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Extra push needed for imports as locals take the lead

Japan

Surviving as an indie distrib has never been tougher in Japan’s hyper-competitive market, where 731 titles fought for space on 2,926 screens last year.

Also, with the local biz gaining strength — it is poised to take a majority market share in 2006 for the first time in 21 years — indie buyers of foreign titles have to become more savvy if they hope to compete.

“Only films with a strong promotional hook will work in this market,” says Kana Koido, acquisitions manager for Klockworx. “It’s becoming harder to find them.”

One recent Klockworx pic with that sort of hook is “The King and the Mockingbird,” a 1980 French toon by Paul Grimault that anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki has credited as an influence on his own hugely successful style.

Klockworx released the pic close to the blockbuster bow of “Tales From Earthsea,” the directorial debut of Miyazaki’s son Goro. It has basked in the newer toon’s reflected media glow — and enjoyed a long, profitable run as a result.

Also, the days are passing when an indie distribber could make a tidy bundle from a release at a single Tokyo arthouse. Higher minimum guarantees — another consequence of stiffer competition — means distributors have to roll out a pic wider to recoup.

“Today more indie releases are on 30 to 60 screens,” says Koido. “That means you have to find films that will appeal to a wider audience.”

Japanese indies often find themselves fighting for the few titles with that appeal, a battle that requires “getting the right information fast,” says Mio Nakane, international acquisitions and sales manager for Art Port.

Nakane often makes her buying decisions based on a script or lineup. “We buy the action titles that have long been our mainstay, but we also strive for variety,” she says.

Among recent Art Port releases are the Afghanistan-set drama “September Tapes,” Jamaica-set romancer “One Love” and horror pic “Return of the Living Dead 4.”

While realizing the need to keep up with trends (“Topical films like ‘Hotel Rwanda’ are popular in Japan now,” she comments), she believes the ultimate key for indie success is passion for the product: “We won’t buy a film unless at least one person in the company is really enthused about it. Otherwise, the audience probably isn’t going to like it either.”

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