May 21, 2015

No pilot on board

Scripted Japanese television series (as opposed to "reality," news, and infotainment shows) don't follow the "pilot" approach.

In Hollywood, that means "auditioning" a series by filming a "first episode" (which may not be the first or even shown). If the pilot is picked up, more episodes will be ordered. If those episodes get good ratings, the series will be picked up for a year (20-24 episodes, half that for cable).

The broadcast and cable networks juggle upwards of 300 pilots every year (see a list here), and pick up less than a quarter. At two to three million dollars an episode, it is egregiously expensive. But this is a billion-dollar business and Hollywood is the dominant player in a worldwide market.

Japan isn't. And shows no signs of wanting to be.

Oh, it pats itself on the back when happy accidents happen (Akira Kurosawa, Studio Ghibli, anime). But outside a handful of its (friendlier) Asian neighbors, Japan's industry leaders haven't traditionally treated media like cars and electronics. Pirates created the overseas markets for anime and manga in the first place.

As a result, sites like Hulu list many more live-action Korean dramas than Japanese. The streaming model is changing that, along with SoftBank's purchase of DramaFever and Rakuten's purchase of Viki, both distributors of Asian television programming (still mostly Korean but expanding their catalogs).

Not to mention that Amazon-Japan is already a major retailer and Netflix is launching its service in Japan this fall.

Japan's terrestrial broadcasters and satellite channels and theaters already carry every Hollywood production worth seeing. Having ceded that ground, Japanese television studios instead choose to compete in those niches that Hollywood can't or won't bother to enter.

Speaking specifically of the gaming market, Nippon Ichi CEO Sohei Niikawa adheres to a similar strategy:

The overseas market is key. It's not something we can turn our backs to. However, I think it's a bad idea to create products targeted for the West. Even if Japanese people try their best to make a game that feels Western, there's no way they'd outclass actual Westerners doing that. I could probably count on one hand the number of Japanese people who'd even have a chance. I know we can't, so our only choice is to make titles that hardcore Japanese fans go for, then bring them out overseas as a purely made-in-Japan product.

Sure, there's plenty of the same only different on Japanese TV: police procedurals and medical dramas but with Japanese actors, Japanese culture and Japanese sensibilities. Add to that samurai dramas. Slice-of-life melodramas. The whole swath of (badly stereotyped) reality television. And lots of anime.

The big bonus is that declining to compete head-to-head with Hollywood productions means not having to run up the budget.

When Samuel L. Jackson signed on to produce and star in Afro Samurai (bringing to the table first-run U.S. distribution rights), he secured a budget of $1 million per episode, a truly head-spinning amount of money in Japan, but par for the course in Hollywood.

An average anime episode costs between $100,000 and $300,000. Star Trek had a budget of $250,000/episode in 1967! (Adjusted for inflation, that comes to around $1.5 to $2 million, so television production costs in Hollywood haven't changed very much in the past half century.)

As a rough estimate, Japanese live-action dramas are made for a half to a third of the base production costs of their Hollywood counterparts. Start by paying everybody "above the line" the equivalent of "scale." This does mean that the best television actors in Japan are constantly working.

And they don't do pilots. Well, a lot of anime series are based on manga and live-action series are based on anime, manga, and "light novels." So producers have a good idea going in of how popular a series should be.

Once a series gets greenlit, the full slate of 11 to 13 episodes (sometimes half-slates of 5 or 6) goes into production and will be aired in full. This constitutes a "series" or cour (クール), a backformation from the French cours. With a handful of exceptions, this is consistent across the industry.

(Exceptions include NHK's year-long Taiga historical drama, the 15-minute Asadora dramas that run six days a week for six months, and popular anime like One Piece and Sazae-san that have run weekly for decades. The police procedural Aibo is produced in 19-episode seasons.)

On the air since 1969.
More often than not, a single "series" (cour) comprises the entire run of the show. However, popular shows (especially with low marginal costs) can go into "auto-renew" mode. The samurai actioner Mito Komon ran 1227 episodes, cycling five actors through the lead role.

One odd effect is that because of the short runs, popular performers like Masaharu Fukuyama will have already booked their schedules around the shooting. As a result, the two Galileo series were made several years apart. Ditto Takuya Kimura and the two Hero series.

In the meantime, Fukuyama made two Galileo theatrical movies and appeared briefly in a third spinoff.

At the opposite extreme, very popular shows such as I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper and Madoka Magica each ran a single series (so far). The producer of the former flatly stated there would be no more series. It's hard to imagine that in Hollywood.

Japanese television can be compared to the U.S. cable networks, producing episodic shows in half-seasons, with a wide mix of first and second-tier writers and actors, and third-tier budgets. It makes me wonder if there might be something to buying whole "mini-seasons" of shows.

Netflix has previously acquired the balance of shows from network series that were canceled mid-season, or produced an abbreviated season of a canceled show, as with Arrested Development. Yahoo is taking over Community from NBC for a 13-episode run.

In the case of Tina Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix bought the entire 13-episode run when NBC didn't pick it up. I expect to see these arrangements get more formalized, with streaming services competing for second refusal rights or becoming a "farm team" system.

Under such a system, any television program that reaches the pilot stage would be considered good enough to be guaranteed an audience somewhere.

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