Krystallina asks and tries to answer a serious question: can One Piece capture a piece of success with a Hollywood adaptation?

Another Series Sets Sail for Hollywood

One Piece promised a lot of news for its 20th anniversary, but one tidbit in particular has stood out to many people. Tomorrow Studios, the company behind the live action Cowboy Bebop project, is going to make a live action One Piece television show.

Can One Piece Capture a Piece of Success?

Unlike the Saint Seiya Hollywood remake I discussed previously, One Piece has a large following in the United States. New additions to anime and the manga are available the same week as Japan, and fans can buy One Piece games, figures, keychains, and more online and even at their local mall. One Piece is the bestselling manga of all time in Japan, and it’s definitely a hot property in the US as well. The producer, Marty Adelstein, says he’s a been a big fan for years. (As Sora News 24 points out, either Adelstein is rounding up the number of years he has been a fan, or he has been into One Piece since before it was legally available in English.)

I’m sure there will be a lot of debate as to whether an American version of One Piece is a good idea. While One Piece is a popular anime and manga in the US and is full of action, it’s also very much a crazy comedy. Will audiences respond to kicking cooks and weather-baton wielding thieves? Will viewers want to tune in to an adaptation of a series that has 80+ book volumes and 800 episodes?

Well, before One Piece can become a financial success, it needs to be produced first. And one part of the announcement stood out to me: Adelstein says the adaptation could be one of the most expensive of all time. (This report says he said “the most expensive” and this one says it could break records, but let’s go with “one of”.) Between Luffy’s stretching, clowns who can reassemble themselves, and underwater kingdoms, a One Piece series will need a lot of special effects.

How Expensive is Expensive?

So how much will One Piece have to spend to be one of the costliest television shows ever? Well, of course, “one of” is vague. There have been thousands and thousands of series made since the television was made, so even being in the 10% would be impressive. But I’m assuming Adelstein plans to aim higher than that.

Here is a list I compiled based on several sources. There is some disagreement based on rounding and the fact most are just estimates, but this should give you an idea of what a top 30-or-so television series would cost per episode:

Series Name Cost (in millions of $)
ER 13
The Crown 13
The Get Down 11
Friends 10
Game of Thrones 10
Vinyl 10
Rome 9
Marco Polo 9
Sense8 9
Westworld 9
Daredevil 9
Camelot 7
The West Wing 6
Fraiser 5.2
Boardwalk Empire 5
True Blood 5
Deadwood 4.5
House of Cards 4.5
Lost 4
Fringe 4
Hemlock Grove 4
Terra Nova 4
Orange is the New Black 4
Breaking Bad 3.5
Jessica Jones 3.3
Luke Cage 3.3
Glee 3.2
Mad Men 3
Homeland 3
Arrested Development 3
The Walking Dead 2.75
Cheers 2.2
Seinfeld 2
Spartacus: Blood and Sand 2

From these 34 shows, the average is about $6 million, a median of $4.5. To be in the top 15, One Piece would need to spend about $9 million. Now, this may not sound too extravagant considering plenty of movies have budgets of $200+ million. But in a season, that could easily add up to $90 million. That would be twice the cost of the American live action remake of Death Note, three times the cost Dragonball Evolution, and almost the cost of the remake of Ghost in the Shell. Now if it were record-breaking at, say, $14-15 million an episode? That’s definitely the cost of a movie.

One Piece and the Many Pieces of a Budget

Tomorrow Studios may or may not have a general outline for the series. If you don’t know a whole bunch about One Piece, Luffy and his friends are searching for the legendary treasure One Piece. It takes until about the 46th volume of the manga (Episode 337) before the final crew member is introduced. That’s about halfway through the manga and 40% of the anime. In other words, a very long time.

One Piece Crew
Front: Luffy Second row: Usopp, Robin, Nami, Chopper Third: Zolo, Sanji Back row: Franky, Brook

Will the live action series start right from the first chapter of the manga and spend several seasons before recruiting Straw Hat Pirate #9, Brook? Do an abridged version and have the main cast assembled in a couple of seasons? Start near or after the time skip, with all nine already comrades?

This alone will have a huge factor on the budget. With the first option, production costs will only increase as more actors join the main cast, and no doubt that whoever plays Luffy, Zolo, Nami, and the other early Straw Hat Pirates will want a raise as the show continues on. The third option will mean that the budget will already be planned out, as the staff will know how much it will allocate to have a CGI or robotic skeleton and a brief-wearing cyborg right from the start.

Let’s go even further with this line of though. Say One Piece costs $3 million an episode to make. Jessica Jones is a mystery action series that costs $3 million an episode to make. The show is set in New York City, but One Piece takes place in another world. While Jessica Jones can do a lot of shooting in actual places, One Piece will need some elaborate sets and costumes to show lands up in the clouds and under the sea. Still, let’s stick with this figure.

