Local monsters trample Hollywood fare

In a stunning year, the market share of local films is expected to hit the 50% mark for the first time since 1985 and production may exceed 400 titles for the first time since 1973.

Although no Japanese film has crossed the Y10 billion ($88.6 million) line this year, the number of titles grossing Y5 billion ($26 million) or more — the local measure of a blockbuster — has hit six, an all-time high.

As a result, total B.O. for the year is expected to surpass last year’s $1.71 billion.

Leading the locals is Toho, Japan’s biggest distrib and exhibitor, which grossed $482 million from January through November, beating its 12-month total of $448 million for 2005. Toho’s top earner was the Studio Ghibli toon “Tales from Earthsea,” followed by the sea actioner “Umizaru 2: Test of Trust” and the Koki Mitani comedy “Suite Dreams.”

The company puts little of its own coin into its slate of films: Instead the producers are mainly TV webs and other media giants, who form consortia and push their product with coordinated marketing campaigns.

Among the webs, Fuji TV led the pack through the first half of the year with “Umizaru 2″ and “Suite Dreams,” but lost traction when its big late summer film “Udon” stumbled out of the gate. Meanwhile arch-rival TBS gained ground with “The Sinking of Japan” and its fall smash “Nada Sou Sou Tears for You,” a drama of brother-sister love that may cross the $30 million mark.

The web’s dream of beating Fuji for the year were probably dashed, however, when its last big film for 2006, “Nana 2,” opened weakly in December.

On the Hollywood side, BVI’s “Pirates of the Caribbean 2″ won the summer — and the year — with a B.O. of $89 million, compared with the $59 million scored by the first “Pirates” film in 2003.

“The Chronicles of Narnia” scooped $59 million for third place among foreign films, confirming Japan’s ongoing love affair with fantasy epics — as well as solidifying BVI’s position as the leading foreign distrib for the year.

“The Da Vinci Code” finished second with $77 million, boosted by the eight million-plus sales of Dan Brown’s novel.

The biggest Hollywood disappointment was “Memoirs of a Geisha,” whose Japan-themed story was expected to appeal to local auds much as “The Last Samurai” had in 2003. Instead the film finished with $13 million — more than $100 million short of “Samurai’s” Japan total. Japanese critics slammed the film’s freeform take on geisha culture, while industry types questioned the decision to cast non-Japanese actresses in the three leads.

Warner’s, however, hit the jackpot by adding the two “Death Note” films to its 2006 lineup. Based on a best-selling comicbook and produced by the NTV web, this twofer thriller about a college student who kills by writing the victim’s name in a mysterious notebook became a must-see.

The first “Death Note” film earned $25 million following its June release, while the second, which bowed in November, has hit the $40 million mark.

The success of “Death Note” will accelerate the trend of Hollywood major producing and distribbing local films, while the B.O. slide of Korean films — none has reached the one billion yen mark this year, despite massive PR campaigns — is hastening the end of the hanryu or Korean wave, which washed that country’s pop culture products over Japan.

What’s the next boom? That once hot genre, the romantic drama, is cooling as too many formulaic films crowd screens. But warriors of various stripes and eras are still big B.O., reflecting the rise in Japanese nationalism and the accompanying fascination with things military.

Coming in March is “The Blue Wolf,” uber-producer Haruki Kadokawa’s $26 million epic follow-up to his WW2 smash “Yamato.” Starring Japan’s Takashi Sorimachi as Mongolia’s Genghis Khan, the film looks likely to triumph at the Japanese wickets.

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