Warner Japan builds local niche

Studio arm finds success in production

TOKYO — Japan can be a lucrative market for local producers, with 29 domestic pics earning ¥1 billion ($12.5 million) or more in 2010.

But of the Hollywood majors in Japan, Warner is by far the most committed to — and successful at — producing and distribbing local pics.

In June, Warner Japan released its 10th local production to pass the ¥1 billion mark, “Paradise Kiss.” Based on a hit comic by Ai Yazawa about an exam-stressed high school girl who finds a new life and romance with a crowd of teen fashionistas, the pic is forecast to finish with $18.5 million.

Since its first local releases — the two “Death Note” fantasy comic adaptations that collectively earned $100 million in 2006 — Warner has evolved from straight-distribution or minority-shareholder deals to active participation in development. “Our policy is to take the lead partnership role in all of the movies we produce,” says Warner Japan topper William Ireton.

At the same time, Ireton notes, the company is not giving precedence to its local offerings over its Hollywood pics: “We see the two as complementary product offerings that give us a balanced, competitive slate,” he says.

Also, under the bilingual and bicultural Ireton, who was raised in Japan, Warner has mixed Hollywood methods,such as director first-look deals and test screenings, with local practices, such as the “production committee” system of assembling a team of media companies to produce and promote a pic, while divvying up the rights. (Warner, however, did not recruit a TV network for the “Paradise Kiss” production committee, which Ireton describes as a rarity these days for a hit domestic title.)

In June Warner announced the production of “Rurouni Kenshin” a period actioner based on a best-selling comic. Takeru Sato stars as a samurai assassin who vows to give up his bloody career and devote himself to protecting the weak. The pic is skedded for a 2012 release, with Warner distribbing.

The pic is indicative of Warner shifting its production strategy following the triple disasters in March — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdowns — that devastated northeastern Japan and changed audience psychology.

“Films in development have been rewritten to eliminate content that evokes the tragedy, while local writers and directors seem for now to have shifted focus to more uplifting human dramas,” Ireton says.

However, the Warner Japan head says he does not see the competitive landscape changing significantly. “Local product will continue to battle foreign films for market share, with 50% to 60% of annual B.O. being derived from domestic films,” he says.

It’s a market share that Warner, with 10 local pics that have passed the ¥1 billion-yen mark — 10 more than all its Hollywood competitors — is counting on.

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