Pop franchises mesmerize local audiences

TOKYO — The Japanese film distribution biz has been steadily chipping away at Hollywood’s one-time dominance with many of the same strategies that have made local comics, toons, TV shows, games and music so strong against the U.S. competition.

Nearly all the domestic films that have led the B.O. in the first nine months of 2008 are products of a local pop culture franchise with a big, loyal fanbase.

The biggest local hit of the year, with a take approaching $150 million, would seem to be an exception: Hayao Miyazaki’s toon “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” is loosely based on “The Little Mermaid,” not a Japanese comic. But after scoring hit after boffo hit at the Japanese B.O. over the past two decades, Miyazaki has become a brand unto himself.

Backing these local franchise pics are major media consortiums, with TBS, TV Asahi or another TV network taking a leading role as producer and promoter. The network and its partners run TV ads and relentlessly promote their pics on TV shows — a PR advantage U.S. studio distribs are hard put to match in Japan. Also, most of the top grossing domestic pics are released by Toho, which operates the country’s biggest theater chain.

Toho also shows lots of Hollywood films in its theaters, though they once had a much bigger market share — nearly 70% in 1998 versus less than 50% so far in 2008. What happened? “The films coming from America now are often not the types of films Japanese audiences want to see,” Toho rep Junichi Tamaki explains. “Many of them are based on American comics that Japanese just aren’t interested in — that’s probably the biggest reason.”

Another factor, says Tamaki, is the improved coolness quotient of the local product. “Japanese audiences used to think that Hollywood films were cool and Japanese film weren’t — but young people no longer feel that way.”

Meanwhile, most companies have been slower to make films available on the Internet, due to concerns about rights issues and piracy. One, Kadokawa, has come up with an unusual solution — since June it has been partnering with YouTube to identify what it considers legit posters of its content. Kadokawa then offers to run ads on the poster’s page and split the revenue with YouTube and the poster.

2008 B.O.

$1.240 billion (to August)

Top title

“Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” ($146 million, as of Oct. 13)

Recent pickups

“Kondo wa aisaka” (Toei)

“Halfway” (Cine Quanon)

“The Shinjuku Incident” (Toho-Towa)

“Midnight Meat Train” (Asmik Ace Entertainment)

“The Yellow Handkerchief” (Shochiku)

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