ShoWest Intl. Lifetime Achievement Award: Isao Matsuoka

TOKYO — Recipient of the ShoWest Intl. Lifetime Achievement Award, Matsuoka is a true giant of the Japanese biz who steered Toho, the company where he has spent his half-century career, to its current position as undisputed industry leader.

After entering Toho straight out of college in 1957, Matsuoka moved swiftly up the corporate ranks, taking over as prexy in 1977. At that time the Japanese biz was in crisis, with studios failing, aud numbers falling and Hollywood gaining market share.

Matsuoka and his management team responded with a strategy that made the most of Toho’s strengths, including its ownership of prime property in urban entertainment districts and its nationwide chain of theaters, while cutting back sharply on pic production.

Even Toho’s signature Godzilla series was not immune — though the company kept reviving and revamping it during Matsuoka’s tenure.

Toho organized production consortiums with major media companies to spread the risks, including the Fuji TV web and the Studio Ghibli toon house.

This strategy was vindicated as the Japanese biz began recovering a decade ago, beginning with a boom in multiplex construction. With its solid foundation of assets and relationships, Toho emerged as the dominant local player in distribution, reeling off hit after major hit, while building the country’s biggest multiplex chain.

“What we have to do now as an industry is grow attendance, not just build more screens,” says Matsuoka, who has been Toho’s chairman since stepping down as prexy in 1995. “Japanese go to the theater an average of 1.3 times a year. We should raise it to at least two.”

As chairman of Eiren (Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan), Matsuoka has led industrywide initiatives to bring auds back to the theaters, including special discounts for high school students and couples over the age of 50.

But the films themselves, he believes, are still the biggest draws — and the Japanese biz is making more pics that ordinary fans will pay to see, discounts or no.

“New people, resources and money have been flowing into the industry for the past decade or so, until we now have something of a production bubble,” he comments. “Talent is coming into the film industry from television and elsewhere and making new types of films that are popular with audiences.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood pics performed relatively weakly in 2006, allowing the Japanese competition to take a majority market share for the first time in 21 years.

“Hollywood is making more films that appeal only to American audiences,” Matsuoka observes. He believes, though, that this situation is “only temporary,” and he will not be sorry to see it end.

“To boost average annual theater visits to two, Hollywood films have to do better. Japanese films can’t do it alone,” he maintains. “The ideal is a 40% share for Japanese films and a 60% share for Hollywood. That way, everybody wins.”

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