Made in Japan / Produced globally – Anime houses open up to copro partners

Kid culture is going increasingly global. You need only look at the girls in Japan slipping on their American-style cowboy boots, and the boys scouring local bookshops for the latest translated manga in the U.S. to see kids fashion, entertainment and general pop culture references melding into a cross-Pacific hybrid. So it's no wonder western industry giants such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are becoming more interested in co-producing with Japanese-based animation and advertising agencies to create a new breed of programming designed to work across all continents.
October 1, 2006

Kid culture is going increasingly global. You need only look at the girls in Japan slipping on their American-style cowboy boots, and the boys scouring local bookshops for the latest translated manga in the U.S. to see kids fashion, entertainment and general pop culture references melding into a cross-Pacific hybrid. So it’s no wonder western industry giants such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are becoming more interested in co-producing with Japanese-based animation and advertising agencies to create a new breed of programming designed to work across all continents.

The West’s relationship with toons produced in Japan is in fact changing, moving from the pure import model established during the first wave of anime-mania in the late ’90s, to one involving more co-productions. So we thought it was time to assess the landscape, look at some of the players in this nascent field and the opportunities and challenges inherent in breaking new ground.

U.S. nets board copro train

Cartoon Network dipped its toe into the cross-cultural production waters early, giving the go ahead to Toei Animation and partner Aniplex to produce a Japanese version of the PowerPuff Girls in early 2005. The resulting Demashita! PowerPuff Girls Z took to TV Tokyo airwaves this past July and is awaiting a North American debut. To follow up, CN recently set up a production division in Japan to create more cross-cultural fare. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon made announcements at Tokyo Anime Fair last spring about deals to create series with two different Japanese production houses. And not to be left out, Disney-owned Jetix Europe brought Oban Star Racers to air this year. The series, several years in the making, taps into the country’s rich animation history to illustrate a Euro idea from Paris, France’s Sav! the World prodco.

Canada’s Cookie Jar Entertainment has also been active. New series Spider Riders began appearing on international schedules including those of Canada’s Teletoon and the Kids WB! in the U.S. this past March. Financed and developed in partnership with Japanese advertising agency Yumiko and toonhouse Bee Train, it’s the first Canadian/Japanese co-production to hit the airwaves so far. The series follows 13-year-old Hunter as he uncovers a hidden world, all the while continually trying to stave off potential attacks from giant mutant insects. The series is gaining traction in North America, with approximately 700,000 kids registering to play the Spider Riders on-line game since the series’ launch.

And it soon won’t be the only Canadian-Japanese copro, with Toronto’s Nelvana and toy company Spin Master joining forces with Sega Toys, TMS Animation and Japan Vistec to create a series based on the upcoming toy, Bakugan. It’s about a boy and his friends who use their Bakugan Brawlers to ultimately save Earth from destruction. The 52 x half hour program, set to make its launch at MIPCOM, is rendered in 2-D and projected to be delivered by spring 2007. However, the partners insist it’s not a glorified toy commercial. Even though broadcast deals in Japan involve producers paying TV advertisers to place their programs on sponsored blocks, Doug Murphy, president of Nelvana Enterprises, says the show is about strong character and story elements.

Thirst for anime quenched

Of course, many of these relationships between international broadcasters and Japanese producers began about seven years ago, when Western networks were clamoring for anime to put on their skeds. With the likes of Pokémon and Dragonball Z capturing kids imaginations and pocket books across the globe, the floodgates opened and Western broadcasters began sniffing around for anything – old or new – to put on air. Realizing they could capitalize on this global trend, studios in Tokyo started working overtime to create new anime to sate the appetites of broadcasters and audiences alike.

