ICv2 recently spoke with Hollywood veteran Jason Hoffs, Head of Production at Viz Productions, about the new film production arm of Viz Media based here in the States.


Hoffs began his career in Hollywood in the mid-80s doing low budget feature production and also spent some time with Fox Television.  In 1990, he was hired by Scott Rudin (Scott Rudin Productions) as Vice President of Production, where he worked on Addams Family, Sister Act, and The Firm.  In 1992, he became a VP at Amblin and then at Dreamworks, where he was the production executive responsible for Flinstones, Casper, and Deep Impact, The Peacemaker, Mouse Hunt, Mask of Zorro, and Meet the Parents.  He spent time at Sony, and most recently was at Dreamworks with his own production deal (Jason Hoffs Productions), where he had a number of films in development.  He was also executive producer on The Terminal. 


In Part One of our three part interview, Hoffs talks about manga source material for Viz Productions films and how those films could work in both domestic and international markets.  In Part Two, he discusses possibilities for licensing to studios vs. producing in-house and decisions about format and distribution.  In Part Three, Hoffs talks about markets outside of North America and how that affects film development, the scale of the potential properties, and some genres that might work best.  


Hollywood has obviously brought in talent, ideas and influences from around the world throughout its history.  What do you think that manga brings to the party as far as source material for films?

As far introducing a new, rich world, I think that manga is certainly the equal of any U.S.-created intellectual property, certainly including comic books and graphic novels.  Where I think manga is truly extraordinary (and I’m a fan, but a newcomer to your world--I’m not quite an otaku) is the level of characterization, which I think is exceptional.  It typically exceeds the level of characterization, and in a way, sophistication, of many American graphic novels.  I suspect one of the reasons for that is that these properties are initially serialized in magazines like Shonen Jump and in order for them to continue their readership they need to have these heightened, addictive characterizations.  I find myself getting much more drawn in by the characters than I do in the average comic book.


We could start to speculate very abstractly about some of the differences between American comics and graphic novels and manga.  One of the interesting things seems to be the sort of membrane between our world and other worlds, whether it’s the world of the afterlife, whether it's a multi-verse or whether you're traveling back and forth in time.  Those membranes seem more permeable, perhaps in Japanese culture, but certainly in manga.  There are so many properties that deal compellingly with people traveling into the past, people travelling into other realities.  There’s a very rich vein that we obviously traverse when we’re making movies as well (when we’re making a movie like Ghost or something), but it feels like those kinds of ideas suffuse Japanese culture and manga.  And the way that they’re often depicted in manga are very appropriate to film in terms of taking an everyman character and having them confront extraordinary worlds or realities.  Properties that come to mind as way of example would be Bleach, Death Note, or Inuyasha or even Mai, the Psychic Girl, one of the first Viz properties that came here from Shogakukan.  It seems a lot of the manga properties involve an everyman or woman who are a gateway into an extraordinary reality and movie audiences love those kinds of stories. 


A lot of manga are more team based.  I don’t know if it comes from Japanese culture, but like with Naruto, the team is all important.  It feels like in American superhero stories, some of the Marvel stuff, you have more of the tortured, lone anti-hero, and I know that happens in manga as well, but there seems to be a team-based mentality to a lot of the manga properties that’s very appealing.


Also what I hope the studios will want to explore is the diversity of shojo titles and shonen titles, and seinen and each of those lines.  There’s a manga for everybody in Japan, and it seems like in the U.S., until recently, but still to some extent, comics have been the province of young males and people are still working off the superhero template.  When people become aware of manga, they become aware of this incredible diversity of subject materials and characters that doesn’t tend to exist as much in comic books.  The worlds are really incredibly rich.


On the market side, what’s your assessment of the American interest in these properties as the sources for feature films, and as part of that, do you see these as properties that are best positioned as being Japanese and emphasizing their Japanese character, or putting them out there as stories and not focusing as much on the origin?

To some extent, that’s to be explored on a case-by-case basis.  Sometimes with American comic books and American source material, the filmmakers and studios feel comfortable taking whatever they want from that source material and, unless it’s a beloved property like Harry Potter that’s adapted almost literally, you’re taking the source material from a comic book, say Men in Black, and adapted very freely and completely for your own purposes.  From what I’m learning, in Japan the work of the manga creator is considered somewhat sacrosanct and the anime that follows stick pretty closely to what the original creator created in the manga series or their desires for the thing to be exploited in the new platform.  One thing that we want to be sure to do as we’re adapting these properties in the U.S. is to take into account as much as possible the original intent of the manga creator and to try to preserve the essence of the original properties and stay as close to the letter of the property as we can.  We’ll be looking to work with directors and screenwriters who really appreciate these things.  There’s always a certain amount of adaptation that has to be done, but we want to try to be really sensitive to the original vision of the creators in Japan.


Do you see what you’re doing as building on the existing audience for anime and manga properties in the U.S., or are you trying to introduce it to a new, different audience?

Let me backtrack for a second--if you’re asking, are we selling Japanese stories, I think so many of the stories are universal and have a global appeal.  You see Naruto, Death Note, Bleach--they’re worldwide franchises at this point, and they do have a global appeal, so we’re telling stories that are initiated in Japan and have some elements that are unique to Japanese culture, but I would hope that they would be universal.  It also feels like, when I see Lord of the Rings, I feel like Frodo is sort of an American and maybe the Germans feel like Frodo is a German, so I’m hoping that these characters will feel like universal characters.


The Japanese material has strengths that are unique to Japan and its culture, maybe some of their great supernatural properties derive from Shintoism and Buddhism somehow.   I do feel that the properties that we’re pursuing will largely have universal appeal, partly because we’re looking to make studio movies that require pretty big budgets, so we’re going to have to take that otaku and larger fan base, but also expand it out to a broader worldwide audience.  I’m sure that the studios will be looking to do that.


Click here for Part Two.