Majors look to Japan for projects

Success of local pics attracts o'seas shingles

Hollywood pics used to dominate the Japanese market, the world’s second largest, with regal ease. But with Japanese viewers turning more toward local product, Hollywood majors are looking to get in on the Japanese action. Studios are partnering on remakes of such American hits as “Sideways” and “Ghost” to help appeal to the Japanese market.

As recently as 2002, foreign pics, led by Hollywood product, recorded a 72.9% marketshare, accounting for the top seven B.O. slots. The balance of power, however, has since shifted, with Hollywood scoring fewer hits beyond the Harry Potter, Spider-Man and other mega franchises, while local films, especially pics backed by the Japanese TV networks and distribbed by powerhouse Toho, have gained ground.

In 2008, only two Hollywood pics — “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “I Am Legend” — appeared in the annual B.O. top 10, with local pics and the Chinese period epic “Red Cliff Part I” taking the other slots.

 The Hollywood majors have reacted by ramping up local production, much as they have in other markets around the world, but with a few only-in-Japan twists. Hollywood majors are finding the best way to work with the Japanese, is joining production consortiums consisting of TV networks, advertising agencies and other media companies.

 The upside of this system, which has been in place for nearly three decades, includes not only a sharing of risk, but a pooling of PR clout. A network, for example, can flog its own pics on its own shows, in addition to airing the usual ads. A Hollywood major serving as a distrib for such a consortium, as Warner Japan did with the two smash “Death Note” fantasy thrillers, can bank a tidy profit while trimming its ad budget. The downside, of course, is that Warner had to share the pics’ combined $86 million B.O.

 Seeing the potential for bigger paydays, Warner Bros. and other Hollywood majors in Japan are taking a more active role in development. Led by local production director Hiroyoshi Koiwai, Warners now has a staff of 10 working on its upcoming slate of local pics. More than 10 are in development, with one feature toon and at least two live-action pics soon to be announced.

 The 2009 slate already includes “Subaru,” Lee Chi Ngai’s drama about girl who dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, set for a March bow, followed in April by “Oppai Volleyball” (Breast Volleyball), a sports-themed teen comedy, and in early May by “Goemon,” an big-budget action fantasy helmed by Kazuaki Kiriya, whose 2004 epic “Casshern” was widely distribbed and screened abroad.

Koiwai notes that “Subaru” was produced with investment from four Asian countries, so sales throughout Asia and perhaps even in the U.S. should be robust.

 Also getting into the local production swim is Fox Japan, under the leadership of general manager Jesse Lee.

Fox is producing the Japanese remake of the hit 2004 Alexander Payne drama “Sideways” with the Fuji TV network. Tyro Cellin Gluck is helming while Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”), Kyoka Suzuki, Fumiyo Kohinata and Katsuhisa Namase star. Fox will bow the pic next fall.

 Fox is also developing pics with other local partners,  and distributing “Gunjo” (Cobalt Blue), a romantic drama about two generations of women who experience love on Okinawa. Also active as a local pic producer is Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, which is joining with veteran producer Satoru Iseki’s Tara Contents shingle and other equity partners to make “Rain Fall,” a Japan-set thriller. Gary Oldman stars, while Australian Max Mannix scripts and directs. Sony plans to release the pic wide for the April/May Golden Week holiday. 

 Paramount Japan’s first local production will be “Ghost,” a remake of the 1990 hit. Pic is being produced by horror maestro Taka Ichise (“Ring,” “The Grudge”) and due in 2010. 

Meanwhile, Disney Japan hasn’t plunged into features yet, but is making a series of toon shorts with local partners, including anime powerhouse Toei. Titles include “Fireball” and “RoboDz.”

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