Nearing 3 million subscribers, Tokyo-based WOWOW quickly became Japan’s leading premium pay TV broadcaster and on demand service provider since its inception in 2000. Described as “The HBO of Japan,” WOWOW sits on a fertile cornerstone of a rapidly globalizing industry—a bridge between West and East strung together with distribution deals and licensing agreements.

After graduating from University with a law degree in 1995, Kayo Washio joined WOWOW on the ground floor in the sales department. She shuttled from production, to acquisition, to marketing before relocating to Los Angeles in 2011 as to assume Head of U.S. Operations at the company’s American office. MovieMaker caught up with WOWOW’s very busy American emissary to glean insights from a woman positioned perhaps better than anyone to tell the story of the storytelling business. What follows are Washio’s takes on the human imperative behind branding, networking across borders, and working with Hollywood icons like Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini, and more.

WOWOW Head of Los Angeles Branch, Kayo Washio. Photograph courtesy of WOWOW

Beginnings: Harnessing Producing Passion to Bridge Two Global Markets

It was always a passion and dream of mine to be a producer. I love all aspects, from shaping the idea of a film, to covering costs, to reading scripts and overseeing the incredible talent I’m fortunate enough to work with.

Stemming from my appetite to produce outside of Japan, I began networking, building relationships, and searching for content to co-produce. To begin as a newcomer in Hollywood, I began engaging in conversations with people in the industry and looking into making a documentary because it had less initial risk than a big scripted TV series.

I found one that was in development as a six-part TV series documentary called Cathedrals of Culture. I was brought into the project as a co-producer and handled all of the negotiations, which was both a challenge and a perfect way to learn more about the process as I began. It was my first big project outside of Japan and it ended up making its world premiere in the Berlinale Special at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival.

The blueprint we developed with this project was again on future projects, including a co-production of Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live, which earned a Rockie Award at BANFF World Media Festival 2016.

Content Acquisition: Where the Interpersonal and Financial Meet

A part of my job at WOWOW focuses very heavily on acquiring the best international content from the US for our viewers in Japan. The role relies on having relationships with each individual studio and production companies in the U.S. and leveraging those relationships to put very lucrative film distribution deals into place. WOWOW has output contracts with every major studio in place to make sure these films reach a global audience. The deals vary with each studio, but in simple terms we acquire each studio’s top films based on their Japanese box office results and the number of films vary depending on each individual studio deal.

During the negotiation process, most studios have a local office in Tokyo that WOWOW negotiates with. I leverage my relationships with the studio executives here in L.A. to support the mediations regarding the contract details between both parties while making sure nothing is lost in translation between WOWOW and the studio.

Building Brand Recognition Across Cultural Divides

From the beginning, I have considered it my most important role to build brand recognition here in the U.S. If I was to go into any meeting in Japan and show the WOWOW business cards, opportunities would often easy present themselves and our brand would have instant recognition in any meeting. However, here in the U.S. it is all about networking, since not many people know WOWOW. We already had a great relationship with every major studio, but it’s the professional relationships I’ve made here and collaborations with other creators where I would say networking is the most important business perspective.

Jack of All Trades, Master of… All Trades

Artistically, becoming involved in several aspects in the network has helped me with running the WOWOW office in the U.S.—from being a salesperson, interviewer, publicity, acquisition, or producing. Much like an actor learns everything about the character he or she is playing, learning how every role works in your company makes you understand all aspects of art you’re producing, resulting in delivering the best product for your audience.

Approaching and Handling First Big Projects

There are so many different ways to market and promote a film. When it comes to the Scorsese film I co-produced (The 50 Year Argument) for example, part of the marketing and promotion campaign was taking it on a festival route, which has become a big strategic aspect for our films. For this particular project, we premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival and took it to Tokyo.

Even though we did a few smaller projects at the beginning, this film was our very first prominent co-production that was broadcast on our network, so it was a great case study for the success WOWOW is having now and with the projects that have followed. Along with the new audiences we are able to show our films to at festivals, it adds momentum and exposure for our 2.8 million subscribers to see the film as well.

