Nippon Buyers, Daunted ’90, Play Safe

The Japanese may be buying up the U.S. movie industry, but they are not wild about buying U.S. films.

Delegates to this year’s AFM will be coming with slimmer pocketbooks and smaller ambitions than they have for many years.

Almost all admit that they badly misjudged the rapidly changing trends among Japanese audiences last year. Although U.S. films still corner a quarter of the Japanese market, no company seems to know what sort of film it wants.

“We really don’t know what we should buy at the AFM,” admits Shinji Serada, exec. v.p. of Shochiku-Fuji, one of the three main independent distributors. “Last year was difficult for us. We are now researching very intensely – analyzing audiences, tastes, boxoffice returns, and so on – to find out what we should buy.”

Young males dominant

Latest surveys by the Japan Video Assn. show that young males between the ages of 13 and 30 constitute about 80% of the video rental market, and that 60% of these prefer action-adventure films. But movie theater audiences, predominated by teenage girls, prefer films that are almost exactly the opposite, with romantic young stars or animals; the Japanese call such movies kawaii (cute).

With the number of movie theaters remorselessly declining (down from 2,005 in 1988 to 1,912 in 1989) and video sales peaking (at a rental sales figure of $1.5 billion), some distributors have been trying to take up the slack with television sales.

Pack-In Video, which did not attend AFM last year, will be back in the market looking for four films (for a total budget of $4 million), which it hopes to broadcast on tv.

‘Relying on tv rights’

“We are relying on the tv rights to cover our costs,” explains Seligi Kizu, the deputy general manager of Pack-In. “Small companies like ours have suffered badly from the recession. We have been stringing out our video sales, releasing one or two titles a month instead of the usual four or five. But now we have run out of stock and we have got to go back to the market. So we will be at the AFM this year with a three-man delegation.”

Japan Audio Visual Network, which will be sending five people to AFM, is the only distributor that has been actively looking for an investment project in Hollywood. It has a $10 million project loan from its new part-owner, Mitsui Bank. But general manager Ken Uembara complains that although he reads lots of scripts, he has yet to find one that he thinks could guarantee a 15% return. He intends to spend $3 million for rights at AFM.

Other distributors, like Toho Towa and Shochiku-Fuji, which took small equity positions in U.S. movies in 1989 (“Naked Tango” and “Everybody Wins,” respectively), have not been encouraged by the results to repeat the experience.

‘Quality’ is Word One

“Sometimes you have to make a small investment to secure the Japan rights,” says Shochiku’s Serada. “This time we will only be interested in buying distribution rights.”

“Quality” is the buzzword on every Japanese buyer’s lips.

“I don’t care what sort of movie it is – action, comedy, whatever – it has got to be a quality film,” says Sam Nanba, senior vice president of Nippon Herald Films. “Most young people now just want to see the video six months after the movie release. Quality films are the ones they will come to see in the movie houses. They feel they must see them because all their friends are talking about them and they cannot wait for video.”

Can Harry meet Sally again?

Nippon Herald will be sending a four-man delegation to AFM, and hopes to pick up another “When Harry Met Sally” – its big success in 1989.

But chances of finding a winner like that are remote, according to Haramasa Shirasu, president of Toho Towa. “In this era of modern communication, we hear about all the interesting products long before they come to the market. When we hear someone is making something interesting, we always try to get more information. If it sounds good, we buy the Japan rights in the pre-production stage.

“By the time a good film comes to the market, the rights have been bought. It is very rarely that we have a pleasant surprise in the screening room [ at AFM].”

Shirasu and his three-man delegation, like most of his Japanese colleagues, attend AFM not so much to buy films as to maintain contacts and pick up the latest gossip.

A failure of cuteness

Toho Towa just completed production of two joint-venture films in China, as well as “Naked Tango” (by David Weisman of “Kiss Of The Spider Woman”).

Toshiba Video Software, which had a big success with “cute” movies two years ago, failed to find the same winning formula last year. This time it will be looking for “big titles with big-name actors and actresses,” says program purchaser Ritsuko Kakita.

Humax, which had a hit last year with “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” will send a three-man delegation.

Tohokushinsha, which sent 10 delegates and spent $10 million last year, will be tightening the purse strings this year, like every other Japanese distributor.

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