Distributor offers lifeline to Japanese market

The launch of distributor PiX may be a lifeline for some foreign sales agents who have been starved of good news from the Japanese market in recent years.

Headed by Mio Sato, former head of Elephant Pictures, the company is a specialty label backed by the heavyweight Avex music, talent management and movies group.

Sato said PiX will acquire four or five arthouse movies per year, predominantly English-language titles with established helmers and strong scripts. One of its first pick-ups — from a Japanese helmer — is Cannes’ Un Certain Regard title “Tokyo Sonata” by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

“We are a director-driven company,” Sato said. “Not because directors are the sales pitch, but because a good director makes the difference. Cast and script quality on their own are not enough.”

Territory, which was once famous for its deep-pocketed buyers, has recently seen steep drops in prices paid by distribs and fewer films picked up. Reasons include the surge of local fare produced by TV companies, the peaking of the DVD market, sky high P&A costs and a concentration by TV buyers on local movies. Japan no longer even provides the runaway art-house hits that once occupied theaters for months and appeared to defy B.O. gravity.

As a consequence the number of distribs in the import biz has shrunk. Gaga last month announced that it will cease production and acquisition, Nippon Herald was absorbed into Kadokawa and Toshiba Entertainment simply quit the business. Sato is mindful of costs. It will focus on acquisition and marketing, farming out distribution to others. And its Cannes debut sees company bring only four staff.

“Not many people in Japan go to the cinema any more. PiX task will be to get people out of their homes to watch movies,” Sato said.

In fighting the movie-market trend, Avex sees itself as diversifying and providing outlets for its talent roster and also taking a very long term view. Parent company is fast-becoming one of the most significant players in the Japanese and Asian film industries. Company is moving up the budget scale in what it acquires and produces. Last year it launched a Hong Kong-based subsid Avex Asia which is putting together ambitious pan-regional co-prods and is the largest single investor in John Woo’s $80 million “Red Cliff.”

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