Having a name like Martin Scorsese involved was a great asset to help push it out more, but having a well-known actor in front of the camera is invaluable. We were able to secure Ken Watanabe as our narrator, who is extremely famous in Japan. Of course, he came to Hollywood and was nominated for both an Oscar and Tony, so having his name associated with the film was a privilege on a global scale. I recorded with him in Tokyo and was able to secure quotes and photos from Ken to use throughout the promotion process.

Adapt to Your Market, Diversify Your Approaches

When it comes down to it, one film campaign does not work for all markets and territories. Having one film poster, one post or one campaign that serves the multitude of countries involved is impossible. We made the conscious decision to take our Scorsese film to North America to premiere in Toronto and luckily it worked and was successful. There was a lot of great press and reviews that were key to making it a success here for HBO, but then we had to do something different to help elevate it in for a Japanese audience with WOWOW. What better way to elevate it than to attach one of Japan’s biggest stars, have him narrate it for the Japanese market and have him do his own promotional tour. It is thinking outside the box and not just letting a film go through the normal course of typical mundane and cookie cutter marketing and promotions that you might typically get with a studio that doesn’t have tentacles in all the different countries. When you look at other important territories, Japan certainly being one of them, we ask ourselves what would be a good marketing strategy effort. I think that’s important to know going in. There’s no one size fits all answer to any campaign for any piece of content in a film or TV series. The overarching theme would be that WOWOW is very targeted in our marketing and promotions approaches and campaigns.

Honing Your Strengths: Budget Control

While I was in Japan, I first started by producing original programs where I learned about budget control, which can be pretty straight-forward. At first we start with a full breakdown of what our anticipated costs are. Once we have that laid out I can then approve the segment to begin production. After that, the production teams have to follow the breakdown that I have approved for them. The production company often helps create this first budget and then, as the show is being produced, I will need to edit and make adjustments as our finances allow.

Sometimes, in order to help with promoting the project, I have to hire a well-known actor, which means I’ll have to allocate additional funds in order to make sure we cast the right kind of talent that will be a draw for audiences later once the project is finished. Sometimes if we go over budget in a specific area, or in an attempt to acquire the talent needed, I have to find ways to allocate extra funds to make sure we get the right person.

Keep It Simple: Negotiating Contracts Across Time Zones

Producing content in Japan can be less restrictive legally at times. We sometimes don’t even have any legal agreements signed prior to the start of production and occasionally just have to trust the relationships we have with different producers and production companies. Even after we have started the project, there is no legal guarantee that all parties involved will stay with the project until the end. As you know, in the US there are a lot more restrictions and legal steps you need to take in order to protect yourself and the project, but in Japan, we do not often use or fully utilize these type of legal agreements especially if we have a strong professional working relationship that we can trust. Of course, it is changing more and more now, but even when we do write up agreements and contracts between parties they are usually only one page long. It’s very simple.

The Key: Forging (the Right) Relationships

As a leader at a branch of WOWOW it’s very important to value and build the right relationships with those who work both within the company and the industry around you. A lot of important information that will help you make informed decisions will come from trusted news sources. Even in this new age of digital on demand news the really valuable information happening in the industry is often exchanged between trusted individuals and friends that you have made. Relationships are the key to my job.

As a leader you also have to remember to be generous with your time but not so generous that you can’t take care of the big important tasks. And likewise don’t get so focused on the large important tasks that you forget to meet with people, and expose yourself to new material to keep yourself and the creative process fresh. Treat others as you would like to be treated but also remember that your time is valuable. Don’t spread yourself too thin.

Trust in the Network You’ve Built

With WOWOW in Japan we are such a well-known company all it usually takes is one call or one email to get the response you need to get approval or solve a problem through an existing relationship. Having that strong brand recognition is extremely helpful. In the U.S. however, we are still working to build that recognition. It’s always helpful in situations like these to remember the six-degrees of separation rule that connects us to every person on the planet. Often the person who can help you fix a problem, answer a question, or get you approval in the same industry is often just one or two degrees of separation away from you. Reach out to the network you have and speak to with passion to those you come across and believe in what needs to be accomplished and you will find a connection to help accomplish it. Face to face interactions are still important today. Even a shy individual can be fearless in the workforce if they remember this. MM

Featured image: WOWOW’s Kayo Washio celebrating the release of Cathedrals of Culture with Robert Redford. Photograph courtesy of WOWOW.