First he brought the Hollywood A-list to Japan. Now the head of Warner Entertainment Japan is turning his attention to stars closer to home. Jason Gray reports.

In 2006, when Japanese films took a larger bite of the pie than Hollywood imports for the first time in more than two decades, Warner Entertainment Japan (WEJ) weathered the storm thanks mainly to the local titles on its slate.

'We took a dip, but fortunately our local titles, the two Death Note films and Brave Story, helped fill the gap. Those three movies counted for more than 40% of our theatrical revenues,' explains William Ireton, president and representative director of WEJ.

Warner Bros has been working to nurture local business in the world's second-largest market for years. This is in no small part thanks to Ireton, who served as managing director of Warner Bros for 18 years before being appointed to his newly created position last year, overseeing all of WEJ's activities in Japan.

Born in Japan to a US father and Japanese mother, Ireton is bilingual and bicultural, a huge advantage in such a big international market.

'We transformed from looking at each division as a business unit into looking at the whole operations from theatrical, to home video, to television, to consumer products and digital distribution,' he explains.

Under Ireton's guidance, the carefully customised marketing of releases has been a great success. Steven Spielberg's AI ($80m) in 2001, for example, with its now much-imitated personal director's message to Japanese audiences, outgrossed the US take. Additionally, no Japan-themed Hollywood film has been able to come close to The Last Samurai ($113m) two years later.

What is more, Ireton helped Clint Eastwood arrange research interviews during the making of Letters From Iwo Jima, which held the top position at the box office for five weeks during the important New Year period earlier this year and grossed more than $40m.

Under Ireton, WEJ mounted lavish, star-studded Tokyo premieres of Hollywood mega-hits long before it became accepted practice. In 2003, The Matrix Reloaded's $1m event was booked before Tokyo's Roppongi Hills cinema - which went on to become the film's highest grossing theatre worldwide - was even built.

Though not a world premiere, Japan saw Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix as part of star Daniel Radcliffe's Japanese press junket before the London world premiere.

The first four films in the Harry Potter franchise have grossed more than $500m (Yen60.7bn) in Japan, and Ireton has high hopes for the final tally. 'I'd love to do more, but a $1bn gross by the end of all seven films would be great,' he says. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix has broken a record for its three-day preview (July 14-16). WEJ announced it hopes to gross $123.6m (Yen15bn) with this instalment.

Ireton has also spearheaded WEJ's evolution as a local acquisition and production entity. 'We started a few years ago by acquiring titles, meaning 'non-US' locally acquired films. In the early years that meant Korean and Chinese movies, including House Of Flying Daggers, Hero, Windstruck, The Promise (co-distributed with Gaga) and Fearless.'

This led to WEJ's first participation in local Japanese film production, with the hugely successful Death Note series. Based on a manga and animated series, the twin releases grossed $66m (Yen8bn) and the DVD box set shipped in record numbers.

In addition to Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix and the already released 300, WEJ's slate for the rest of the year is dominated by US tentpoles, including Ocean's 13, The Brave One with Jodie Foster and I Am Legend with Will Smith. There are no Japanese films on its slate for this year but six are planned for 2008.

'We've amped up our local production and hired Hiroyoshi Koiwai, who used to produce at Fuji TV, as director of local production,' says Ireton. Next year's local production/acquisition slate will include three films in conjunction with NTV, including Hideo Nakata's Death Note spin-off L. Also on the slate is animation Sky Crawlers directed by Mamoru Oshii with Production IG, and live-action Sushi Oji based on a TV series.

Despite WEJ's success, one of Ireton's biggest challenges is the low frequency of cinema-going in Japan. On average, the Japanese visit the cinema between just 1.2 and 1.3 times a year.

'Whereas in the UK, you had a dramatic increase in multiplexes over a 10-year period, we haven't seen that sort of proportionate increase in audiences here,' Ireton suggests.

While he remains positive, he also has practical ideas about the future. 'There has to be more product that flows through the system here. It just takes too darn long for some movies to get into the distribution pipeline.

'The irony is that although 75% of the grosses are generated by the multiplexes, everything is bottlenecked out of the theatres (in Tokyo's upmarket) Ginza district. What's booked into Ginza, gets national distribution.

'What it would take to bust it wide open would be for someone to build a multiplex in the middle of Ginza, if you could make the economics work.'