The breakout popularity of “Stranger Things” and “Wednesday” was a boon for Netflix execs, but also a lesson — both forced a scramble to line up marketing and licensing deals after launch. If the streamer’s upcoming fantasy-adventure series “One Piece” similarly turns into a phenom — as the early hype indicates — this time they’ll be ready.
Of all the titles promoted out of Netflix’s June 17 Tudum fan event, “One Piece” — the live-action TV series adaptation of the bestselling manga — was the most talked about, outpacing everything else featured at the São Paulo affair four to one, according to Netflix. “One Piece” lead actor Iñaki Godoy has seen his Instagram following spike from 28,000 to 450,000 ahead of the show’s Aug. 31 premiere.
More from Variety
“I think we were all stunned, truly stunned,” Netflix head of U.S. and Canada scripted series Peter Friedlander told Variety. “We knew that there was a big fan base, but to watch those actors step out onstage, you could barely hear anything. They could barely get words out, and it was really an emotional experience just watching the actors.”
Based on Eiichiro Oda’s long-running manga and anime of the same name, “One Piece” has a built-in fan base eager to see mystically stretchy, aspiring pirate king Monkey D. Luffy (newcomer Godoy) and the Straw Hat Pirates — Nami (Emily Rudd), Sanji (Taz Skylar), Zoro (Mackenyu) and Usopp (Jacob Romero) — set sail on their ship, the Going Merry, this week on Netflix. The crew is in search of the world’s greatest treasure, the elusive “one piece,” with the marines on their heels each wave of the way.
“It’s heartening to see the early reaction just to what we’ve shown,” Friedlander said. “With the teaser and trailer we’ve put out, we were trying to show the fans we’re loving on this IP, we are loving on this show and we hope you see that. I feel very hopeful and confident going into this.”
As the launch approaches, Netflix’s marketing and PR teams have begun steering this ship, stoking fan interest with 10 events worldwide — including in Los Angeles, Paris, Jakarta and Tokyo — before its premiere. And the consumer products division is at the ready with a Zara “One Piece” clothing line set to debut later in September, after the show launches. On deck is even more merch at such outlets as Hot Topic, Bandai, Hot Toys, Mexico’s Liverpool and the U.K.’s HMV.
This kind of prep is unprecedented for a first-season show — and it signals Netflix’s faith in “One Piece’s” future. That’s in spite of its last attempt at adapting popular Japanese IP into a live-action series, the John Cho-led “Cowboy Bebop.” Years in the making, the sci-fi space Western was a flop, and was canceled less than a month after its November 2021 release.
“What we learned is the fans are expecting you to be true to the source material,” says executive producer Marty Adelstein, whose Tomorrow Studios produced “Cowboy Bebop” for Netflix before embarking on “One Piece.” “As we read the comments, it was always, ‘Well, they didn’t do this character the same as this and that.’ … It really taught us a lot of what we needed to do with this one.”
The backlash to “Cowboy Bebop” also served as a warning that an adaptation of the equally beloved “One Piece” would face just as many potential critics. But with Oda and “One Piece” manga publisher Shueisha producing the project, Tomorrow Studios and Netflix had the best team possible to keep the series true to its source material.
“It became everyone’s goal to make sure that when you looked at the show, you thought this was a live-action version of the manga that just felt like another feather in the legacy of Oda,” says Becky Clements, the president of Tomorrow Studios, which landed the rights to develop “One Piece” into a live-action series in partnership with Oda and publisher Shueisha in 2017. “That people just get to see it in another genre, but still have the same reaction and feelings toward the narrative.”
Netflix picked up the series in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world. It soon developed a “nakama” — a bonded team, as Luffy and his Straw Hats are described in “One Piece” — of U.S., Japanese and Korean Netflix executives devoted to the adaptation, according to Friedlander.
“We hadn’t done something like that before,” Friedlander says. “The logistics of that — late-night calls, early morning calls, emails — it just changes the recipe of how you would help support a show, and I think that really was a special element, a little bit of the secret sauce, because we wanted to have different perspectives on the fandom.”
“One Piece” co-showrunner Steven Maeda, who developed the series alongside Matt Owens, says the show, which was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, and is Netflix’s largest-ever production in Africa, had “a healthy, healthy, healthy budget” and the stamp of approval from Oda throughout the entire process.
On Aug. 18, Netflix Japan’s YouTube account shared two videos that included quotes from “One Piece” production notes given by Oda to Netflix execs, in order to show fans just how involved Oda was and what he personally signed off on.
We need to consider the worst-case scenario.
I can’t say something is good when it isn’t.
This is very good, but we can do even better.
The fans trust me. So I can’t lie to them.
We actually found our real-life Luffy. I’m shocked.
I’m touched by the love of ONE PIECE sprinkled through out every frame.
From Eiichiro Oda
To Eiichiro Oda:
A 1:1 re-enactment is impossible.
Live-action adaptation isn’t about replication. It’s expression.
We’re not at all satisfied yet, either.
We want to rewrite the history of live-action adaptations.
We have two goals. To not betray the fans. And to have the show be loved by those who don’t yet know ONE PIECE.
“Let’s make something great.”
With the utmost respect for Oda and his work top of mind for Owens and Maeda, Maeda says it was “tremendously challenging to make any kind of changes to such a beloved property.” But some changes still needed to be made.
“When Oda-san was writing the manga, there was no sense of an eight-episode television season — he writes in his own timetable, and his own structure for how he sees the storyline of the characters,” Maeda says. “That said, he did give me a very lovely section of the first 100 chapters of the ‘One Piece’ manga — and I won’t give any spoilers yet, but [the live-action ‘One Piece’] tries to craft the 100 chapters into eight episodes of television that have to have their own rise and fall and story arc.”
With early hype strong but post-launch viewership unavailable until the Netflix Top 10 comes out next Tuesday, Friedlander “truly” hopes “One Piece” is a “successful show that can continue, because I do believe that Oda-san has crafted an ongoing run of stories and adventures and characters that I would love to see realized through ‘One Piece’ live-action.” And though Friedlander can’t make any premature promises about “One Piece” Season 2–and knows Netflix viewers have concerns about early-on cancellations, including “Cowboy Bebop” — he points to the streamer’s recent track record for renewing genre shows that meet fans’ expectations.
“You can’t get it right every time,” Friedlander said. “You hope that with creative passion and storytellers that you do. And that’s what I’m here for, is to support the storytellers and how they interpret and adapt and experience an IP. And I think we’ve had a pretty impressive run when you think about just within the last year with ‘The Sandman’ and ‘Wednesday.’ And I do think we are able to adapt some of these IP into something that’s extraordinary and unexpected, and still truly honor what it is.”
As for Owens and Maeda’s plans for a Season 2, Maeda says they are “definitely taking it one step at a time,” simply because of the decades of “One Piece” material Oda-san has given them to work with that lead to “so many possibilities and endless permutations.”
Right now, the focus is just on launching that “One Piece” Season 1 ship out into the East Blue Sea.
“Along with Oda-san’s oversight and cooperation and partnership, I think that we came up with the very best version of this show that we can,” Maeda says. “I can’t complain that money wasn’t spent, I can’t complain that our hands were tied — we were able to make the show we wanted to make.”
This story has been expanded from the version printed in the Aug. 23 issue of Variety. The quotes from co-showrunner Steven Maeda were obtained during an interview organized by contacting Maeda’s publicist, not through Netflix, in accordance with WGA strike rules.
Best of Variety