How the ‘Evangelion’ Live-Action Film Never Came to Be

On the details behind this unmade anime-to-live-action epic.

Evangelion 2.0. Zhao !/Flickr

Movie buffs love to talk about “the greatest movies never made,” many of them being science fiction, fantasy, or horror projects. Anime fans, too, speculate about projects that were never produced—but one of the most notorious of all such possible projects wasn’t an anime per se. Rather, it was a prospective live-action adaptation of one of anime’s most controversial and seminal works: Neon Genesis Evangelion.

2003: The first stirrings of rumor

In 2003, Weta Workshop Ltd. was best known as the New Zealand-based special effects company that helped Peter Jackson realize the three Lord of the Rings films. In the wake of the release of the final Lord of the Rings film, though, rumors began to circulate that Weta was involved in an anime fan’s dream project: a live-action Evangelion. While a few live-action productions had been made from anime properties—e.g., Crying Freeman (1995) comes to mind—nothing had been made that remotely approached the scope or the budget of the Rings films. To have an anime-inspired project of such a level of prestige was a thrilling idea … but at that point, it was an idea, and nothing more.

Rumor became fact when Weta made a joint announcement at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, along with Gainax, creators of Evangelion, and ADV Films, Evangelion’s North American distributor.

The announcement claimed that all three parties were indeed collaborating on such a project. But what was most conspicuous was the lack of hard details: no projected budget, no director, no cast, no screenwriter, and no timeframe for production or release.

Not that any of that deterred anyone’s enthusiasm.

2005: “Profitmón!”

For the next few years, ADV’s John Ledford and Matt Greenfield set about doing the needed pavement-pounding to raise awareness, interest, and most importantly money for Evangelion: The Motion Picture.

Actually, make that Pictures, plural. As Lord of the Rings showed, one Evangelion movie might not be enough, and so in time, the plan was widened to possibly include three feature-length films as well.

But whether it was three movies or one, the biggest missing ingredient was money. And as a CNN.com article entitled “It's... Profitmón!” noted, some $100 to $120 million would need to be raised to get the film made. The 2005 article noted that at the time, “about half” of the money had been scared up, thanks also to the aid of Weta co-founder Richard Taylor.

Money or not, fan interest in the film remained white-hot, as the CNN.com article indicated: “Before [Taylor and a prospective investor] could sit down [to lunch], a fan recognized Taylor and asked him not about anything he's actually done, but about Evangelion. Taylor turned to the producer and said, ‘This is why we have to do this movie.’” Taylor also claimed that at the time, they were getting something like twenty-five emails about Evangelion for everyone they received about Lord of the Rings.

Their belief and it wasn’t a disputable one at the time was that the strength of the fanbase would make the project viable.

2006: Tekkoshocon and the Rumor Mill

Pittsburgh has been host to Tekkoshocon, an annual anime convention, since 2003. In April of 2006, the convention allowed representatives from ADV Films—Greenfield and English-language Evangelion voice actress Tiffany Grant—to hold court with fans about the Evangelion live-action project.

As described at the EvaGeeks wiki, several surprising details emerged during that panel. First was how the project came together: apparently, it was Weta, home to more than a few anime fans, who had first approached ADV and posed the idea of a live-action film. ADV, in turn, approached Gainax, who were excited about the idea and lent their support.

Likewise, ADV had been approached by three unnamed “A-list” directors who were also Evangelion fans as possible helmsmen for the project.

Another remarkable tidbit was how Robin Williams, himself a fan of the show, lent his support to ADV’s “pitch package”—a bundle, including some video, sent to prospective investors to drum up interest.

But a number of other rumors were also swiftly debunked. No, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson had not been approached to play characters, not least of all because they were way too old. No, they didn’t even have a cast in mind, because they needed a director first. And finally, no, the project had not yet even been formally greenlit.

2006: A Glimpse at a Possible Future

Not long after the 2006 panel, Weta Workshop updated its website with some of the first hard visual evidence of the live-action Evangelion being more than just a twinkle in Greenfield, Ledford, and Taylor’s eyes: concept art for the project.

As archived at io9.com, the dozen or so images shown reproduced with great fidelity many key images and visual concepts from the show. The half-devastated future setting; the alien “Angels”; the “plugsuits” worn by many characters—it was all there. If nothing else, Weta seemed determined to preserve everything about Evangelion that made it what it was, at least as far as the visuals went.

Tantalizing as it all was, fans were irked by another wrinkle: how that the names of characters in the concept sketches had been Anglicized—e.g., Asuka Langley Soryu became “Kate Rose.” This was eventually fixed, but many fans were sore over the idea of the majority of the cast being whitewashed or “race bent” away from being Asian.

Was this a sign the producers of the film were getting cold feet about the prospect of selling the project to Western audiences who didn’t know what Evangelion was? Perhaps not—the ADV/Weta nexus was pretty insistent on keeping the casting faithful—but it hinted at how tough the audience might be to please, and how thorny the issues involved.

They turned out to be far thornier than most anyone imagined.

2008: Tremors of Anticipation—and Trouble

In 2008, Greenfield and Ledford once again held court at an anime con to bring people up to date on the state of the project. This time the venue was Anime Expo, a massive West Coast con—but as described in an Anime News Network post, this time the mood was tense, not anticipatory.

By 2008, ADV had started to experience the first of several setbacks to their business. One of their Japanese business partners, Sojitz, with whom they had a licensing deal, was rescinding its support and terminating several of their anime licenses with ADV. Worse, ADV’s biggest competitor, FUNimation, had just licensed and released some thirty titles previously issued by ADV.

In time, though, questions about the Evangelion movie came to the fore. ADV revealed Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer, fresh from their successes with the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean films, had been wooed as possible partners. But again, still, no actual start date or other hard details were in the offing.

