Japan’s webs spin gold from spinoffs

Pic-inspired skeins catch on and cash in

The Japanese biz has long been a firm believer in media synergy. Most local commercial pics begin life as a bestselling manga or book, with the publishers putting up part of the coin and reaping the rewards if the pic is a hit.

Japanese TV dramas are other sources of material, but the B.O. track record of the resulting pics has been spotty, since Japanese auds, save for committed fans, often balk at paying for what they can get free.

One pic that spectacularly overcame this reluctance was “Bayside Shakedown,” a comic cop thriller, based on a latenight cult hit on Fuji TV, that became the B.O. smash of 1998, grossing $87 million. The pic generated a 2003 sequel that earned $150 million and two spinoffs, both released in 2005, that raked in a total of $69 million.

On Oct. 28, Fuji will broadcast a third spinoff — a made-for-TV pic titled “Hideki Haijima, Esquire,” the latest of its occasional “Bayside” specials. In other words, the series has gone from the tube to the theater and back to the tube, in an apparently endless and profitable loop.

In the current decade, however, Fuji and other webs have succeeded in reversing that loop — spinning hit pics into drama series, which, by Japanese TV convention, run for only one season, or 10 or 11 episodes (though popular series may be reincarnated in later seasons). Pic-to-TV adaptations are hardly unprecedented — Hollywood examples include “MASH,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Highlander” — but Japanese webs have turned what was once an occasional play into a cross-media conveyor belt.

A prime mover of this trend was “Waterboys,” a 2001 Shinobu Yaguchi hit comedy about a boys’ synchronized swim team. The pic inspired a 2003 TV series that scored an average 16.1 rating — excellent for the Japanese market — followed by another series and a standalone drama, “Waterboys Final.” Like the pic, the series focused on buff teenage guys in Speedos making with the water ballet, not a sight often seen on Japanese TV — or anywhere else — though the franchise was based on the true story of a real team.

In the past three years, pics that have morphed into TV series include:

l “Crying Out Love in the Center of the World” (TBS, 2004): Based on the 2004 megahit about tragic teenage love that grossed $73 million and made millions weep buckets.

l “Give It All” (KTV, 2005): The trials and triumphs of an all-girls rowing team in a provincial town, based on a pic by the same creative team that made the international hit “Shall We Dance?” In other words, a sex-reversed “Waterboys.”

l “One Missed Call” (TV Asahi, 2005): Based on a 2004 hit horror pic whose gimmick was cell phone messages that forecast the owner’s death.

l “Be With You” (TBS, 2005): Based on a hit weeper about a woman who returns from the dead to be with her husband and young son.

l “Train Man” (Fuji TV, 2005): Based on the true story of a nerd who meets his lady love on a commuter train and woos her with the help of his online buddies. Pic and series were major hits.

l “A Song to the Sun” (TBS, 2006): Based on the Hong Kong pic “Endless Love,” the series’ success inspired a locally made pic that was released in 2006.

l “Memories of Matsuko” (TBS, 2006): Based on Tetsuya Nakashima’s hit musical pic.

l “My Boss, My Hero” (NTV, 2006): Based on a 2001 Korean pic, the series centers on a gangster/dropout forced by his boss/father to return to high school for his diploma but forbidden to reveal his true identity to his schoolmates.

The biggest recent money-spinner, however, has been the “Umizaru” franchise, which began with a 2004 Fuji TV pic about Japan Coast Guard divers-in-training that was a modest ($15 million) hit. In 2005, the pic morphed into a series that scored modest ratings (13.1 average) but attracted a loyal audience. Then the sequel, “Umizaru 2: Test of Trust,” a thriller featuring the dramatic rescue of passengers aboard a sinking ferry, took off like a Jet-Ski at full throttle, becoming the biggest local hit so far this year, with $61 million at the B.O.

One reading of this trend is that, after a long decline, the Japanese biz has regained its creative and B.O. clout. Another is that pics, which once sat squarely atop the entertainment pyramid, have become glorified pilots for TV shows. For the webs that produce both the pics and the shows, however, arguments about status are beside the point. What counts are the numbers — and the ones for series made from pics are mostly good to excellent. So the media circle keeps going round, very virtuous indeed.

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