The Japan Files

June 9, 2012

Cleaning my office yesterday I stumbled upon copies of some documents I’d forgotten about, but which contain valuable historical data worth reporting here.

Normally when researching a film history book or biography researchers routinely visit places like the Margaret Herrick Library (of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences), the USC Cinema-Television Library, the UCLA Film & Television Archives, and so on. But some material is retained by the studios and generally not made available even to researchers. Probably this is because once in a blue moon a researcher will stumble upon and sometimes innocently report information that suddenly calls into question rights issues about this or that asset worth thousands if not millions of dollars. Better, is their position, to keep this material locked away where only their attorneys can find it.

When I was at MGM, my job as a kind of “film detective,” tracking down original film and sound elements, involved pulling the kind of files researchers would love to see, and if I was looking at the file for a movie I was particularly interested in and found a piece of data I’d always wondered about, I’d jot down some notes or even photocopy the document.

For instance, did you ever wonder how much money Bond Girls Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi made for their work in the 007 classic You Only Live Twice (1967)? Not much, apparently. While Sean Connery reportedly got $750,000 plus 25% of the merchandising tie-ins, Hama and Wakabayashi were working for comparative peanuts.

For starters, each was already under contract to Toho, so essentially it was like the old studios days in Hollywood when, say, an MGM star was loaned out to Paramount and MGM pocketed the difference. UA paid Toho, not the actresses themselves, $50,000 for Hama’s services and $30,000 for Wakabayashi’s. How much of that Toho kept for themselves is unknown, but it might have been as much as 90%. My own interviews with Toho actors working in the 1960s suggests leading men and women earned something like $1,500-$3,000 per feature, so paying Hama and Wakabayashi five- and three-grand seems at least possible, though one hopes it was many times that.

On the other hand, while a $50,000 or $30,000 fee for one movie might seem incredibly cheap by Hollywood standards, in Japan at that time it was still a king’s ransom. Back in 1967, the average Japanese household was only earning about $2,000-$3,000/year, so Hama’s and Wakabayashi’s 007 money, combined with their other film work (Hama appeared in six other features that year, while Wakabayashi was inching toward an early retirement) might have seemed equitable.

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But Toho wasn’t doing too badly. Back in September 1955 Toho rather infamously gave away the U.S. and Canadian rights to the original Godzilla for a mere $25,000. They did much better on the movies that followed, at least for the next dozen or so years. A contract between American International Pictures (AIP) and Toho for two pictures, Atragon (1963, called “Atoragon” in the contract) and The Lost World of Sinbad (then called “Samurai Pirate,” also 1963) is very enlightening not just in terms of Toho’s deal, but it also exemplifies AIP’s business acumen with foreign production entities.

The biggest surprise is the money, which in this case is higher than one might suspect. For both pictures AIP agreed to pay $180,000. That might not seem like much, but remember while Atragon offers an orgy of special effects sequences, it’s not a monster movie per se. And despite Toshiro Mifune starring in The Lost World of Sinbad, he wasn’t exactly a familiar name on the Alabama drive-in circuit in 1964. AIP, for their part, didn’t have to pay for these out of pocket; local banks, usually Bank of America, financed their investments, while in turn these deals offset a big chunk of Toho’s negative costs. (At a guess, I’d say each picture cost well under $400,000.)

Nevertheless, it was a shrewd pick-up on AIP’s part. For $90,000 per picture, they got two special effects-filled fantasy extravaganzas to do with as they pleased. They reserved “the right to cut, edit, alter, re-arrange the sequence of, change, expand, delete, substitute for the sequence of, add to or otherwise modify” them any way they wanted, though both films ended up getting released with only minor changes other than the English-dubbing.

Their rights included not just distributing them to movie theaters, but also “for any purposes whatsoever (theatrical, non-theatrical, commercial, non-commericial, sponsored, non-sponsored) … on all gauges of film and other surfaces and by every means, method or device (mechanical, electrical, or otherwise) now known, or which may hereafter be discovered, invented, developed, devised or created, including, but not limited to “free television” and “pay television.”

In other words, AIP’s rights included releasing things like 8mm and 16mm condensed versions for the home market. They could distribute them to television and on cable television (still in its prehistory, but on the way), and even home video, when that came along. As their rights extended into the 1980s (the original term was for 20 years), one has to admire lawyer/company co-president Sam Arkoff’s forward thinking. He even successfully haggled the rights to adapt or sublicense the two movies into novels and comic books, which was something AIP did occasionally at the time.

Further, unlike Edmund Goldman’s purchase of theatrical rights to Godzilla, initially limited to just the U.S. and Canada, AIP got rights to those territories plus, among other places, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and all the English-speaking countries of Africa, as well as military installations, rights that they could sub-license to local distributors in those countries.

Interestingly, a provision was added stipulating AIP could not exhibit the Japanese language version in the State of Hawaii. Probably this is because Toho had just opened its own theater there, at 1646 Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu, one month before the contract was signed, and perhaps they wanted to reserve the rights to show those pictures there. No mention is made of Toho’s other two theaters operating in the U.S. at the time, the Toho La Brea in Los Angeles, and the Toho Cinema in New York.

Something else you might be wondering about: When an American distributor purchases rights from a foreign production company, what film and sound elements do they provide them with?

Times have changed, but back in 1964 AIP required Toho to deliver (for each film) one (1) 35mm used color positive print of the Japanese version, with the Japanese dialogue; one (1) synchronized 35mm magnetic tape of the soundtrack (sound effects only) to both the feature and the movie’s trailer; one (1) 35mm interpositive “in first class condition” to “enable the processing therefrom of first class dupe negatives from which first class prints of each picture may be obtained, on loan for a period of six months”; one (1) textless interpositive of each of the trailers; and one (1) interpositive of the background scenes of the main and end titles. The contract also stipulates Toho could access AIP’s English-dubbed version for use outside of AIP’s territories. All of this material was eventually shipped to Pathe Laboratories at 105 East 106th Street, in New York City.

To Be Continued…