gomez and Starlight Runner Entertainment will combine their knack for creating successful transmedia experiences with Simon’s expertise in the field of brand licensing to expand the famed Japanese superhero’s reach beyond the restraints of dramatized episodic series.
As Ultraman’s transmedia producer, Gomez will collaborate with his Starlight Runner colleagues to prepare a completely new English-language story universe for the property’s characters; one that will help Starlight Runner, The Licensing Group and Tsuburaya to communicate the Ultraman mythology to audiences who tune in to the series, plus brands who hope to capitalize on the franchise through merchandising and cross-platform entertainment, alongside Ultraman’s streaming and video-on-demand presence (which also includes Netflix’s new anime Ultraman series).
Ultraman’s depth of content, its continued profitability for Tsuburaya Productions ($50 million in worldwide licensing revenues) and the priceless reputation Ultraman enjoys with viewers of all ages, are factors that make Gomez and Simon’s work in growing the franchise as much of a thrill as it is a responsibility.
Motivated by his strong connection with the Ultraman character during childhood, Gomez details how that connection led to the opportunity he and Simon now enjoy by working with the company who launched Ultraman over five decades ago.
For the uninitiated, tell us who Ultraman is — what’s the premise of the show?
Jeff Gomez (CEO, Starlight Runner Entertainment/transmedia producer, Ultraman): Ultraman is a superhero, one of the most popular of all time in Japan, his home country. He’s as well known and beloved there as Superman is to us here in the United States. Ultraman was created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the father of tokusatsu, which was a certain kind of movie special effects that emphasized the use of miniatures and men in monster suits to create sequences that awed and terrified filmgoers. Tsuburaya created the “suitmation” that brought Godzilla to life in all those giant monster movies of from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s.
The premise of Ultraman is that a plague of giant monsters called kaiju has come to Earth from deep space, and it’s more than humanity can handle. So, these alien beings, Ultra Warriors from Nebula M78 who are responsible for securing the universe, send one of their own to help us.
In order to understand and empathize with us, this Ultraman must blend with a human host and experience the world through our eyes. But when one of these kaiju shows up, our hero raises his changing artifact skyward and turns into Ultraman — a 130 foot tall, sleek, silvery giant readily capable of kicking monster butt.
Over the past 50 years, there have been dozens of incarnations of Ultraman, each with his or her own name and personality, many with their own series, anime or feature film. The universe of the franchise is vast and infinitely complex. To this day, the Ultraman (property) generates $50 million per year in toys and dozens of licensed products for Tsuburaya, and there is a new series every year.
What makes Ultraman such a unique superhero entertainment property?
Gomez: In the beginning, the only time you could see this level of action and special effects was by going to the movies once or twice a year. Now, the children of Japan could watch this type of spectacle every week on television. There’s something majestic, archetypal, almost celestial about these characters. They embody courage, hope, and kindness.
They aren’t humans who inhabit giant robots, like Pacific Rim. They aren’t Transformers. They’re living beings who can fly and emit all kinds of beam weapons and happen to be tall as skyscrapers. What’s not to love?
How did you and Starlight Runner initially get involved with this project, and how has your personal love of the Ultraman character influenced your work in terms of bringing it to new audiences worldwide?
Gomez: I first watched Ultraman in Spanish while visiting my Dad in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s. At first, I wasn’t too fond of being away from New York and my friends at the time, but this giant silver alien superhero and the Godzilla-like monsters he was fighting changed my mind real fast! The TV network had syndicated Ultraman and Ultraseven, along with a number of other Japanese live-action and animated series, and that triggered my love for all things Nippon for a lifetime.
I met Danny Simon, head of The Licensing Group, through Isaac Wu Chen, a mutual friend in China. The Chinese are just coming into their own with licensing movies and TV shows, and Danny and I agreed that this is a good thing for their entertainment industry.
During a visit to his office in Los Angeles, I was ogling his amazing props from Aliens and Terminator 2, when he told me his latest negotiation was with Tsuburaya Productions. They were exploring the possibility of bringing Ultraman back onto the global stage. Stop the presses! I told him I was super interested in that.
Noting that I had worked on some big Hollywood franchises, Danny felt it couldn’t hurt to bring me along to talk about the multi-platform possibilities for Ultraman with the studio. I prepared a presentation that envisioned how the franchise could be made relevant and resonant for today’s world and I guess it impressed the Tsuburaya team.
