We aren’t privy to the goings-on behind the scenes, but we do have eyes and can observe: beginning in early June of 2019 something decidedly odd began happening to The Voltron Store’s social media posts.
They began to get… good.
Having fled Twitter when their less-than-tactful posts brought the fandom’s ire down on them, The Voltron Store (henceforth ‘VStore’) mostly slipped from the fandom’s eye. VLD fandom has been historically concentrated on Tumblr and Twitter, with smaller enclaves on Instagram and other sites. Safe among their oldest and dearest fans on Facebook and Instagram, you would think they would feel free to continue with their normal dated and ugly advertising style. And they did, somewhat, for a time at least. But, in June, a different style of post began appearing. These ads were sleek and well designed, with less saturated colors and expert typography work. The assets themselves also changed – it appeared that someone had shelled out for the Adobe Creative Suite. An odd choice coming from a notoriously stingy and change-averse company. What was happening? Why now?
The old ad style continued to appear for some time, but gradually the old ads seemed to be attempting to mimic the new ones. It appears there are now two people making the ads, with the one making the new ones attempting to teach the one making the old ones the basic skills of graphic design. It may or may not be working; the former ad maker is noticeably improving, but it’s still possible to tell the difference.
Around the same time, VStore’s eBay storefront – vintagevoltron – began rapidly unloading stock at bizarre and seemingly arbitrary prices. What started out as the laughably high price of eight dollars plus shipping for a simple paper bookmark over the next few months would turn into a single dollar for a decade old, sealed in box, limited edition complete Voltron model. They sold off original animation cels from their other 80’s properties, prototypes of toys never manufactured, and dozens of rare and limited edition collectibles. It appeared for all intents and purposes that as the Voltron brand neared its 35th anniversary the company that owned it was clearing out their vaults and everything had to go – and not just Voltron.
It’s not that surprising they’re selling everything not nailed down: WEP’s parent company has been hemorrhaging money. Koplar Communications is an aging, ailing enterprise that only last year settled a class action lawsuit brought by the employees of their restaurants over unpaid wages. The exact dollar amount of the settlement is undisclosed, but meeting it forced the closure of their two decade-old restaurants: shuttering the only known businesses of theirs that were turning a profit. Their financial straits were such that Bob Koplar, the President of Koplar Communications, represented himself in court.
Their money problems were likely behind the unprecedented number of discounts and giveaways the store offered during 2019. For the first time in their 10-year existence they offered free shipping. Unfortunately for them, it seems these tactics failed. Sales data on eBay shows that in the past 12 months they have made less than 50 sales total. While we don’t have access to the numbers, on January 6th 2020, VStore advertised on their social media that they had five of a discontinued item available for purchase. As of this writing, in the closing week of March, there are still two of those five items listed for sale in their eBay shopfront.
Meanwhile, VStore isn’t the only retailer unloading its Voltron-related merch. Across the board, as 2019 drew to a close and we approached the one year anniversary of the series finale, Voltron products were near-unilaterally cleared out. While this is fairly normal for mixed merchandise retailers like Hot Topic, Han Cholo is the officially licensed maker and retailer of Voltron jewlery and has been so for years prior to VLD. Towards the end of 2019 every one of their Voltron pieces were on clearance, with many of them marked as “not being restocked”.
However, in November, Han Cholo updated their product line with a few new items. Among them a patch of the DOTU version of the Voltron robot. The product description of the patch includes the phrase “OFFICIALLY LICENSED © 2020 DREAMWORKS ANIMATION LLC.” This is odd, as DW should have no reason to have their copyright mark on any DOTU merchandise.
A bit of background for those not familiar with the Voltron rights situation: as things stood at the airing of Season 8, the rights to the Voltron brand were split between WEP and DW. DW held the copyrights to VLD and everything previously owned by Classics Media, which included 2011’s Voltron Force. They also owned the adaptational rights to at minimum DOTU, and presumably the rest of franchise as well. WEP owned the remainder of the copyrights to DOTU and V3D, as well as all of the trademark rights to the brand. This is why, if you bought any official merchandise prior to 2019, it had a notice similar to this on it:
While some aspects of the rights agreement haven’t been made public, what is known is that VLD has split ownership between the two companies and DOTU is solely owned by WEP.
