'Phantom' should set records, but rivals await

TOKYO — “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” should set an opening-weekend box office record in Japan when it hits theaters here in July, but “Pocket Monsters” are not afraid of the Force.

Japan is all but certain to be the biggest overseas territory for “Phantom Menace” and it will open in a record 400 theaters July 10. Given the high level of expectations and a nearly 100% recognition rate in Japan, the film should eclipse the record weekend figures set by “Godzilla” last summer when it bowed at 389 theaters and attracted a half-million viewers on its opening day.

Summer challengers

The two summer entries that will challenge “Phantom Menace” in Japan this summer are animated features “Pocket Monsters Revelation Lugia” and “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” which pack far more punch than the sacrificial lambs sent out to do business with the George Lucas behemoth when it opened in the U.S.

“Pocket Monsters Revelation Lugia” will open July 17 at 260 theaters.

Last year, the first “Pocket Monsters” movie kicked the stuffing out of “Godzilla” in the Japan summer box office race by taking in rentals of 4.1 billion yen ($34.6 million) as opposed to the $25 million in rentals for the big lizard, which faded from its opening weekend glory to a respectable, but not dominating, position in the summer movie game.

The wild card of the summer is animated feature “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” from famed animation house Studio Ghibli. The movie will open July 10 or 17 at 260 theaters and will be the first release from the studio since its 1997 animated feature “Princess Mononoke,” which took in a then-record-setting $157 million at the box office.

The movie is based on a comic strip that has been running since 1991 in the national daily Asahi Shimbun. The film was made at a cost of about $15 million and has Buena Vista Home Entertainment as one of its producers, along with Japanese web Nippon Television Network, advertising giant Hakuhodo Inc. and publishing house Tokuma Shoten.

According to Fox’s Japan office, “Phantom Menace” is estimated to hit attendance of about 10 million in Japan and take in rentals of $84.2 million.

” ‘Star Wars: Episode I’ is the must-see film of the summer and there are three generations of fans out there,” said Toshio Furusawa, national marketing director for 20th Century Fox (Far East).

“The two animated films will have no impact on our results,” Furusawa said. He added that “Pocket Monsters” will do well in Japan, but it is a movie aimed at the children’s market, which is different than the market of preteens through adults that will see “The Phantom Menace.”

Long time coming

Fox Japan began its marketing campaign for the new “Star Wars” film more than a year ago and, according to marketing data, 85% of respondents to a recent moviegoing poll have a positive impression of the film.

“Phantom Menace” has been featured in Japanese publications ranging from economic dailies to fashion magazines and home-interior periodicals.

The ad budget for “Phantom Menace” is at about the same level as “Titanic.” The James Cameron movie took in $220 million in Japan to top all foreign territories.

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