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Japan Eyes the Global Market

Sasuke/Ninja Warrior - H 2012
TBS' obstacle course reality show 'Sasuke/Ninja Warrior' has been a big export, selling to over 150 countries and territories

With its population shrinking and its domestic entertainment sector contracting, Japanese content creators are looking to expand internationally — but will it work?

The demographic numbers for Japan look dire whichever way you stack them. With minimal immigration and a low birthrate, the number of Japanese is predicted to fall by a third over the next half century, from the current 128 million to 87 million. This will impact every aspect of Japanese society and industry, not least the entertainment business.

As the once-wealthy domestic market contracts, Japanese companies will have no choice but to increase revenues from abroad, or try and fight for a bigger share of a shrinking pie at home. Last year Japan Inc, even while dealing with the fallout from March’s triple disasters last year, went on an unprecedented takeover spree, spending $69.5 billion acquiring 642 foreign firms. While there has been no headline-grabbing entertainment biz deal like Sony’s $3.4 billion takeover of Columbia at the height of the Bubble Economy in 1989 — the last time Japanese companies were buying this aggressively — the writing is on the wall. There is little or no prospect for growth at home and profits are going to have to come from overseas.

The Japanese government has even gotten into the act of pushing the domestic creative industry abroad, through the establishment of the All Nippon Entertainment Works (ANEW), a subsidiary of the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan , a public-private fund. Backed with 6 billion yen ($71.5 million) and the cooperation of major film, TV and media companies, ANEW appointed Hollywood veteran Sanford R. Climan as CEO in February, tasked with turning Japanese properties into hits in the English-speaking world. “I was skeptical about the whole ANEW thing until Climan visited us and we realized the kind of background he had and that they were serious about this,” said a source at one of the Japanese companies involved in the venture, who asked not to be identified.

With a $2 billion theatrical market at home, many of Japan’s filmmakers have been content to keep their eyes firmly focused on domestic audiences. However, with the youth market having already been contracting for years, and the overall population about to start falling, multi-billion yen domestic grossers are likely to be much rarer in the decades to come.

“In recent years, we’ve been working at getting overseas fans for the films of directors with strong stories to tell, such as Hirokazu Kore’eda (I Wish) and Sion Sono (Himizu),” said Gaga’s Satomi Odake, head of the acquisition and planning division at the independent. “The market for documentaries and arthouse is not healthy in Japan , so we’ve been pushing harder abroad and had success with both of those titles in territories such as Korea .”

T Joy, a subsidiary of Toei, focuses on less mainstream fare than its parent major, and has been aiming at overseas markets since it was founded 12 years ago, according to Muneyuki Kii, director of its entertainment business department. The company began life looking for content for its small chain of digital theaters at a time when it was unclear whether the new format was going to establish itself in Japan.

 “With our early productions, we decided to go down the route of bartering them in exchange for films from Asian partners such as Korea’s CJ Entertainment [which later set up its Japanese subsidiary as a joint venture with T Joy] and Hong Kong’s Orange Sky Golden Harvest,” recalled Kii. “From the outset we had our sights set on the pan-Asian market.”

Japan needs to look at new models for leveraging its rich creative content, says Kii.

“For example, we’ve been approached about merchandising rights in China for anime series that have never even been broadcast there. I thought, hold on, you’re not even supposed to know about that series,” he added with a laugh.

“We should think about giving away the TV rights by broadcasting them globally free on the Internet with an ‘Official Pirate Version’ and then sell the merchandising,” said Kii.

The Internet remains a stumbling block for many Japanese film and TV companies selling live-action productions abroad due to the phobic attitude toward it of one of the most powerful domestic talent agencies. Johnny’s Jimusho [Johnny & Associates, Inc], which boasts a legion of boy-band membersturned-actors on its roster, does its best to keep even still images of its stars off the Web. This leaves companies selling TV programs and films featuring the agency’s talent often unable to sell the increasingly important online rights along with the theatrical and television packages.

Sales of game show formats and drama series have been Japan ’s major TV sector earners over the years, though the major stations are expanding the scope of their overseas activities. TBS’ (Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Inc) Sasuke/Ninja Warrior has been one of its most successful exports, with versions of the all-action obstacle course show broadcast in over 150 countries and territories, including two in primetime slots in the U.S. on NBC and G4 this year. The program has now been enlisted by the Malaysian government, through support of a local version of the show, as part of its battle against obesity among its population.

“We’ve been involved in selling shows all around the world, but this is the first time we’ve had official government backing for a program,” explained Makito Sugiyama from TBS’ content sales division.

“With the prospect of the domestic market contracting, we have to think about what kind of content will have appeal abroad, whether it’s selling programs as they are, remakes or formats,” said Naoko Yoshida, director of program sales at TBS.

Fuji TV has been expanding its overseas presence in recent years through collaborations in Asia and further afield. “It’s not just selling programs anymore, but also sending staff over to our partners in China to provide advice on technical and production know-how,” said Mina Mita, deputy director of worldwide production and sales.

“Dramas have always been the mainstay of our program sales, but now we’re pushing our documentaries too, like The Nonfiction series, which has been running for 17 years at home. This follows the lives of ordinary people and the eyes of the world have been on Japan since the disaster last year,” said Mita.

“The world looks at Japan as a big entertainment market,” said T Joy’s Kii. “It’s time Japan started looking out at the world the same way.”

(A version of this article published in the Hong Kong Filmart Daily on March 20 contained inaccurate information about the number of territories where TBS’ Sasuke/Ninja Warrior is broadcast.)