In February 2009, at Ohayocon, ADV remained optimistic. According to a post at MovieChronicles.com, Greenfield stated that “several U.S. studios [were] competing for final rights to the project.” Word also surfaced of another co-producer, Joseph Cho, who’d worked on the Appleseed: Ex Machina series.

But by September 2009, the “when” for the live-action Evangelion project suddenly seemed a lot more like an “if.” ADV was going out of business.

2009: Death and Rebirth

The full details of ADV’s demise and restructuring might well fill a book. But the core details can be summed up this way: the one-two punch of a weakening anime market and the withdrawal or shutdown of two major ADV partners—first Sojitz, and then Geneon (which later went through a restructuring of its own)—forced ADV to sell off its assets.

Many of ADV’s holdings and intellectual properties were transferred to five other companies, the most prominent of which were Section23 Films and Sentai Filmworks. In essence, this was ADV restructuring itself and attempting to continue as much of its former business as possible under new names and corporate entities.

The drastic scope of the whole arrangement made it easy to believe the Evangelion film was at the very least on hold, if not entirely dead. But two years later, after ADV had morphed into Sentai/Section 23 and started licensing new titles, yet another surprise emerged that put any talk of a movie project on hold, possibly for keeps.

2011: Lawyers, Gainax, and money

In 2011, ADV brought a lawsuit against the last people anyone would ever imagine ADV wanting to sue: Gainax itself, the creators of Evangelion, and ADV’s own vital partner in the project.

The details of the suit, as claimed by ADV and reported at Crunchyroll, shed a great deal of light on the intellectual property arrangements between the two companies. Back in 2003, ADV and Gainax co-signed an agreement that allowed the development of multiple Evangelion properties: “at least three (3) live-action theatrical motion pictures, five (5) television programs and three (3) direct-to-video movies products (each, a “Project”).” The option (ADV claimed) was good through February of 2010.

Here’s where things get complicated. ADV alleged that Gainax allowed them to buy outright the motion picture rights for Evangelion, for keeps. Or, as an Anime News Network analysis quoted it, “ADV's ownership of copyrights in relation to Evangelion (e.g. the Motion Picture Rights); namely, throughout the universe in perpetuity.”

The cost of those rights: either $1 million or 2% of the film’s projected budget, whichever was smaller, with 10% due when financing came through.

To that end, ADV paid Gainax $100,000—ADV’s claimed 10% since no budget had apparently been set for the project—along with a series of extension fees. ADV then claimed some hesitation on Gainax’s side caused ADV to lose out on “a major studio opportunity … ADV gave notice of that loss to Gainax.”

Perhaps hesitation wasn’t the most fitting word. In ADV’s eyes, Gainax was backing out of the deal entirely. By July of 2011, Gainax had retreated heavily from its original position of partnership. It had sent back ADV’s $100,000, along with correspondence claiming “implied conditions [were] required to purchase the motion picture rights.” ADV’s response was to sue and demand that their previously-claimed rights to make the film be granted.

As of September 2013, the case appears to still be pending, with neither side having budged an inch.

So what now?

None of this legal foofaraw has stopped the creators of the original Evangelion from creating a retelling of the original story, Rebuild of Evangelion, with many of the same creative minds involved. And it’s been FUNimation, not ADV or Sentai, who have been distributing the series in English.

But lawsuits and new intellectual properties aside, there may be a number of other reasons why a live-action Evangelion film may never see the light of day.

1. The cost vs. the size of the prospective audience

A project of the scope and ambition of Evangelion wouldn’t be cheap. The original projected $100 million budget would be easily twice that today, thanks to the way filmmaking costs have ballooned since the early 2000s. The problem is how to earn that money back: are there $100 to 200 million worth of Evangelion fans, even worldwide?

Such a movie would need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But that would, in turn, mean running the risk of the project becoming something other than Evangelion.

2. The difficulties with the source material

As influential and popular as Evangelion is, it’s also controversial and divisive, even amongst anime fans. The bleakness of the material—especially the astonishingly downbeat ending—makes it an even tougher sell to mainstream audiences.

Rebuild of Evangelion was created in part as a way to address some of those issues, but even it only goes so far. And if anime fans themselves aren’t uniform in their support of the show, it’s even less likely that others will be.

Such a film might get made, but it might never make a profit. Taylor himself admitted that getting the film made was more important to him than having it be profitable, but whether or not another, more pragmatic producer might think the same way is unknown.

3. The general track record of anime-related live-action projects

Few people would dispute the phenomenal financial success of the recent spate of comic-book movies: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogyMan of SteelThe Avengers. But live-action anime projects have been less lucky. Speed RacerDragonball Z: Evolution, and Blood: The Last Vampire barely made a dent at the U.S. box office; Crying Freeman, Rurouni Kenshin, Shinobi (a/k/a Basilisk), Mushi-shi, and many others either received only extremely limited release or went straight to video. Those that were Japanese productions, though, typically made back their earnings in their native country..

Anime might well have a solid following, but that following hasn’t translated into the kinds of audience numbers needed to justify big-budget productions. Pacific Rim, which was at least partly inspired by mecha shows like Evangelion (if not Evangelion itself), cost some $190 million to make but only grossed slightly over $100 million domestically. Its worldwide gross of about $400 million helped make it break even, though—but numbers like that inspire caution rather than ambition.

If live-action anime has a future in the West, it’s most likely in two forms: modestly budgeted projects, like Rim director Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the anime , or most robustly-budgeted projects created and released primarily in Asia where the core audience for the material lies. Whether something as massive, and problematic, as Evangelion could ever get off the ground in the West is now anyone’s guess.

An IMDB page does exist for a Neon Genesis Evangelion live-action project..