This was one of those moments where my love for a character and his story world really shone through. It wasn’t about my creative “take” on Ultraman — it was about how I fundamentally understood him.
Having been tasked to create a franchise Mythology document based on the existing Ultraman property, what steps have you and your colleagues taken to stay true to the spirit of that property and its iconic characters while adapting it to the demands of modern media and its consumers?
Gomez: Our first step has been to document the Ultraman Universe, taking stock of the mega-narrative of the franchise dating back over fifty years! Ultraman boasts more content than any TV series in history, surpassing even Doctor Who.
If any licensee or producer of new Ultraman content is to make heads or tails of this hugely elaborate mythos, they will need a single resource to do so. That’s what this Ultraman Mythology document is all about. We’ll also be ironing out the innate contradictions of the franchise, the cosmology and chronology of it — everything anybody will need to know about it.
We are staying true to the franchise by reviewing every single episode, every feature film, every animated incarnation, every piece of canonical content associated with Ultraman. We’ve also put ourselves in touch with current Ultraman fans around the world, asking them questions, soliciting their opinions, and taking their perspectives into consideration.
When it comes to adapting Ultraman for new content, we will be communicating and protecting the essence of these characters and their story world, but we also want to give creators a great deal of latitude to tell their own stories within it.
Given that Ultraman is one of Japan’s most famous entertainment properties, discuss the ways that you, Starlight Runner and Ultraman’s owners, Tsuburaya Productions Co., Ltd., worked to develop Ultraman’s story universe for worldwide audiences.
Gomez: The beauty of being involved with Ultraman at this level is that we are going to get to collaborate with many of the licensees of the property. Some will welcome our creative input, while others will use us as a resource for all things lore-related. Right now, however, we are focused on documenting, streamlining, and reconciling dozens of different TV series and films, some of which take place in entirely different dimensional realities.
In other words, Ultraman shows don’t all take place in the same continuity — they branch off or reboot all the time! We are developing a kind of Unified Field Theory to tie everything together, which is kind of an awesome job to have.
What difficulties — if any — have you and the Starlight Runner team had in creating a completely new English language story universe for such a legendary property like Ultraman, and what steps have you all taken to adapt the universe to that property?
Gomez: Well, that hasn’t been done yet, but it’s something that is going to happen soon, whether or not Starlight Runner is directly involved. A major challenge will be the fact that Ultraman has had a huge impact on global popular culture. We see it in Power Rangers, Transformers, Pacific Rim, even Pokémon. So, a lot of the ideas in the original Ultraman series have been mined by Hollywood.
What is going to make a new movie or show feel exciting and original? How can we generate the same passion in our audience today that I experienced in 1972? These are the kinds of challenges Starlight Runner specializes in solving.
We delve so deeply into these story worlds that we are able to pinpoint highly specific qualities that are unique to the characters and cosmology. Making sure that those aspects are crystallized and freshly developed is the key. We’re doing that with Ultraman right now.
How will this story-driven licensing and merchandising program you’ve developed with The Licensing Group work, and what products will be involved in that program?
Gomez: Well, we’ve only gotten started this year, and Danny is already in the process of closing a number of deals. Tsuburaya will be announcing them soon. Because there is an American-based team of experts in the property, we are encouraging our partners to “add to the mythos,” depicting aspects of the Ultraman Universe that are fresh and new, but somehow still fit into the canon.
Everything counts! Licensees like that, because the story content and the images on their products will be official and additive to the universe, while still being self-contained and super cool, so that anyone can pick up on how awesome these characters are and how of the moment the stories feel.
Detail how your partnership with The Licensing Group will work.
Gomez: Well, we (Danny Simon and I) both work for Tsuburaya Productions, and we both are working in service to the Ultraman Universe. The Licensing Group is generating plenty of excitement around Ultraman, and they’ve always been capable of striking great deals. Starlight Runner is acting as an added bonus, because we can help with creative, expedite approvals, and make sure everything is working inter-connectedly across the entire program. Transmedia storytelling!
How will Starlight Runner’s usage of transmedia as a storytelling tool build upon the newly created Ultraman story universe?