But Toper Taylor, president and COO at Cookie Jar, says as quickly as Japanese programming flooded Western schedules, the well of big-name anime dried up. While the industry in Japan expanded at a rapid clip over the past seven years to supply Western demand, he says it’s now going through a natural calming period. ‘One of the key reasons Japan is so keen on co-production now is the appetite from Western broadcasters for anime has diminished dramatically,’ he says. From a trend perspective, he says kids are still happy to watch Japanese-inspired programming, but the industry feels the genre is on the downside of the bell curve. ‘Only the best animation companies will survive, and it will be fascinating to see how this Japanese industry reacts to the slow down.’

Although Nelvana’s Murphy agrees international broadcasters are less enamored with anime right now, he doesn’t necessarily see an increased number of co-productions emerging from Japan. ‘I don’t think the country’s any more open to it than it was before,’ he says. But VP and general manager at Nickelodeon Japan Ed Wells disagrees. He says Japan is opening up to several regions, not just the West for international co-production opps and points to blossoming relationships between Japan and Singapore, Korea, China and India as evidence. ‘Western companies are still at the top of the list just because of the market size,’ he says. ‘It’s the biggest market in the world.’

And despite a worldwide slowdown in acquisitions on the horizon, it’s not the only reason Japanese animation companies are looking beyond their border to create new series. The fact is the local production landscape has changed quite a bit in the last few years as well. In the past, Japanese producers had enough money and interest in anime to sustain themselves without having to forge international partnerships – but not any more.

For starters, the kids population in the region is flat or declining. Twenty years ago, Japan could have easily supported a fully animated series and local toy launch, but with a shrinking kids population, Spin Master’s CEO Ronnen Harary says there is an increased interest in leveraging costs internationally. At the same time, more animation is being produced, while terrestrial free-to-air slot availability is on the wane. ‘Given the cost of creating these animations and the opportunities on terrestrial to recoup these costs, Japanese companies are definitely opening up to the international market,’ Wells explains.

Putting the pieces together

Put it all together and you have a creative industry seemingly more interested in working with Western partners to keep anime on air in any part of the globe wanting to broadcast the genre. And it’s why Cartoon Network opened up its production studio in Japan. VP of business operation at CN Mark Norman says Japanese companies are actively searching for partners because they’ve got a very tough market. ‘With 50 to 80 shows coming out in any given year, it’s difficult to break through, so we can give [a series] exposure in the U.S., Latin America and Europe to make it happen,’ he says.

Nickelodeon has two programs in development with IP that originated in Japan. National broadcaster NHK’s interstitial character, Domo-Kun will be the first to get a series treatment. The series starring the rectangular stop-motion monster is currently in production for a launch on Nicktoons next year.

The second co-pro with Polygon Pictures is in the early stages of development. Akihabara@Deep originated from a graphic novel and has a live-action incarnation targeting adults on terrestrial airwaves in Japan. Wells says the toon treatment is the next logical step for the property. At this stage Polygon has been willing to change a few key elements from its original concept to make it work outside of Japan. For example, the prodco is working with Nick to skew the demo down from teen/adult to tween.

Additionally, Nina Hahn, VP of international development at Nick, says she sees Asian production being driven by strong artwork and less so by powerful storytelling, providing more opportunities to shape the work. She feels Nickelodeon can help Japanese-created ideas by crafting the scripts to make them more internationally acceptable. ‘It becomes a good match between what the East does well and what the West does well, so it’s been easy for us to come together and fulfill a vision of the project,’ she says.

For his part, Wells believes getting the story right for export on these copros is where Western companies should spend their energy. ‘I’m less interested in watering down the Japanese aesthetic to feel more palatable to the U.S., because the animation is successful in its current form around the world,’ he explains.

DO’s and don’ts

Not surprisingly then, the key to making a co-pro with Japan work is to join forces at the earliest phase of the project, rather than follow the tradition of repurposing a finished show for North American and European audiences. Wells notes international companies used to balk at working with Japanese outfits because of the strict system in place for producing animation, but both sides seem to be more flexible these days.

Hammering out production deals takes a long time no matter if the company is from Japan or from down the street, however, there are still differences that producers looking to partner up with companies in Japan should keep top of mind. The companies interviewed in this story stressed the importance of building a trusting relationship with Japanese production houses, for starters.