In short – DreamWorks had the rights to adapt the prior work, but they do not own sole rights and cannot do anything as they see fit. Ultimately, everything, including decisions made for VLD, must be approved by the trademark holder – WEP, LLC. At least it did.
Now, we come to the sunglasses.
On February 17th, 2020, VStore posted an ad for a new product available on their storefront.
The product is a pair of sunglasses in the style of the Black Lion of Voltron, essentially turning the wearer’s face into Voltron’s face. It’s a silly and entirely typical product for the brand – they have a long history of holding the idea that fans of the show will want to be Voltron. The only reason this particular item caught our eye, was that it wasn’t immediately obvious which version of Voltron the glasses were designed after – DOTU or VLD. If it was VLD it would be interesting to us, as it would be the first entirely new VLD merch since the failure of Season 8 that could not plausibly have been planned prior to the season, given the elapsed time. To settle this question we visited the store’s site itself, where we found this image.
Beyond simply satisfying the question of which Voltron this was, this image presented a new quandary. It is clearly evident now that this is a DOTU product, but this DOTU product has been produced with DreamWorks’ branding on it, and is being presented in packaging that aligns with the product branding produced for the VLD merchandise.
Again, as the rights agreement stood at the end of 2018, DW has no business having its branding marks on DOTU merchandise.
An additional, longstanding curiosity to this mix has been the Season 7 & 8 DVD release. Each DVD release for Legendary Defender was announced two months in advance, both times within a year of the most recent season on the DVD being made available on Netflix. The Voltron Store responded to fan inquiries in March 2019 saying that the DVD for Seasons 7 & 8 was to be released sometime in Fall 2019, with no further information given. It has now been more than a year since Season 8’s spectacular failure, and we are long past a Fall 2019 release window. Nothing has been said further regarding the DVD release for the last two seasons, and the Store has not responded to further attempts to inquire about the status of the DVDs.
The following transcript comes from a clip played by Marc Morrell and Greg Tyler on episode 188 of Let’s Voltron, recorded at Keystone Comic Con. The audio begins at 1:32:52 in the link provided at the end of this article.
Interviewer: So, uh, what is next for Voltron?
Shada: Uh… [exhales into mic] Five more series–I have no idea. I don’t know.
I: There it is. Great.
Shada: I have no idea. Um… I think–I mean… I think, uh, the property’s really huge right now, obviously, and, you know, when they buy something like that they tend to do a lot of stuff with it, so post the, uh, our reboot series, I think they’ll do something with it, I’m sure, but I don’t know what that, like, means. I don’t know if they’re gonna do, like, a–um, they’ve been talking about doing a live-action movie for years, who knows if that’ll happen. Um, they’ll probably–this is just me assuming–they’ll probably make a spinoff at some point or something, I don’t know if it’s, like, all in reboots or the next generation or something like that, you know. Um, so, I think they’re working on something, I don’t know what that is. Um, but yeah, since the property’s really huge and awesome, large property. So they’ll do something more with it, I’m sure, I don’t know what that is or whether I’ll be involved with it or not, but I’d love to! If they’d ask me to come back, I’d come back in a second.
The fairly awkward and rambling answer stands in contrast to the rest of the interview where Mr. Shada is markedly more confident and comfortably spoken. During the production of VLD, Mr. Shada was well-known for accidentally leaking spoilers; his reputation lends the impression that he’s trying very hard to not let slip a secret he knows – attempting to hedge and dance around an answer he knows, while also giving plausible suggestions. Nonetheless, he does let slip that he has some knowledge of something happening in production.