Gomez: One of the more fascinating aspects of this project is that we are taking the Japanese “media mix” philosophy and we’re translating it into a transmedia franchise model. This is literally the very same leap that I personally made as I started my career in comic books and video games. I loved how Japanese super heroes could appear in series, prequels, sequels, side-quels, reboots, and complete reinterpretations across manga, anime, TV, film, direct-to-video, trading cards, toys — everything!
But I also appreciated the efforts at continuity and canonicity that I experienced with Marvel and DC Comics, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and Star Trek. My brand of transmedia storytelling would take the elaborate cross-platform approach of media mix, and combine it with a greater effort at a truly integrated narrative universe. That’s what I would envision for a global iteration of Ultraman.
Also, the Ultraman Universe lends itself to this approach, because it both acknowledges that there are these multiple realities within its canon and has an explanation for them. This is going to be very helpful, because our storytelling partners can be given a good deal of creative latitude.
For example, if Ultraman Leo from the franchise’s classic showa age is your jam, you can go ahead and tell more stories about him without messing up the continuity. Our Mythology guide book will tell you how.
When and where can audiences expect to see and interact with the new transmedia content being prepared for Ultraman?
Gomez: We’re thrilled to see the new Ultraman animated series by Production I.G. on Netflix already, so everyone can start there. With so many deals being secured now, my hope is you’ll see a lot more in the coming months and years. Watch for announcements!
Will any of this new content be added to the existing Ultraman series, and if so, how will that content enhance what’s already been released from the property?
Gomez: My hope is that any new Ultraman content will somehow co-exist with the rich and wild canon that has already been established. So, if and when you ever see Ultraman Tiga again, he will look and behave as he did in his own series, except that some time has passed. New content will reverberate with the old, so established fans will appreciate how hard we’ve worked to sew it all together. And yet, everything new will be entirely comprehensible to new audiences.
In partnering with The Licensing Group on this project, what plans does Starlight Runner have to expand Ultraman’s reach through brand partnerships and merchandise, while developing strategies to monetize the property?
Gomez: In traditional old school licensing, you gave a content or consumer products company the right to use the image and tell stories about the characters, but you really didn’t care about how those stories fit into the continuity of the movie or TV show or comic book.
The approach that The Licensing Group and Starlight Runner are taking is a bit different. When you become an Ultraman partner, you become an official storyteller within this rich universe. What you have to say is important and relevant and needs to stand up to the scrutiny of fans.
So, we are looking for quality products, and an integrity to the stories. In our experience, our partners like this, because they feel we care about their products and will go above and beyond to make sure they have something additive to say about the franchise. We’re uber-fans, so what they’re doing has to please us before it goes out to the consumer.
Are there any plans to use social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) to compliment both the Ultraman story experience, plus efforts to market the property through merchandise and branding? If so, what’s being planned?
Gomez: As with all of our projects, fan outreach and fan analysis is an integral part of what we do. If we don’t look at our hero through the eyes of his or her biggest fans, then how can we fully understand our hero? We get this done by diving deep into fan web sites, wikis, and social media. As for how social media will be used to promote Ultraman products, or to validate and celebrate fan participation around new content, that has yet to be determined — but I’m excited about the prospects of doing so.
In total, how will creators and brand partners benefit from taking part in the relaunch of Ultraman across multiple platforms?
Gomez: The beauty of transmedia storytelling is that, while each part of the story tends to be self-contained, when you add those parts together you get something deep and rich and exciting. Every piece of content across all these platforms reinforces all the other pieces. The fan is invited to investigate — sometimes even play with — different aspects of this universe.
When you do this well, you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have Star Wars, you have Star Trek, you have Doctor Who. Creators and brand partners who join us will know that this is what we attempting to accomplish with Ultraman. Do this well with us (and we have a bit of experience doing this), and the rewards are sky high.
Overall, what are your hopes for the immediate and long-term success of this project?
Gomez: My immediate hopes for Ultraman is that the initial licensing campaign is a success, and that it helps to build recognition and momentum for the brand. Already we can see that some of the older fans amongst our partners are eager to share these heroes and the kaiju monsters with their children.
But as we keep up the work in the coming months, I’m hoping to see Tsuburaya Productions make deals to generate new Ultraman TV shows, animated series, and movies. I want to see Ultraman on the big screen with state-of-the-art special effects. That’s what he deserves after inspiring kids like me for all these years.