Toho dances to toons

Japanese studio strikes gold with 'Doreamon' series, 'Conan'

TOKYO — Japanese studio Toho is pinning its box office resurgence this year to a toon boom.

After disappointing results last year, Toho has struck gold with the 22nd edition of the “Doreamon” series of animated movies, which grossed $13 million during the spring break, followed by “Detective Conan,” the fifth film inspired by the popular TV series, racking up a similar amount.

Toho execs are confident the hot streak will continue with the launch next month of the fourth “Pokemon” pic; indeed the studio initially is projecting it will bring in $17 million.

After lifting net profits for six consecutive years, the company failed to maintain that momentum in the fiscal year ending in February. Net profit tallied $51 million, a 6% dip on the prior year, on sales of $592 million.

Hiroshi Iino, Toho’s movie marketing manager, blamed the downturn of a lack of blockbusters last year. Only live-action pic “White Out,” which earned about $33 million, was a standout.

Among other toons on Toho’s release slate this year are “Sen-to Chihiro-no Kamikakushi” from Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, which produced the phenom “Princess Mononoke”; and “Inu-Yasha,” another TV series spinoff.

“Animated movies are bringing back to the cinemas people who grew up on such fare as ‘Doraemon’ and ‘Detective Conan,’ first in comics, then on TV screens,” Iino says.

Those films are generating tidy ancillary revs, as well — including sales at cinemas. “At an all-night premier of ‘Doraemon’ at a Tokyo cinema, we sold $15,000 worth of character goods,” Iino adds.

“Sen-to Chihiro … ” due to launch July 20 on 300 screens, will mark Toho’s first experiment with digital distribution. The pic will be digitally processed by Toho, fed to the data center of telecom NTT West, then wired via fiber optics to Osaka’s Scala-za Theater.

Execs will monitor the results of that trial before deciding how to proceed on the digital front.

Besides animation, Toho is pinning its hopes on the September release of “Taiga-no Itteki (A Single Drop in a Mighty River),” based on novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki’s 1998 essay, which sold more than 2 million copies. The film, scripted by seasoned director Kaneto Shindo and directed by Seijiro Koyama, centers on a romance between a Russian musician and a Japanese girl.

Toho operates 80 traditional single-screen cinemas plus 13 screens in multiplexes, and plans to expand to 106 screens by next spring.

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