Asian films gaining B.O. favor

'Bayside,' 'Hero' lead homegrown hits

TOKYO — Hollywood took a back seat to local and Asian fare this summer in Japan, which could lead to big changes in the industry.

“There is a great demand out there for local and Asian productions and, as we’ve discovered recently, for films from other Asian countries,” says Kaz Tadashiki, formerly Gaga Communications’ chief operating officer COO and since July President prexy and CEO of Movie-Eye, a small and ambitious production and talent packaging company specializing in Asian co-productions.

Box office charts show what’s triggering a shift in strategy. “Bayside Shakedown 2,” the sequel to a Fuji TV-produced hit five years ago, made some $140 million in theater admissions during two months of release and cost only slightly more than $8 million to make. It’s Japan’s highest-grossing live-action non-animated film ever.

“Hero,” Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou’s visually striking and f/x-heavy epic set in ancient China, was shunned by several potential buyers until Warner Bros. Japan went ahead with it in a relatively wide release mid-August — and raked in close to $33 million in only five weeks. Again a record, as the movie is Japan’s best-grossing non-Japanese Asian film so far.

These triumphs come at a time of serious discussions among Japan’s film industry and related government agencies dealing with ways to reinvigorate local production. At the same time, major Japanese distributors are reassessing their reliance on major tentpole pictures from across the Pacific, as the cost of those has made profits harder to reach.

“Why spend millions on overpriced minimum guaranties and necessarily extra-wide releases if you can make or buy a movie for about $3 million or less, spend less on advertising and hope for a decent box office?” asks an exec at another distributor in Tokyo. “It makes much more sense financially than having to deal with the high probability of barely breaking even.”

Recent expensive duds made in the U.S. reinforce this thinking. “The Hulk” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle 2” disappointed heavily at the Japanese box office, as they did Stateside. Among recent entries here, only “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “The Matrix Reloaded” performed as hoped. But then, “T3” star Arnold Schwarzenegger is a household name in Japan, fondly called “Shwachan,” while the “Matrix” franchise profits from its originality and full-blast advertising campaign.

Another factor preoccupying film execs here is a shift in audience preferences. “Young filmgoers are much more interested in, and comfortable with, the rest of Asia than their parents are,” notes Tokyo-based Taiwanese producer and distributor Shirley Kao, who’s involved in several major Japan-China projects and functions as a linchpin between Japanese and Chinese production and distribution companies.

They are also keen to see new and original films set in a cultural environment closer to their own. Explains a distribution exec, “As American films become increasingly formulaic, it gets more difficult to get people to see Hollywood pics which bet on purely American humor and values.” explains a distribution exec.

There is no sure-fire bet, though. Some of the Korean films released in recent months have flopped, and Chinese films usually make it only as specialized releases. But this might change, especially if Japanese companies, such as Movie-Eye, get more into the act and cooperate with neighboring countries from the development stage of each project.

Judging by increased production slates at companies such as Shochiku and forthcoming releases, the shift toward more local and Asian product is already well under way. For one, Takeshi Kitano’s highly anticipated film “Zatoichi,” released Sept. 6 after it received its Venice award, made an impressive 1.57 billion yen ($14 million) in only two weeks.

During the remaining months of this year, some high-profile releases, such as Toho’s “Onmyoji” sequel, will follow. And smaller distributors have bought up a record number of Korean and other Asian films for more specialized releases, crowding out many European films that traditionally fill most of the smaller chains and single screens.

“Korea and Greater cq cap China (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan) have a vibrant film industry, and it’s now for us to catch up,” says a producer in Tokyo. “After all, we are Asia’s biggest market.”

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