Trio of mega-studios upgrading facilities

TOKYO — The digital age is arriving with a bang at Japan’s Big Three — Toho, Shochiku and Toei — all of which have recently announced ambitious plans for upgrading their studios.

Toho, which leads the local biz at the B.O., as well as operating the biggest theater chain, is launching the second stage of a 10 billion yen ($112 million) construction and renewal plan for its studio in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

Starting in June, the company will plow $56 million into a new post-production center, including state-of-the-art dubbing, mixing, Foley, editing and screening equipment and facilities. Toho is designing the center in cooperation with Warner and L.A.-based audio specialists Charles M. Salter Associates. Completion is skedded for the summer of 2010.

Meanwhile, rivals Toei and Shochiku are investing $58 million and $22.5 million, respectively, to bring their own studios into the digital age with new post production and other facilities.

One reason for all the activity is the growth of the domestic biz in recent years, with more than 400 domestic pics being released annually. In 2008 the Toho studio alone churned out 40 pics and TV dramas, including both its own and outside productions, as well as 150 TV commercials. The number may fall this year as the deepening recession forces producers to tighten purse strings, especially on indie pics, but the line-ups of the three majors will be relatively unaffected.

Another factor is Hollywood’s drive to digitally improve the moviegoing experience, in everything from projection systems to sound design. “Our first priority is to deliver a good quality product to the Japanese audience, especially excellent sound. That’s where we’re making out biggest investment (in the second-stage studio construction) — on audio post-production facilities,” says Toho Studio sales department manager Mitsuru Shimada.

Toho, however, has yet to spend on 3D, despite Hollywood’s huge financial commitment to the 3D future.

By putting major coin into their studios, Japan’s Big Three are positioning themselves to maintain their already substantial market share indefinitely. Says Shimada: “We’re looking at this for long term — the next 20 or 30 years.”

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