Berlin: Wowow Exec on Why Japan's Leading Pay TV Company Is Championing Moviegoing

Wowow executive Kayo Washio
Courtesy of Wowow

Wowow executive Kayo Washio

Veteran exec Kayo Washio explains the strategy behind the company's surprise moves into theatrical distribution and co-producing high-end scripted television, including Michael Mann's forthcoming HBO Max series 'Tokyo Vice.'

Kayo Washio has worn a lot of hats at Japanese pay TV broadcaster Wowow.

Early in her career she was an interviewer for the company's flagship movie channel, hosting sit-downs with A-list Hollywood stars and directors as they introduced their projects to Japan — from Steven Spielberg to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and hundreds of others.

In 2011, she was dispatched to Los Angeles to head up Wowow's first U.S. office, tasked with maintaining and expanding the broadcaster's various output deals with the major Hollywood studios. As her relationships in the business grew, in addition to buying Japanese TV rights to countless films and TV series, she managed to get Wowow involved as a co-producer on a number of high-profile documentary projects, such as Martin Scorsese's The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument and Robert Redford and Wim Wenders’ six-part TV series Cathedrals of Culture.

In 2019, she expanded her remit to include negotiating with the Japanese government on a tentative effort to launch the country's first film incentive for foreign productions.

In her most recent incarnation, Washio is both a theatrical film buyer and an executive producer of high-end scripted television. Shortly ahead of Berlin's European Film Market in 2020 — which would prove to be the last major in-person market before the pandemic — Wowow made the surprise move of launching an all-new theatrical distribution arm, which Washio would oversea as an acquisitions executive. As COVID-19 engulfed the theatrical business, Wowow mostly put its film buying on pause, but the company still acquired one title in December, the pandemic thriller Songbird, produced by Michael Bay. Washio also signed a high-profile deal last year for Wowow to co-produce Michael Mann's much anticipated HBO Max crime series Tokyo Vice, co-starring Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi. Wowow took all Japan rights on the series and Washio, who belongs to the PGA, became an executive producer.

THR connected with Washio during one of her rare breaks from Tokyo Vice's location shooting in the Japanese capital to discuss her foray into theatrical film acquisitions amid the peculiar conditions of the pandemic — and how her new dual activities are integral to Wowow's future.

What was the strategy behind Wowow's decision to get into theatrical distribution?

The intention is to diversify our business. More than 90 percent of Wowow's revenue comes from [pay TV] subscriptions. In 2019, Masahiko Mizuguchi, one of our senior executives, came to Wowow from Pony Canyon. He has a big passion for the theatrical business, which was his specialty for the past 10 years at Pony Canyon. Wowow wanted to diversify, so he decided to start a theatrical operation. I've been acquiring broadcasting rights for many years, so he asked me to go to Berlin last year as our first market as a theatrical buyer. We intended to buy quite a few films last year, but then the pandemic happened, so we decided to wait and see how the market would be affected. But we are committed to the business.

What kind of films are you targeting?

We are open to all genres except for maybe animation. Japanese viewers usually prefer Japanese anime, so we don't really need to acquire that category from overseas. We're looking for titles that are commercial, but not big studio movies. We also love art movies but those that have fairly wide appeal — like films that might have a chance at getting Oscar nominations. Wowow is the official broadcaster of the Oscars, so those types of films fit our brand well.

How many films did you plan to be buying prior to the pandemic and what are your plans now? 

We don't have a set number of films that we have to acquire. It could be five films a year, or just one. It's not like we have a pipeline that we need to fill, which is to our benefit — especially during this unpredictable time.

When you're assessing a potential acquisition, to what extent do Japan's unique demographics come into play? For example, is it important to make sure that a film can appeal to an older age group, because of Japan's rapidly aging population? I've heard analysts suggest that middle-aged and elderly people tend to be the ones who have the money and free time go to cinema in Japan these days, making the so-called "gray dollar" especially important. 

Yeah, I would say that group is an important target of Wowow's audience, but it's not the only group we're aiming to appeal to. It really depends on the film. If it's a quality film that can appeal to older people, that's great; but if it's a film that we think will allow us to create a great marketing campaign to reach a younger generation, we'll buy that too.

The average age of the Wowow TV subscriber is somewhere in their 50s. So we definitely do have an older demographic to serve, but it's also import to recruit younger people as filmgoers and film lovers. We operate a huge movie channel, so moviegoing is essential to our future. That's another reason for us to be in the theatrical business. We completely agree with Christopher Nolan and the other great filmmakers who insist that the theatrical experience — seeing a film together with strangers in the dark — is at the heart of cinema as an art form. If the theatrical experience disappears in Japan, that means the movie lovers who are our subscribers will eventually shrink too. So our TV business and the theatrical film experience are closely connected. If we can bring more great films to cinemas in Japan, that's a complete win-win for Wowow.

