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Mr. Okamoto Goes to Hollywood : Undaunted by the Dream Machine's hard lessons, a Japanese producer aims to make his artistic mark

June 11, 1989|NINA J. EASTON

Movie-making is one industry in which America still outclasses Japan. Hands down. Few Japanese films attract audiences, or much money, beyond the country's own borders. So it's not surprising that global-minded Japanese companies flush with cash want to buy a chunk of the United States' export gem--Hollywood's motion pictures.

For more than a year now, remarkably detailed rumors about impending Japanese takeovers in the film industry have swirled through Hollywood.

Last fall the electronics giant Sony, already the proud new owner of CBS Records, was reported to be interested in Columbia Pictures. By spring, the Sony rumor had focused on MCA-Universal. Nippon Steel and Fuji Sankei Communications are routinely said to be on the prowl. The sale of MGM/UA to the Australian company Qintex didn't quiet rumors that all or part of that studio could still wind up in Japanese hands.

But while Japan's huge conglomerates land in the headlines each time they covertly sniff out opportunities in Hollywood, dozens of other Japanese investors are moving into town on less ambitious terms, infusing millions of dollars into American movie production. (See accompanying story.) Most of them write checks to Hollywood producers and step out of the way, waiting for their profits to arrive once the finished product hits the screen.

Naofumi Okamoto has waded into deeper waters.

In January, the 42-year-old novelist and former TV producer opened the doors of Apricot Entertainment Inc., the first Japanese-financed movie studio in Hollywood. Okamoto plans to make an artistic, as well as financial, mark in Hollywood.

With a $50-million investment from a family friend, Okamoto is building a hands-on production house that will control the creative side of film projects from their inception. Unlike other Japanese knocking on Hollywood's doors, this ambitious producer is writing scripts, not just checks.

Okamoto stands at the forefront of the next wave of Japanese investors who invariably will seek more control over where their money goes. To do so, they will have to get involved in the creative process--finding scripts, hiring directors, recruiting actors.

The influx of Japanese money into Hollywood raises important questions for Americans: Will the Japanese ever play more than the role of banker to the Hollywood Dream Machine? Will they ultimately take a part in shaping the stories that shape our culture? Or will their voices be overpowered by Hollywood's long-entrenched style of doing business?

It won't be easy for the Japanese, as Okamoto is learning.

As Americanized as he is, Okamoto remains an outsider trying to operate in the ultimate insiders club. He doesn't have a copy of the club's bylaws, and he doesn't really want one. He prefers to play by his own rules and his own timetable.

Okamoto's experience provides insight into what's in store for those Japanese who do take the step from financier to movie producer.

In the six months since his studio opened for business, Okamoto has gone through several of Hollywood's difficult rites of passage--learning his place in the regimented social hierarchy, meeting with scores of producers and agents (some of them pushing their wares with the aggression of used-car dealers), and looking, always looking, for "material"--industry parlance for stories that will make compelling movies.

During a flight to the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, one January night, Okamoto was three parts glowing optimism, one part nervous caution about his three-week-old company's future. He said he was anxious not to repeat the experience of other American independent companies that self-destructed after gorging on high salaries, plush offices and pricey film projects.

Okamoto's salary is a relatively modest $150,000; he paid $4.2 million cash for a bare-walled, decidedly unglamorous working studio facility in Hollywood; and he intends to shy away from hugely expensive, big-name talent.

He pointed to Japanese investors who had lost money after handing blank checks over to American producers, and said he intends to eschew partners so that he can maintain complete control over his films.

But none of that, Okamoto knows, can guarantee success.

"Hollywood is a lot of people's fantasies," he says as the plane nears Utah and he prepares for another step in the long, tedious, and often disheartening search for film projects and talent.

"But it's a difficult business. That's for sure."

The Party

On a February night at his Hollywood studio, the tux-clad Okamoto looks very somber.

As the floodlights and balloons outside suggest, this is Apricot's opening party. It's also the night that Okamoto discloses Apricot's investor--Yutaka Tanaka, the chief executive of Shinwa Co., a privately held construction and cement company based in Osaka.

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