Chinese Ultraman Movie Latest Chapter in Ongoing Rights Dispute
Details on Events and Players Behind DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN
Author: Keith Aiken
Special Thanks to Bob Johnson, Brad Warner, Kazuo Suzuki and Robin Kwok
On July 10th in Beijing, the Chinese animation studio Guangzhou BlueArc Culture Communications Co., Ltd. hosted a promotional event for DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN (钢铁飞龙之再见奥特曼, Gāngtiě fēilóng zhī zàijiàn àotèmàn), a 3D computer animated film featuring the iconic Japanese superhero, Ultraman. Director/BlueArc Founder/President Wang Wei — aka Tommy Wang — described his movie as an official re-interpretation of the classic character, saying, “This domestic animation film presents a new image of the hero Ultraman to the world, in the hopes it can surprise adults and children.”
BlueArc’s announcement certainly came as a surprise to Tsuburaya Productions, creator and copyrights owner of the Ultraman series. On July 19th, Tsuburaya President and CEO Shinichi Oka issued a press release that stated (in part) “This work has been produced without our permission or supervision. In addition, the usage of the Ultraman character image, etc., in this presentation has severely damaged the Ultraman brand, and is utterly unacceptable… We intend to take decisive measures, including legal action, against the Chinese company that made this announcement and the persons involved in the production of the film.”
The news was covered by Japanese outlets like NHK and The Mainichi, and soon picked up by English language fan sites, blogs and chat groups. But some of the reporting has misrepresented the details of how DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN came to be, which is understandable as the film is just the latest piece in a legal dispute over the Ultraman rights that stretches back two decades, involves multiple companies, and has been contested in four different countries.
While some have pointed fingers at Thai director Sompote Saengduenchai, neither he nor his company, Chaiyo Productions, are directly involved in the production of DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN. But Saengduenchai did play a key role as the “father” of the rights dispute that eventually allowed the Chinese film to be made.
Sompote Saengduenchai’s story actually began in early 1962, when the young filmmaker received a Thailand government scholarship to study cinematography in Japan which included an internship at Toho Studios. During his time at Toho he worked on a handful of films, including KING KONG VS GODZILLA (キングコング対ゴジラ, Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira, 1962), where he met the studio’s legendary special effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya. The two reportedly got along, and Saengduenchai would visit with Tsuburaya on his return trips to Tokyo over the next few years. During that time Eiji Tsuburaya launched Tsuburaya Productions and created the first entries in the Ultra Series… ULTRA Q (ウルトラQ, Urutora Kyuu, 1966), ULTRAMAN (ウルトラマン 空想特撮シリーズ, Urutoraman: Kuso Tokusatsu Shirizu, 1966-67) and ULTRA SEVEN (ウルトラセブン, Urutora Sebun, 1967-68). Tsuburaya died in January 1970.
In 1973, Eiji’s second son, Noboru, was named President of Tsuburaya Productions. That same year, Sompote Saengduenchai licensed from Tsuburaya Pro the Thai television broadcast rights for the first six Ultra series and the superhero show JAMBORG ACE (ジャンボーグA, Janboogu Eesu, 1973). Tsuburaya and Chaiyo also partnered on two feature films: JAMBORG ACE AND GIANT aka GIANT VS JAMBO A (ジャンボーグA&ジャイアント, Janboogu Eesu to Jaianto, 1974) and SIX ULTRA BROTHERS VS THE MONSTER ARMY aka HANUMAN VS 7 ULTRAMAN (ウルトラ6兄弟VS怪獣軍団, Urutora Roku Kyoudai Tai Kaiju Gundam, 1974). The two companies would continue to have business dealings into the early 1980s.
Noboru Tsuburaya passed away in June 1995. Shortly thereafter, Sompote Saengduenchai approached Noboru’s son, Kazuo, who had been named President of Tsuburaya Productions a few weeks before his father’s death. Saengduenchai presented him with a contract, allegedly issued and signed by Noboru in March 1976, granting Chaiyo the exclusive international copyright to the two Tsuburaya/Chaiyo films, the JAMBORG ACE television series, and all Ultraman shows and characters from ULTRA Q through ULTRAMAN TARO (ウルトラマンT(タロウ), Urutoraman Taroo, 1973-74) as compensation for unpaid loans.
