How to Transform Manga Into Movie Mega-Bucks


Three Hollywood producers who've made hit films derived from Japanese content shared a roadmap to crossover success in the lucrative U.S. entertainment market at the American Film Market on Wednesday.

Don Murphy, producer of the smash hit Transformers films, Roy Lee, whose Vertigo Entertainment produced the horror remakes The Ring and The Grudge, and Jason Hoffs of Viz Prods., a unit of Japanese animation publisher Viz Media, laid out insights into discovering how Japanese content can serve as inspiration.

Introduced by Tokuyuki Sudo, the executive vp of the Japan External Trade Organization, and grilled by Joyce Jun, an L.A. attorney who brokers deals between Hollywood and Japan, the three panelists spoke about new Japanese creations including those from sources other than movies, television and anime -- such as toys, games and the serial comics known as manga.

"Because of a manga's weekly installments and their episodic form, there's usually a powerful bond between the readers and the characters," a recipe for possible success, Hoffs said.

Murphy, who reminisced fondly about growing up on Long Island in the 1970s watching the Japanese cartoons Speed Racer and Gigantor on television, agreed that big in Japan could translate into big in America. "It was weird stuff, but so cool," he said.

Murphy cautioned, however, that longevity and character and story development are more important than merchandising. After all, he said, there were 100 hours of Transformers TV programming before U.S. toymaker Hasbro bought the rights to make the Japanese robot-car characters into toys.

"If it's just a movie based on a toy, you could end up with something like the Stretch Armstrong movie," said Murphy, referring to a forthcoming film that's drawn some skeptical attention as it's based on another Hasbro toy from the 1970s that had no TV series behind it.

Once you've found the right story, deals with Japanese license holders can take some time, said Lee, who has a first-look deal with Warner Bros. "The biggest Hollywood studio complaint is that these things can take one to two years and have to go through multiple committees in Japan," before they get licensed, he said.

Part of the reason for the sluggish pace, Hoffs said, is the Japanese understanding of chain of title, or ownership of a given property, especially since many Japanese contracts have complex financing structures.

"It's important to understand how the other side sees things." Hoffs said. "Often most rights land with the manga creator. The devil's in the details and it's important to find out what's most important to the content owner – loyalty to the original, or money."

Lee, who also produced the Antarctic sled dog adventure Eight Below for Walt Disney, said "the good news is that some contracts for films that have been successful are now serving as templates, cutting time to licensing and production to about six months."

Speed is key with the U.S. studios looking at remakes, Lee said, noting that the high turnover in Hollywood's executive ranks means that once a Japanese title is licensed the exec who green lit it might already have left.

Also slowing things down is the cultural and linguistic divide between America and Japan, Murphy said, noting that after months of trying to get the rights to Japanese video game Otome for Guillermo Del Toro to direct, he finally gave up. "Yes means no and no means no and sometimes maybe means no, too. It's very polite but sometimes you just need an answer. Make sure the content holder actually wants to sell."

Having somebody like discussion moderator Jun, a Japanese-speaking attorney at Katten Muchin Rosenman, on your side can help, Murphy said: "Unless you're going to learn their language -- and you can't expect them to learn yours -- then an intermediary is key."

For her part, Jun said that Japanese companies were lucky to have three such Hollywood producers looking to buy their content. "The interesting marriage of reserved Japanese creators and aggressive table-banging U.S. producers can be quite productive," she said. "Those are the producers who are going to get your films made."