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Indie distribs claim bigger slice of pie

Japan

TOKYO — Japan is the world’s second-biggest film market, with a large and growing appetite for pics from around the world: Distribs released 821 titles in 2006, 404 of which were foreign, up from 375 in 2005.

Hollywood majors dominate, handling 17 of the 20 foreign titles to gross ¥1 billion ($8.55 million) or more last year, while Buena Vista released one of the remaining three, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” together with Shochiku.

Nonetheless, local indie distribs have come to account for a large portion of the lucrative arthouse market, while beefing up their slates with hot domestic product and the occasional big Hollywood pic.

At the head of the Japanese indie class is Shochiku, the 112-year-old heavyweight that co-distribbed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Skedded for release in September is “Call of the North,” a nature doc by Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson that Shochiku hopes will follow the 2005 smash “March of the Penguins” into the box office winner’s circle. Looking ahead to March, Shochiku will release Chris Weitz’s “His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass,” another would-be blockbuster that feeds the huge Japanese appetite for Brit fantasy epics. Shochiku will release jointly with Gaga Communications.

“We’re looking for films with clearly defined targets,” says Shochiku acquisitions chief Kaz Moriguchi. “Also the concept and story have to appeal strongly to audiences who have a wide range of entertainment options. The genre itself doesn’t matter.”

In contrast to Shochiku’s strategy of targeting the broad middle of the market, with a slate weighted heavier on the domestic than the foreign side of the scale, Movie-Eye Entertainment offers a lineup of mostly midrange and arthouse product, with major fest winners and Oscar-nommed pics a prominent part of the mix.

Among its 2007 releases are “Bobby,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Point .45,” “Little Children” and “Michael Clayton” as well as the Chinese pics “Summer Palace” and “One Summer With You.” Topping the fall lineup is the Zhang Yibai drama “The Longest Night in Shanghai,” a Japan-China co-production Movie-Eye is co-distribbing with Shochiku.

“The Korean film boom has faded, but Asian films are still strong in this market,” comments Film Acquisitions Division prexy Masami Kajita. “At Cannes we’re looking to buy at least three films. We especially want films that will bring women in the 20-to-34-year-old and 35-to-49-year-old age groups to the theater. They are the main target audience in Japan.”

BOX OFFICE OVERVIEW

Top Film 2006:
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”: $84.9 million
Total B.O.: $1.734 billion
Total number of releases: 821

Recent Pickups
“Michael Clayton” (Movie-Eye Entertainment)
“His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass” (Shochiku/Gaga Communications)
“Shrek the Third” (Asmik Ace Entertainment)
“Apocalypto” (Toho-Towa)
“Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D” (Gaga Communications)

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