Tsuburaya Productions was extremely skeptical of the Chaiyo document, which contained a number of glaring errors including incorrect titles and episode numbers for several series. There was also the matter that Noboru Tsuburaya had never mentioned any such contract, and Saengduenchai had waited 20 years to make his claim.
Tsuburaya Productions declared the contract a forgery and sued Sompote Saengduenchai/Chaiyo in both the Japanese Civil and Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade courts in 1997. In 2000, the courts determined that copyrights to the Ultraman character and shows solely belonged to Tsuburaya Pro. Saengduenchai did not come away empty handed, however, as Chaiyo was awarded distribution rights to the films and programs named in the contract.
With both sides having won and lost, the parties engaged in a decade of additional lawsuits and counter-suits in Japan and Thailand; the case eventually spreading to China when Saengduenchai tried and failed to produce his own Ultraman series — PROJECT ULTRAMAN — there. A detailed overview of the legal battles from 1997-2007 can be found here on SciFi Japan.
In February 2008, the Thai Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in favor of Tsuburaya Productions. That December, Sompote Saengduenchai assigned all of his Ultraman rights (as described in the 1976 contract) to UM Corporation, an entertainment company founded by former Tsuburaya employee Moriaki Uematsu. UMC established offices in Tokyo and Hong Kong with Sompote’s son, Perasit, as Chairman, and signed an agreement with the Thai/HK marketing company TIGA Entertainment Co., Ltd. to be their exclusive sales agent for Ultraman. Through TIGA, UM Corporation has licensed Ultraman products such as the DVD sets of ULTRA Q and ULTRA SEVEN released in North America by Shout! Factory.
Despite the familial connections between Sompote Saengduenchai and UM Corporation, their relationship soon soured. In 2013, and again in 2015, Saengduenchai and some new business partners hosted events in Los Angeles to announce new Ultraman products and movies. Lawyers for UMC and TIGA hit the new ventures with Cease and Desist letters, reminding Saengduenchai that he no longer has any claim to Ultraman. None of the announced Ultraman projects were ever released.
In October 2010, a Chinese court ruled the 1976 contract was valid. Tsuburaya Productions appealed the verdict but the ruling was confirmed by the Chinese Supreme Court in September 2013. In July 2015, UM Corporation released an ‘Ultraman Copyright Notice’ that warned “the original copyright owner [Tsuburaya Productions] and the former rights holder [Sompote Saengduenchai/Chaiyo Productions]” against any use of the Ultraman intellectual property rights in China.
On January 1, 2017, TIGA Entertainment granted BlueArc Culture Communications (referred to as “Blue Magic” in the agreement) a three year license to make “Ultraman 3D Animation Movies” for distribution in Mainland China. Founded in 2003 and based in Guangzhou, China, BlueArc specializes in computer animation production, distribution and licensing. Their works include the television series ULTRA BEAST FORCE aka RevEVOLUTION (超兽武装, Chāo shòu wǔzhuāng, 2011-12) and DRAGON FORCE (钢铁飞龙, Gāngtiě fēilóng, 2012-13).
After deciding their first Ultraman movie would be DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN, BlueArc brought in Le Vision Pictures as a production partner. Established in 2011 by the Chinese tech conglomerate LeTV, Le Vision is one of the country’s major film companies and has collaborated with American studios on movies like THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) and THE GREAT WALL (2016).
In response to Tsuburaya Productions’ July 19 press release, Wang Wei stated that the Chinese Supreme Court had ruled against Tsuburaya and that UM Corporation was free to license Ultraman in China. Wang also declared, “I will take the necessary legal action” to protect his contract with UMC and TIGA.
No lawsuits have been filed (yet) regarding DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN, but Tsuburaya Productions, UMC Corporation and their past/present business associates (including Sompote Saengduenchai/Chaiyo and TIGA Entertainment) will soon be doing battle in the United States. The end of that trial should finally — hopefully — present a clear winner in the Ultraman rights dispute, with the general expectation that Saengduenchai’s contract will not hold up in American court.
DRAGON FORCE: SO LONG ULTRAMAN is currently scheduled to open in theaters across Mainland China during the country’s National Day holiday (October 1-3, 2017).