His claims not to know what that something is are a logical paradox. He cannot know something is happening without knowing what: either he was personally involved, in which case he does know but won’t/can’t say, or he was told by someone else who is involved that they are doing work on Voltron. In which case he has a good idea what is happening based on who he got the information from. Therefore, he likely knows what is going down and chose to deny it – probably because he is involved and has an NDA forbidding him from speaking openly. Thank you Shada, Mr. Spoilers.
Next up: the artbook. https://www.amazon.com/Voltron-Ultimate-History-Andrew-Farago/dp/1683830776
In the last days of February, a listing for an artbook titled “Voltron: The Ultimate Visual History” appeared on Amazon; it is described as being about the history of the original 1984 series Voltron: Defender of the Universe and chronicling the creation of Voltron: Legendary Defender. The book purports to contain “a wealth of incredible visuals, including concept art, preliminary sketches, storyboards, and more. Packed with interviews with key creatives as well as insights into the history of the franchise and its ongoing legacy.” The author is Andrew Farago, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and winner of two Harvey Awards for similar history compilation books on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Peanuts.
Leaving aside that this level of quality is far above what could historically be expected from the infamously proud-to-be-cheap WEP, the fact that it contains unreleased concept art and sketches means that at minimum it must be done in cooperation with DW. In fact, with the level of access and quality a book with this pedigree promises, it is likely this book was commissioned by DreamWorks.
If so, this is departure from form for DW, who have steadfastly refused to comment on or acknowledge the disastrous finale of VLD. To a point, they seemed to have anticipated it, as their lackluster promotion of the final season can attest; the official trailer was only released the day before the season premier. For DW to have invested more money into this franchise and willingly drawn attention back to VLD, something big must have changed behind the scenes. I imagine you can guess what we suspect that is.
Now here’s the part where I get to confess my shameful past: prior to these shenanigans in VLD fandom I worked as a professional SEO Specialist. That’s ‘Search Engine Optimization’, and it basically means my job was to design websites and their content to maximize their performances in search engines (like Google). It’s a morally reprehensible business and destroying the internet as we know it.
But that’s irrelevant.
What you should know is that I know SEO when I see it, moreover, I know what each tactic is used for and why.
This article was posted on Screenrant last week. Not only is it the most charitable article about Lotor I have ever seen written on a professional news site, it’s also the most accurate. Had this information been presented as a meta instead of an article I’d be reaching out to connect with this fan! I’ve seen no one outside of our own circle of writers who has expressed this depth of both knowledge and positivity towards Lotor.
But this article isn’t a meta: it’s promotional material.
This article follows best SEO practices to the maximum degree; designed and laid out to be as appealing to the algorithm as possible. The author isn’t a fan: she’s a Freelancer. I won’t share her personal information (it’s public, you can track it down if you feel like verifying) because it’s irrelevant, but she advertises her services of writing SEO optimized articles for several websites and topics.
In other words.
This article wasn’t written because someone really wanted to talk about how cool Lotor is.
Someone paid for this article to be researched, written, and optimized. It wasn’t done by a fan. It was done on commission. The keywords this article is optimized for are “Voltron Legendary Defender” and “Lotor”.
Now why, pray tell, do you commission an article about a villain in a show that has been done for over a year? When said villain had little to no sympathetic coverage while the show was airing, why do you spend money to do it now? When the show’s ‘conclusion’, specifically the part where said villain is killed off, is near universally reviled by the fanbase.
It’s interesting to note, the article doesn’t actually cover all of Lotor’s character arc: it covers the part up to the end of season 6. If you did not know that seasons 7 and 8 had already been released, this article would not spoil you for anything. A fascinating choice when some of the most dramatic moments of Lotor’s backstory are revealed in S8E2 ‘Shadows’. It also declines to draw any conclusions about what Lotor may or may not have done on the Altean Colony – precisely the situation that the original S8 was set to clarify.
Just two days ago an article about VLD was posted on IGN. It too is written in the same positive promotional tone; praising the characters and plot complexity.