What appealed to you about your first acquisition, Songbird, and what are your release plans for the film?

We saw some of the footage first, and then later the script. The footage had the power to pull us into the story. One of the DPs Michael Bay hired shot the unusual version of L.A. that existed right after the pandemic hit — Santa Monica Pier and Downtown L.A. completely empty of people. I live in L.A., and that footage was powerful enough to get me interested in the film in a big way.

The North American distributor, STX, was supposed to give it a theatrical release right before Thanksgiving last year, but then they decided to do a streaming release. We weren't expecting that, so we had to reconsider how to open the film. We are still aiming to give it a theatrical release, but we have had to wait to reevaluate our plans. We thought this film would be better to do after the Olympics, but no one knows what's really going to happen with the Olympics. All of the studio films also have been postponed, which has made theatrical bookings even harder than usual — and theatrical booking in Japan is usually already much harder than in almost any other territory.

Why is that, exactly?

Because everything in Japan is booked very far ahead. You also need deep, long-standing connections with theater owners to reserve screens. Japan is a market where it's very hard to open the first door if you're a newcomer. This is something I have to explain to our American partners over and over, because theater bookings here are done so far in advance. The pandemic has made these issues harder, because many of the big studio films are still floating to some extent, and the theater owners want to make sure they keep screens open for the biggest-earning films. So we're actually thinking about doing a deal with a distribution partner — one of the major Japanese studios — which would make these issues easier for us to negotiate. We're taking meetings on that.

Just how well would you say Japan's exhibition industry has recovered from the pandemic so far? Does Demon Slayer's historic success signal a full recovery?

Well, it's much better here than in other territories — our cinemas are open. But still, the revenue in 2020 was like 50 percent of 2019 — and for foreign films, it was only about 30 percent. Because Demon Slayer earned so much money ($370 million) a lot of cinemas were helped and the overall image of the industry improved. But that film was a very special case. Without Demon Slayer's revenue, the whole industry would be in a very delicate situation.

So I cannot really say if the Japanese theatrical market is already coming back. Under the current state of emergency, movie theaters have to close at 8 p.m., which means the last film should exhibit at 6 p.m. if it's about two hours long. On a weekday, that means no one can go to the movies after office hours. Right now cinemas are only accepting same-day reservations too. Normally, you can go online and book your seats several days in advance. Japanese people really are not spontaneous — we always make plans with our friends far in advance. So, not being able to make advanced bookings also is hurting the box office a lot right now.

I understand you were the one who brought Michael Mann's Tokyo Vice to Wowow?

Yeah, it's kind of a passion project for me. I heard about the project more than two years ago from Endeavor. We took all of the Japan rights and then I joined the production as an executive producer. Filming started in Tokyo last March, but then had to shut down because of the pandemic. We restarted at the end of November and we're still filming. I'm going to a shooting location right after this call.

This is the first time that Wowow has gotten involved in such a high-profile scripted international TV project, right? As scripted TV production continues to boom — and the global streaming platforms up their investments in Japan as a coveted growth market — do you see opportunity for Wowow to grow in this space? And in what capacity?

Yes, this is our first co-production with a scripted project of this size. I've done some co-productions with Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Wim Wenders and others, but those were all documentaries. Scripted is definitely an area where we can grow, and there are several reasons I always say that we are a good partner for foreign studios and streaming companies. First, filming in Japan is very difficult, so we can help your production go smoothly as a production partner. Japanese audiences also won't want to watch your show if the story is related to Japan but you get aspects of Japanese culture wrong. This is really weird for the Japanese audience, and these mistakes happen all of the time and it's a big shame.

Like Netflix's yakuza movie, The Outsider, with Jared Leto? That was awful...

Yeah, I know... [Laughs] So if we join the project, we can help you fix that and make the show more appealing here in Japan. Lastly, Wowow is already the home of many American TV series — like maybe six or seven are already airing weekly. So our brand is already trusted by the audience as a place for quality international series, and we market this kind of content very well. So if a streamer is just streaming its shows without having any kind of well-planned Japanese publicity, the audience isn't even going to realize what kind of content they have available here in Japan. If we are involved as a co-production partner, we can make your content much more meaningful for the Japanese audience in all of these ways.

So after a strange first year as a theatrical film buyer, how are you feeling going into your second European Film Market?

Well, it's going to be five days of Zoom, Zoom, Zoom and watching movies on my laptop. And as I said, I strongly prefer to see movies on the big screen, and I really value building relationships over meetings in person. But there are some benefits to this online style too. We don't need to wait in long lines wondering if we're going to get into screenings, and we can line up our meetings very efficiently without running around. So there are pros and cons. I could see picking and choosing which markets to attend in person in the future, if these online options continue once physical markets are back. I will probably be traveling to the markets with warmer weather though.