H’wood eclipses local fare

Market share of Japanese pix falls 4%

TOKYO — It was business as usual in Japan’s distribution world in 2002. Although total box office receipts reached ¥196.8 billion, ($1.6 billion), the main earners were U.S. blockbusters led by the “Harry Potter” franchise.

No local film came close to the record of the Toho-distributed and Studio Ghibli-produced “Spirited Away,” which secured $270 million, straddling 2001 and 2002. The biggest Japanese hit of ’02 was Studio Ghibli toon “Cat’s Return: Ghibli’s Episode II,” which at No. 8 was the only homegrown production that made it on to the top 10 list, with a box office cume of $53 million.

The market share of Japanese films sank from 31% in 2001 to 27%, with Toho remaining the leader in Japanese distribution. Among 17 local films with ¥1 billion or more in box office receipts, the local major distributed 11 (including the top five), with competitor Toei coming in a distant second, handling only four Japanese pics.

Shochiku and Herald, which jointly distributed the first installment of the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, profited from its healthy cume of $74 million, while Shochiku landed a surprise hit, in cooperation with Asmik Ace, releasing “I Am Sam” to the tune of $28.4 million (No. 10 among the top 10).

Sleeper hit of the year was youth-oriented “Ping Pong,” distributed by Asmik Ace, which struck a chord with viewers across a wider age spectrum with its portrayal of high school days. Starring hot thesp Yosuke Kubozuka of “GO”-fame, it grossed $11.7 million, in part thanks to a clever release build-up fueled by word of mouth.

It was a disappointing year at the box office for Gaga Communications and Toho-Towa, two strong indies in Japan. Gaga, which handled major hits like “The Green Mile” and “The Mexican” in the recent past, had to be satisfied with pushing the Hong Kong picture “Shaolin Soccer” to a satisfying $23.5 million box office cume, with “The Others” ($13.3 million) and “Austin Powers in Goldmember” ($9.2 million) completing a lackluster top three for the company.

Meanwhile, Toho-Towa had to look on as “XXX” and “Black Hawk Down” failed to grip. The first came away with $14.2 million, the latter with $10.8 million

As far as a prognosis for 2003 is possible, a repeat of last year seems realistic, although the balance among distribs might shift. Shochiku and Herald can rely on the second installment of “The Lord of the Rings,” while Gaga might be able to compensate for 2002 with high-profile products like “Chicago,” “Kill Bill” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in its lineup.

Among Japanese productions — and not counting the usual animated fare, Toho’s heavily advertised historical drama “Spy Sorge,” opening in June, might be a defining moment for local film production. It cost $14 million to make (pricy by Japanese standards) and is the latest work by veteran helmer Masahiro Shinoda. But many doubt that the story of a famous German spy in wartime Japan will attract the young-skewing film auds.