Japan: Despite tough talk distribs mine plenty of hits

Territory Reports

B.O. cume (through August): $1.1 billion
Top title: “Negotiator” (Toho, $42 million)

“Arsene Lupin” (Kadokawa Herald Pictures)
“Fur” (Gaga Communications)
“Iberia” (Comstock)
“Seven Swords” (Warner Bros. Japan)
“Yeonriji” (Pony Canyon)

“Bushi no ichibun”: Yoji Yamada directs this final installment of the Shuhei Fujisawa-scripted swordplay trilogy that began with the Oscar-nommed “Twilight Samurai” and followed this year with “The Hidden Blade.” Story is of a young swordsman who loses his eyesight and his wife, and fights for vengeance and honor. Lenses in early 2006 with Takuya Kimura (“2046”) toplining. (Shochiku)
“The Great Yokai War” (Yokai daisenso): The most family-friendly movie from eccentric helmer Takashi Miike. A live-action take on Yokai, bizarre-looking monsters and supernatural beings. Pic was a big hit on home turf earlier this year. Story, about a young man who has to save the creatures from a dark overlord, might be secondary to its visual inventiveness. (Kadokawa Herald Pictures)
“Stormy Night”: There is more to Japanese animation than Studio Ghibli blockbusters or, at the other end of the scale, salacious mangas. The story of an unusual friendship between a wolf and a goat, “Stormy Night” gets a pre-Christmas release in Japan. Completed; pic will screen privately on the eve of the market. (Tokyo Broadcasting System)

Taking a cue from their favorite TV dramas, Japanese theatrical auds are showing preferences for strong — often melodramatic or simplistic — storylines.

Local hits “Train Man,” “Nana” and “Shining Boy” are in this mold while “War of the Worlds” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” drew auds for the same reason.

Sales companies and studios continue to be aggressive with Japan in rights deals. Asking for 10% of the budget is common enough, but distrib wariness is growing. (Toho Towa took nearly a year to negotiate rights for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”) Local titles are doing better and distributors are upping their inhouse production capabilities.

But both sellers and distribs know that if a film connects with the sophisticated and ultrafinicky Japanese public that fee will look like a bargain — Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” earned most of its global B.O. gross from a $25 million take in Japan. Asking for 15% or more is common in the case of films with top star appeal in Japan (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp). But South Korean sellers have taken this to extreme lengths, seeking, and on several occasions this year obtaining, single-territory license fees in excess of the production budget.

With the exception of “April Snow,” the inflation of Korean rights is thought to have peaked. (Pic, which had a budget of under $4 million and for which Universal paid $7 million, earned $14 million theatrically in its first two weeks.)

Although the wider Japanese economy might be emerging from a 10-year recession, there are still plenty of reasons for caution: With the multiplex building boom trailing off, the growth of the market is slowing. Sales to TV are providing less coin as ratings drop and alternative entertainment sectors (games, karaoke, broadband Internet) flourish. DVD also has shown signs of slowing earlier than most analysts had predicted.

Experience has made Japanese execs more wary. After the near collapse of Gaga (rescued by broadband operator Usen) and Nippon Herald (bought by Kadokawa), local distribs are significantly more risk averse. Downside-limiting, equity-sharing partnerships are becoming more common and sophisticated. Complex arrangements involving exhibs, video distribs and others involved in TV or the Internet take time, so there are unlikely to be AFM bidding battles.

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