A new production company hopes to change the way the sector operates in Japan by putting emphasis on the role of directors while also positioning producers as artists in their own right.
The company, Connection, is a venture led by Mitsuaki Timo Otsuki, formerly executive producer of Cutters Studios Tokyo, alongside Kensaku Kakimoto, a director, and Hideki Harada, a former producer who is now in the talent business. When the company is fully operational (Otsuki expects that to be from next year), staff will include 10 directors, six editors, six VFX artists and one director of photography.
Otsuki described the company as “a hybrid of everything that has to do with production”. He said an aim would be to make the workflow more efficient and to be able to take on projects “from every angle”, ranging from simple post-production tasks to high-end direction. “Almost like a lab where we try out new things and figure out what’s best for us and the industry, what works and what doesn’t,” he explained.
He also sees it functioning as something of an agency in the ‘talent’ sense, managing “artists and anyone who brings a creative skillset to film” and helping them to build their personal brands. The term “artist” is important: Otsuki thinks the artistry of post-production professionals in Japan is overlooked.
“They are seen more as operators,” he said. “We call them artists because the message is stronger. You’re not just hiring an operator. It’s different in the US, UK and Australia. There, you pay for the artists, not the room and machine… We want to grow people into artists and help them to be more respected.”
Otsuki said he was interested in partnering with a festival and developing a contest that would help demonstrate to agencies and advertisers how differently a piece of work can turn out depending on who edits it. The competition would involve editing a simple piece of original footage.
At the same time, a key difference between Connection's proposition and that of many production companies is the presence of experienced directors. In addition to Kakimoto, they include Genki Ito, Takeshi Maruyama, Atsushi Makino, Takcom, Satomi Inagaki, Jun Tamukai, Yuichiro Sato, Kevin Bao and Kentaro Osawa.
Otsuki said he did not agree with the standard process in Japan whereby agencies enlist producers, rather than directors, to manage a project and fix the budget. “You can’t let them budget a job without knowing who’s going to direct it,” he said. Typically, he said, the production managers who coordinate projects have around five years’ experience, “which is not enough”. He added that making a producer the communications hub resulted in inefficiency, and suggested it would be better for people to be empowered to focus on their core skillsets.
“I’d like to see agency creatives making a decision on the director first, then they can talk about the project at an earlier stage, which affects the budget quite a bit,” he said. “I like the flow of creatives talking to creatives rather than having the producer as a hub.”
“The concept of having top-tier directors attached to a production house is still not commonplace in Japan unfortunately,” observed Brendan Cravitz, head of production at Publicis One in Tokyo. By contrast, Cravitz said the format was standard in the US for “the best shops, like Prettybird, Caviar and Furlined”. In those cases, “the production house does everything they can to support the director and the creative versus simply focusing on budget.”
Cravitz said production houses that operate in this way tend to care more about the end product “because it represents their brand image and reputation”. “This is the benefit I see of a boutique production house like Connection,” he said, adding that he was “excited to see how this influences the rest of commercial production in Japan”.
Lack of innovation gives rise to individualism
Otsuki said where advertising agencies in Japan were “rethinking their values” and trying to adapt to a changing environment, production companies had largely remained static in terms of the way they operate. He said little had been done to prepare for the impact of the transition from print to digital ad delivery, which has resulted in a significant loss of revenue for large production houses that made money from the printing process. In some cases, the change has meant reduced earnings at an individual level, he said. He expects these compromised circumstances to spur more producers to strike out on their own while maintaining a connection to their old employers.
Where leaving the security of a job at a large, well established production company or agency used to be unusual, he noted that more creatively-minded people were doing it and paying more attention to self-branding. Asked what the proliferation of guns-for-hire means for the business at large, he said it was “a middle point that the industry needs to get through”.
“I have concerns that if you have too many freelancers you lose places where younger people can learn,” he said. “Everyone is making more money which is fine, but they’re not really thinking about hiring young people.” He said he saw an eventual transition to a combination of more small enterprises and “collectives” where individuals share an office and resources, including assistants.”
“What we want to do is pretty much be an example that production can be different, that everything below agency level can be different,” he said.
Otsuki thinks production companies will continue to take on more creative assignments directly from brands, but not to the point where they cut agencies out of the picture. “Big agencies will get smaller but also more efficient,” he said. “There will be a change but not as much as some people talk about. We’ll be equipped to do it, but I don’t see it being more than 30% of the work we do.” He said Connection aimed to be "very neutral" and work with a wide range of companies.
What about Japan’s long-overdue ‘digitalisation’ of ad delivery? “I don’t have high hopes,” he said. “A lot of post-production companies and even client-level companies are all starting their own digital delivery services. They are all fighting against each other. So it might get to the point where if you work with a big company any delivery from them would have to go through their own delivery company which has replaced the tape division. It could get ugly, like the battle between DVD and Blu-ray. Whereas people could come together and work on one solution, which would be much healthier.”