TV’s TBS in touch with pix

Manga character earns big bucks

TOKYO — When Azumi starts to cut into her enemies with her samurai sword, the body count of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action pic feels outright harmless. Even more surprising: The heroine of Japan’s latest major release bearing her name is a young orphaned woman who has been raised as a killing machine during Japan’s long period of inner strife, the background of countless samurai epics.

“Young Japanese can identify with Azumi. She has been trained to do something wholeheartedly without thinking twice,” explains Daisuke O-oka, producer at Tokyo Broadcasting System’s film department. That’s why the manga comicbooks of the same name sold so well, which enticed TBS to join in the production of the film version.

Like the relentless Azumi, TBS’ film division is pushing ahead, making the broadcaster (Japan’s third-largest) one of the major players in Japan’s film production world.

“Azumi” is already the second big hit for TBS this year. Between January and early March the emotional family drama “Yomigaeri,” originally planned as a small film with medium release, surprised with a boffo performance of close to $25 million. The recent opening weekend of “Azumi” satisfied with $1.3 million on 253 screens.

In late August, TBS brings another manga adaptation to the bigscreen. “Dragonhead” commands a pool of more than 10 million fans from the printed version. The $13 million budget is big by Japanese standards. The sci-fi saga, featuring impressive computer-generated combat scenes, is set in a hopelessly grimy industrial wasteland. It was shot entirely on a set in Uzbekistan over 90 days, utilizing empty Soviet-era factories and low-cost local staff.

Equally important for TBS will be the sequel to “Yin-Yang Master,” slated for an October release, and the film version of TBS’ own popular TV drama, “Cat’s Eye,” skedded to hit cinemas sometime during fall. “Yin-Yang Master 2” continues the 11th century saga of a psychic in the palace of a noble family, originally written as a comicstrip.

Like other broadcasters such as Fuji Television and Nippon Television, TBS usually co-produces its feature projects. The risk is split between major distributors (most recently, Toho and Shochiku), one of the big advertising agencies and the publisher of the original work. This system also allows for tax advantages when recouping investments.

“We (TBS) usually come in with up to 30% of a project’s costs,” O-oka says. “Each project is evaluated separately, and we decide on a case-by-case basis.” Judging by the slate of projects in development at TBS, quite a number of ideas and scripts make it into the final selection.

TBS also has been a major joint distributor of imported films for the past 11 years, partnering with distribs such as Gaga Communications and Amuse Pictures in sharing the often considerable burden of minimum guarantees on tentpole pics. “It really depends on the film and the other partners whether we get involved during production or only after completion,” O-oka explains. “Hannibal” (close to $40 million at the local BO in 2001) and “Resident Evil” ($20 million last year) were highlights.

As TBS has no weekly program slot for feature films while competitors Fuji TV, Nippon TV and TV Asahi do, its production and distribution partners for locally produced or internationally acquired films are free to sell local TV rights to any bidder.

The flip side: “If TBS produced a film as a major partner, it’s hard to sell the TV rights to one of our competitors,” says O-oka. The way out: finally create a timeslot for films, “at least once a month,” O-oka says. TBS will need it, given its impressive slate of upcoming projects.