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Japan set to break 150 mil attendance mark

TOKYO — Japanese movie theater attendance is expected to break the 150 million mark in 1997 for the first time in 11 years. Several doemstic hits, a strong slate of imports and an emerging multiplex boom are all behind the upswing, a leading financial daily reported, citing industry sources.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun said major film companies are likely to post a record high 79 billion yen ($627 million) in film distribution income for the year, breaking the previous high set in 1983 of $62.4 million.

Officials from major film companies would not confirm the figures from the daily but did acknowledge that 1997 is certain to be a banner year.

The figures represent an amazing turnaround for the Japanese film industry from a year ago. In 1996, attendance and revenue marked lows that had not been seen for 35 years and many thought the industry was starting its fade into oblivion.

The turnaround began in late 1996 with the release of “Shall We Dance?” The film took in $31.6 million in Japan and since its North American release in 1997, it has become the top Japanese film at the U.S. box office, where it is set to break the $10 million mark.

In early 1997, “Shitsurakuen” (“Lost Paradise”) added another spark to the domestic industry. The story of a middle-aged couple’s extramarital love affair took in more than $26 million in Japan and was well received during its international debut at the Montreal International Film Festival.

Then came the monster hit “Mononoke Hime” (“The Phantom Princess”), the all time box office champ in Japan. The animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki eclipsed “E.T.” as Japan’s top movie at the box office and by the time its run ends in early 1998, the film is likely to tally $150 million at the box office and have attendance of over 12 million.

While the domestic side has been picking up, about two-thirds of the movies shown in Japan are imports from the U.S. “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and the Star Wars trilogy reissue were among the strongest products from Hollywood this year. Year-end releases such as “Men in Black,” “Air Force One” and “Titanic” are certain to pack theaters in Japan.

On the hardware side, a multiplex building boom also has sprouted in Japan, which helped push the number of screens in the country to 1,828 in 1996, up from 1,776 in 1995. The number of theaters had been in a tailspin since peaking at over 7,000 in the 1960s. Official figures for screens in 1997 are not yet available.

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