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Film industry eyes manga properties

Tokypop in position to link Hollywood, Japan

Comicbooks and graphic novels have been hot stuff at the box office the past few years. But as studios work their way through the superhero pantheon, the need for new properties to adapt has put manga — the Japanese-style cousin of American comics — on deck to be the next big thing.

That’s good news for Tokyopop, the 10-year-old manga publisher that has developed an extensive slate of original properties as well as a diverse and global fan base.

“My dream had always been to bridge Japan and Asia to Hollywood and the West — and Tokyopop being a platform for that bridge,” says Stu Levy, the company’s founder, CEO and creative chief. “Now that we have this platform, we are able to move into development … work with creators in Asia as well as locally and try to experiment with this sort of storytelling from the ground up.”

This year the company founded Tokyopop Pictures and Tokyopop Digital to focus specifically on developing projects in those respective areas.

Tokyopop’s prolific output of original properties in genres ranging from fantasy and teen comedy to tentpole-style blockbuster sci-fi could be good news for studios and producers eager to replicate the success of recent comicbook adaptations but who are faced with a finite number of superhero franchises.

“It’s addictive,” says independent producer Alexandra Milchan. “It’s almost like a candy store. You start reading one, and before you know it you’ve read a hundred and you like them all. The key is which one is most adaptable to the type of movie you want to do.”

Manga film adaptations, however, remain an undiscovered country — even more mysterious to many Hollywood execs and producers than American comics and graphic novels. That makes manga something Tokyopop has to demystify for many industryites.

“Hollywood is still grasping with what is it about graphic novels or sequential art that truly would make a successful film,” Levy says. “Is it the fact that everybody’s heard of Spider-Man, or is there something inherent about the medium of sequential art and the graphic novel that allows for a film to be adapted in a more efficient or effective manner?”

Making industry connections was one reason Tokyopop signed on with the William Morris Agency this past summer. Scott Agostoni, who reps the agency’s comicbook and graphic novel clients, says there’s a lot of interest in the company’s properties. “I’ve been moderately surprised at the appeal,” he says. “I thought it would be a more hardcore selling process.”

“We have to educate them on what we do and our mentality, because our approach isn’t necessarily traditional,” Levy says. “We’re not just selling rights. We’re really trying to show that we can make film in the way that we make a manga or make a book, and we can do a top-quality job of that, as opposed to just handing it off to the ‘pros’ and letting them do with our stories what they think is appropriate. And that’s a bit of a battle.”

As it did with publishing manga, Tokyopop is taking its own approach to moviemaking. Part of that creative process is figuring out how to translate the unique feel and style of manga to film — a topic Levy says is discussed and debated constantly. “Are there things that we should always do in a film?” he asks. “Almost every single one of our stories, if you look at them, has a fantastical element to it. So for us, I believe, we will always have a twist visually.”

The company has so far been cautious about moving too quickly, Milchan says. Paramount among the challenges is the question of adapting manga series that run thousands of pages across dozens of volumes into workable, three-act screenplays. “It’s definitely not always the most obvious or easiest translation to the bigscreen or television,” Milchan says. “It definitely requires a lot of development.”

Levy says he wants to make that process easier by merging graphic novel with film development and production. “I want to be the first guy to do that,” he says. The use of technology to make manga and films with global appeal at the same time may be counterintuitive to Hollywood execs now, but Levy thinks that will change as the film business becomes more international.

The company has already jumped into the animation and digital arena, producing animated series for broadband and mobile networks.

While Tokyopop remains very much involved in the filmmaking process, Levy says no doors are shut. The company plans to pursue multiple production models, from producing its own pics independently to partnering with studios.

Independent projects include the animated feature “I Luv Halloween,” now appearing in short episodes on the company’s MySpace page, and a live-action take on “Van Von Hunter.” The company also is working on an anime version of “Princess Ai,” for which a three-minute promo piece will be shown at the New York Anime Festival in December. It also has a trio of projects in various stages of development at studios.

“We can try different things and see what ultimately works best for Tokyopop,” he says.

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