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For Warner, Japan’s land of rising sun

Pact may signal market's return to buoyancy

In a groundbreaking agreement, the international TV arm of Warner Bros. has signed a three-year, free TV output deal with Japan’s top program producer and distributor, Tohokushinsha.

Pricetag on the deal is reckoned to be just shy of $300 million, a record for the Hollywood studio in that territory. The deal is also an indication that the Japanese market has returned to buoyancy after a decade in the doldrums.

“The agreement with Tohokushinsha is on a level with our key European deals,” Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger told Daily Variety.

Filling pipeline

Pact provides the free TV rights for Warner Bros.’ 1999, 2000 and 2001 theatrical releases as well as TV series, made-fors and miniseries from the 1999-2000 through the 2001-02 seasons. Selected documentary and library programming are also part of the arrangement.

The deal was unveiled Monday by Schlesinger with Tohokushinsha chairman-CEO Banjiro Uemura and managing director Tetsu Uemura.

Accord mirrors a similar arrangement Warners has with Kinowelt in Germany, whereby WBIT inked with a third-party distributor who then sells the Warner product to local broadcasters.

Tokyo-based Tohokushinsha similarly will sublicense the WBIT product to the half-dozen over-the-air TV stations in Japan — and to new cable and satellite outlets hungry for product. Warners in recent years licensed product directly to Japan’s stations, though its relations with Tohokushinsha go back decades.

Spurring Tohokushinsha to step up to the plate was the fact that another third-party local competitor, Movie TV, has been flexing its muscles, having clinched deals to distribute Fox and Paramount product in Japan, and is prepping to go public.

The deal was negotiated on behalf of WBIT by Schlesinger and VP of business development Matthew Robinson.

Included in the deal are movies such as “The Matrix,” “Wild Wild West,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “You’ve Got Mail”; series “The West Wing,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “Oz”; and upcoming fall season hopefuls “The Fugitive,” “Night Visions,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Freedom,” “Nikki,” “Hype” and “The Michael Richards Show.”

“This is an unprecedented deal for Warner Bros., as it is both the largest free TV deal we have concluded to date in the territory and we are aligning with such a respected, powerful media company as Tohokushinsha,” Schlesinger said.

“We are confident that Tohokushinsha will be successful in selling our product and placing it on the air in Japan.”

Cracking local market

Typically, Hollywood movies do quite well at the Japanese box office and subsequently on TV, but few U.S. TV series thrive on Japanese nets, and almost never in primetime. Fox’s “The X-Files” is one of the very few U.S. series to do well in Japan, on TV Asahi, while Warners’ “ER” airs on pubcaster NHK.

“With the dynamic marketplace in Japan and the introduction of broadcast satellite channels, we are pleased to have strategically aligned with Warner Bros., a true leader in quality programming,” said Tetsu Uemura.

Tohokushinsha is clearly banking on the upcoming launch of these satellite channels by each of the national stations — and their likely need for ready-made product.

WBIT is one of the world’s largest distributors of programming, licensing more than 39,000 hours of TV programs and movies. WBIT has ongoing pay TV deals in Japan with Star Channel and with Wowow. These deals will not be affected by the alliance with Tohokushinsha.

Tohokushinsha is a multifaceted entertainment company with a 40-year history. Film and TV program distribution is one of its primary businesses, but it also produces feature films and TV shows. It was, for example, a co-production partner for the NBC miniseries “Shogun.”

Tohokushinsha is the largest local cable channel operator, operating nine thematic channels through partnerships, including joint ventures with Warner Bros., Universal, MGM, Paramount and Playboy.

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