We’ll also go on the low end based on the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union contract and this article and say the major stars will earn about $5,500 an episode. Brook and Chopper will likely be the oddballs, but the early pirates (Luffy, Zolo, Nami, Usopp, Sanji) versus adding Franky and Robin means an $11,000 difference just for the actors alone. That still leaves $2.96 million for everything else, but don’t forget what else factors into this per-episode difference based on the cast size:

  • Brook and Chopper voice acting
  • Brook and Chopper CGI
  • Brook music
  • Franky artillery
  • Robin hands
  • Scriptwriters adding lines for all characters
  • More time need for the directors to ensure all characters are staged and captured
  • More makeup artists (or additional hours)
  • More costume designers (or additional hours)
  • More assistants
  • Additional stunt performers

Also, the $5,500 per episode per actor are likely on the low end. The actor playing Luffy will be likely want more than his castmates unless Tomorrow Studios decides to cast a well-known star as one of his crew members; either way, it’s unlikely that everyone will be making the same amount. A one-hour show, based on information I gathered from around the web, takes about two to three weeks an episode, a week of which is dedicated to filming. $150 per background character. $10,000 or more for a script. $40 an hour for makeup artists. Royalties on future episodes for whoever directs the pilot episode. And I’m just lowballing these estimates; the main characters will likely earn $10 to $20,000, but high-profile stars will command a bigger price. Start bumping up these salaries more toward the medians and averages, and that $3 million will be used up quickly.

How Much Will It Take to Make One Piece a Success?

Unlike movies, however, how much a television show has to make to be a financial triumph is unclear. For movies, depending on the amount spent promoting the film and the costs to actually air it in theaters around the world, even making about double your money back means it’s a flop.

So what if One Piece does go on the high end, say, $8+ million an episode? Sure, this gets the show more impressive visual effects and perhaps more experienced leads, but this also means it needs an incredible following. Yes, One Piece is starting off in a more advantageous position name recognition versus a brand-new, made-just-for-TV series, but that also means some very vocal, opinionated fans. Even original author Eiichiro Oda asked the studio to “not betray” fans who have loved this manga for 20 years. If Tomorrow Studios doesn’t show all the features of the Going Merry or the Thousand Sunny, trust me, they’ll be hearing about it all across social media.

One Piece CrewBut look at all the shows in that list that cost over $8 million per episode. The Crown. Game of Thrones. Friends. Think of all the attention those shows get. That means One Piece has to pull some big numbers. The anime isn’t even available on Toonami anymore, likely because of ratings or the high royalties. Sure, a lot of One Piece fans would rather keep up with the latest episodes, but the cost per episode is probably pennies on the dollar compared to a live action adaptation. Again, if fans don’t have the time, patience, or interest to rewatch old episodes in English, are they going to be willing to wait for the whole cast to assemble? (Of course, the live action series could just create their own new arcs, but new viewers may feel overwhelmed and confused by the large cast and their goals.)

Oda said Hollywood productions tend to have larger budgets than Japanese ones, and I really don’t doubt that. And, like many movies, perhaps international profits will more than make up for any lackluster US revenue. But here’s a sobering thought from Sora News 24:

And while any producer would salivate over the prospective freedom of working with the largest TV budget in history, it’d take some phenomenal wheeling and dealing for Tomorrow Studios to obtain that sort of financial backing

[…]

Throw in the abysmal track record live-action adaptations of anime have, especially those produced overseas, and investors probably won’t be fighting each other to throw money at a live-action One Piece. Even Japanese investors are likely to be lukewarm on the idea of bankrolling a TV series that will need to be translated and dubbed into Japanese before it can air in the franchise’s native country, and is almost virtually guaranteed to feature not even a single bankable domestic star.

Adelstein could just be posturing in hopes to drum up a lot of sponsors, but if he were to announce he wants this to be a big budget production and not have any grounded expectations? Yeah, that’s just setting the show up for failure.

Final Thoughts

I do hope One Piece is a success — both financially and with its fans. The biggest worry is that the series bombs and Japanese creators and Western studios become even more hesitant about approving live action anime/manga adaptations. I know some of you are there are already thinking that’s not a bad idea, but fans should be open enough to try them out. There are several good series that might be ripe for a Western remake. (Fullmetal Alchemist comes to mind.)

If Adelstein is serious about making the live action One Piece one of the most expensive ever, then the stakes are just as high as searching for the legendary pirate treasure One Piece. Without reaching out to new, non-anime viewers, I don’t think One Piece will be able to be a hit. And if this project fails, a Fullmetal Alchemist remake — or Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, or any other hit anime — is ever greenlit, will probably get stuck with a minimum budget. That’s a debt even the priceless One Piece couldn’t pay off.

What do you think about a American live action adaptation of One Piece? Would you prefer the series starting from the beginning of the manga, jumping ahead in time, or having its own universe?  Do you think it will end up being an expensive series? Do you think it will be successful? What should they use their big budget on: actors, filmography, directors, costumes, set design, something else?