Local Japanese films flourish

Homegrown fare nabs huge market share

The Japanese economy may currently resemble Tokyo after a Godzilla attack — battered, if not yet a smoking ruin — but at least one sector flourished in 2008: the local film biz, which released 418 pics, compared with 388 from the foreign competition.

According to figures compiled by the Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan (Eiren), Japanese pics grabbed a 59.5% of market share last year, compared with a 47.7% share for 2007, while accounting for seven of the top B.O. winners, including the No. 1 film, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.”

Meanwhile, the largest local distrib, Toho, had its best year ever, earning $754 million from its slate, while releasing 21 pics that grossed ¥1 billion ($10 million) or more — the traditional mark of a hit at the local B.O.

For 2009, Toho has announced a lineup of 32 pics — three more than last year — while forecasting a total B.O. of $663 million — less than 2008, when “Ponyo” led the Toho pack, but more than its previous record year, 2007.

The overall outlook for 2009 is more mixed, however. While Yojiro Takita’s funeral-industry dramedy “Departures” drew lines around the block following its surprise Oscar win for foreign-language film — and reached No. 1 in its 25th week on release, budget-conscious fans have been cutting back on tickets for all but the biggest titles.

And mighty Toho looks prescient in its downward estimation for its 2009 box office: Admissions for January were off 9% compared with the same month the previous year, while B.O. fell 8.5%.

Far harder hit, however, are the indies, which have been slashing production. Noyuki Ikeda, manager of the business department at the Nikkatsu Studio in Tokyo’s Chofu district, where many local pics are lensed, estimates that production of low-budget titles is down by half compared with last year.

“There is a big and growing difference between the few films that become hits and far bigger number that don’t,” Ikeda says. “Producers of (low-budget films), which tend to fall in the latter category, are finding it harder to raise money.”

The Nikkatsu Studio, which produced nearly 70 films last year, including both commercial and arthouse titles, expects that number to fall by at least 15% in 2009.

Japan is a market with too many pics chasing too few screens. The total number of screens reached 3,359 last year — nearly 1,600 more than the postwar low of 1,734 in 1993 — but most were in indie-averse multiplexes. Even in the boom year of 2008, an estimated 80 domestic features were put on the shelf, unable to find either distributors or release dates.

This already bad situation has been made worse by the decline in the DVD market — long the support of indie pics that have only limited theatrical prospects. In 2008, DVD store sales fell 11.2% year-on-year to $3.69 billion while the number of DVD rentals slid 8.7% to 697.3 million units.

“Without the prospect of DVD sales, a lot of Japanese films are not going to get made,” says Hiro Otaka, box office analyst for the Bunka Tsushin entertainment news service. “We’ve been seeing this trend for some time now — and this year it will accelerate.”

One company proving his point is Geneon Universal Entertainment, a pic and toon producer and DVD distrib that was acquired last November by Universal Pictures Intl. Entertainment and merged with Universal Pictures Japan.

Geneon produced or invested in 17 pics last year — including the international co-production “Shaolin Girl” and the swashbuckler “Ichi,” based on the iconic “Zatoichi” series about an itinerant blind swordsman — but this year the number is down to 10.

“The recession is one big reason,” says Geneon licensing business development rep Haruka Takagi. “And the downward trend will continue without change this year. We’ll be producing fewer films for some time to come.”

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