Japan flexes plexes

Exhib expansion hailed at CineAsia confab

SINGAPORE — Japan is accelerating a massive cinema expansion that ought to further entrench the market as the U.S. majors’ most lucrative territory outside the U.S.

By 2000 the number of screens is predicted to balloon to 2,500 from the current 1,828, delegates at the CineAsia movie convention here were told Thursday.

Good for U.S.

That’s got to be good news for the U.S. majors, which saw their rentals from Japan slump by 24% last year to 24.1 billion yen ($195.2 million). The entire Japan B.O. declined by 11%. Warner Bros. Japan managing direc-tor Bill Ireton told a seminar on the future of exhibition in Asia that movies such as “Daylight,” “A Time to Kill,” “Jingle All the Way” and “The Birdcage” all underperformed last year.

There are more than 300 multiplex sites that are available for development, said Anthony Winston, Shochiku Multiplex Theaters manager for theater construction. Currently there are 10 plexes.

Masahito Seki, Shochiku Multiplex exec VP, blamed “archaic” local government regulations for slowing down the company’s rollout.

Rocky start

AMC’s first plex in Japan, a 13-screen in Fukuoka launched last year, got off to a rocky start when the U.S. majors refused to supply firstrun product, reportedly succumbing to pressure from the entrenched Japanese chains. But biz picked up when the majors relented and made new films available. AMC senior VP Mark McDonald said the company intends to build 10-15 locations in Japan in the next five years.

Kichira Osaka, managing director of the Warner/Mycal co-venture, which operates eight multiplexes in Japan, said his locations enjoyed a 15% upswing in ticket sales last year. Osaka said the company intends to build 210 new screens in the next few years.

Specialized appetite

One interesting trend is that Japanese auds are showing an increasing appetite for specialized films, which traditionally have had very limited appeal there. Italo pic “The Postman” (Il Postino) has grossed a healthy $2 million, Buena Vista Intl. topper Dick Sano told the seminar.

Twentieth Century Fox Intl. exec VP Julian Levin said the studio’s revenues in the Asia Pacific region shot up by about 35% last year. Levin noted that the old stereotype of Asia being action-driven markets no longer holds true, as auds become more selective. He pointed to the huge success of Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” in South Korea as one example of markets breaking out of the action mold.. Levin also said the U.S. companies are agitating to lift the quota on foreign movies in Taiwan (currently limited to 11 prints per title), and he’s confident of a successful outcome.

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