CN’s Norman says for a while, his team tried to set up deals with Japanese partners using the American format, but it has subsequently come around to following the established business model set for anime production in Japan. So each partner can exploit a certain right, but all of the money earned goes into one pot and is shared by all investors. ‘There’s a lot to be said for how the consortium model works because everybody has a stake in the success in all markets, not just theirs,’ he says.

On the creative side, Michael Lekes, senior VP of programming at Jetix Europe, feels there is some resistance on the part of Japanese artists to adjust to international co-production conditions. ‘I do think there’s a willingness to meet in the middle commercially, but creatively, I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘They’ve never had to work with foreign partners before.’

And Cookie Jar’s Taylor says once a series goes into production, it’s very difficult to steer the ship in a new direction, and this is where it becomes apparent how important it is to get involved at the earliest stage of development. ‘It’s all about mapping out episodes from the very beginning – the story arcs, the action sequences and the expectations – in the greatest detail possible before principle animation begins,’ he warns.

The reason is simply based on the traditional way Japanese animation tells a story. For example, it can take up to six episodes to introduce the main character in some anime series.

Jocelyn Hamilton, VP of production at Nelvana, is working with five partners on Bakugan, and says foregoing e-mail exchanges for in-person meetings is the best way to work with Japanese partners. The artists are willing to change a fair bit of an original idea, such as picking up the pace of a plotline, just as long as the adjustments happen early in the production stage.

In the past, production companies in Japan felt the creative couldn’t change, but now it’s more of an insult to cut things out after they’ve been done (such as repurposing) as opposed to discussing issues up front. Hamilton says the director is very much in control of the show’s vision, and the artists respect that integrity. ‘And that’s why it’s important to discuss things early, when the director can sometimes come up with better ideas,’ she says.

Once these elements are in place, western producers agree the process is speedy. In Japan, there isn’t a layout department, and a design department, or storyboarding – a production only involves a handful of key talent from beginning to end. ‘They cut out certain parts of the process that we in North America tend to focus on, like animatics,’ Hamilton says.

Risk and reward split 50/50

It’s clear why Japanese companies are looking outward, but why are Western players now willing to make concessions to get a trans-Pacific co-pro off the ground – particularly when international broadcasters are less inclined to pick up anime, and the Japanese market is stagnant?

Despite the drop in the number of kids, top-name worldwide broadcasters and producers continue to eye Japan as a potential market. ‘You’ve still got 120 million people there, and that’s a lot of kids,’ Spin Master’s Harary says.

There’s also the benefit of not having to go through the trouble of repurposing a show to modify it for a localized audience. Harary says everyone can now bring their best assets to the table early, and also have the opportunity to split the risk and share the rewards. ‘If you use each other’s strengths, you can create magic,’ he says.

Spin Master wanted to work with Japanese partners to enhance the Bakugan toy’s game play and characteristics. But it was thanks to the Canadian toyco’s dealings with Sega that the toy emerged with a backstory suitable for TV treatment. ‘It’s a very collaborative approach with the stories and the character development. We’re working together to use their knowledge of the Asian markets to ensure the show suits a worldwide market,’ he says.

As for the suggested drop in broadcaster interest? Anime still plays on top international schedules, but with these new hybrids western partners have the chance to make the series more palatable for international acquisitions execs from the get-go; there’s no need to repurpose the shows to suit Western kids’ sensibilities. For example, Cookie Jar’s Taylor says broadcasters are asking for comedy, but Japanese-produced funnies don’t necessarily translate well to North American audiences – especially to kids. Here’s where Western companies can inject their own humor early on in the scripting stage.

On the flipside, Wells, who is based in Tokyo, says there is still a tremendous potential in Japan for animated series. ‘There are fewer kids per family, but we’ve noticed a trend where there’s a lot more spending on each child.’ He adds the situation is creating a short-term opportunity that will help establish his brands in the region long term.

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