On Han Cholo’s website a DOTU pin they’ve offered since 2016 is “Back in Stock” after having been sold off on clearance last holiday season. The description has been updated for the first time in two years: proudly proclaiming to be officially licensed, copyright DreamWorks Animation. WEP’s trademark is nowhere to be found on this piece of merchandise or any others available on the Han Cholo website.
Now let me ask you all a question.
Why would DW shell out money on these things considering the brand blew up in their faces in 2018? With S8 as it is this brand is dead in the water. It burned its bridges and it needs at least a decade before that disaster fades from the fandom consciousness. What they have now, the adaptational rights, are useless. They can’t sell merch. And they sure as heck won’t be making any further adaptations.
The ownership of Voltron has been split ever since DreamWorks acquired Classics Media, and that split can be seen played out in VLD. Let me give you a very brief summary of the sequence of events that culminated in us receiving the edited seasons 7 and 8 that are currently on Netflix.
During production of VLD, relations between DW and WEP rapidly broke down. DW believed in the abilities of its production team and supported their vision, while WEP wanted to sacrifice quality on the altar of cramming as many merchandising opportunities as possible into the show. An additional complication is that WEP’s idea of what makes a show appealing to little boys (their preferred target demographic) is firmly rooted in a surface understanding of what sold well during DOTU’s heyday in the early 80s. They also, for whatever reason, have little to no interest in marketing their characters and favor the robot itself, and they outright refuse to market the characters that are antagonists. They opt for the ‘safe’ choice whenever possible and are loath to attempt anything that might introduce an idea that, in their mind, might limit their possible reach. Such as having gay representation, or a message of female empowerment.
VLD was created not in 8 separate seasons, but in three production seasons: the first covered S1-S2, the second S3-S6, and the third S7-S8. The ‘filler’ episodes – S4 ‘The Voltron Show’ and S7 ‘The Feud’ – chronicle the production team’s conflict with WEP, and specifically the interference of WEP’s President, Bob Koplar. We’ve already done an in depth look at what exactly is happening in The Feud, which you can find here, but to sum it up: after being screened S7 Bob ordered it changed. Since that article was written we’ve discovered that the primary objections to Season 7 were that it began Lotor’s redemption – something Bob disagreed with, as he wanted to bring Lotor back to be the main villain in a sequel – and Shiro’s interactions with the main male cast after it was revealed he is gay – any close, positive interactions might be interpreted to be romantic, after all.
Here is where things get interesting, because while WEP’s hold of the trademark forced DW to bow to their will and edit S7… the method in which VLD was created meant that Season 8 was already in the final stages of completion when the order to change 7 went through. Everything besides the final animation in the second half of the season was finished.
Aside from the simple monetary investment, DW is not a stupid company: they saw where the winds of change were blowing. Their production teams were begging to be allowed to make more progressive choices and their fans were demanding it. Other shows were reaching the market that had these themes and were reaping the rewards. To do as WEP desired would be a disaster – as we eventually saw proved true when WEP’s edited S8 premiered in December 2018.
What happened next is not public knowledge, but we know the before and we know the after: the evidence says that regardless of orders, someone made a desperate gamble to save the show’s integrity. It was a gamble that hinged on there being a firm deadline for delivering the final season to Netflix. They hoped if production finished close enough to that deadline WEP would be forced to allow them to publish it anyway. That’s not what happened, in the end, he doubled down and said “fix it.” But there’s no way it could’ve gotten to that stage without someone higher up either stalling check ins or something.
The original story is progressive and fits in well with their catalogue, the fandom is huge and untapped, and the material is available to be released. Their silence, their stalling, and the fact new merch is coming out means they’re still invested in it.
Why is DreamWorks now the only company listed as owning Voltron?
Why are there suddenly articles designed to hype up VLD?
We have our suspicions.
We chose victory or death, and we may just have won.
Morrell, Marc and Tyler, Greg. “Voltron 35th Anniversary Celebration”. Let’s Voltron. Website. https://www.letsvoltron.com/episodes/6th-anniversary-celebration