Cannes-bound crew wants product but plays it cautious

Japanese buyers supply what is still the world’s second-largest pic market, especially for non-Hollywood product. But the days when free-spending Japanese companies would bid presale prices into the stratosphere are long gone.

Their DVD and free TV markets are shrinking, while the promise of VOD services on broadband hasn’t yet translated into profits. At the theater, local auds are opting more for domestic pics, less for the sort of arthouse fare on offer at Cannes.

“A lot of films (Japanese companies) bought at Cannes have flopped, and buyers have become more conservative,” says Yuko Shiomaki, prexy of sales outfit Pictures Dept.

Shiomaki’s own solution is to serve as a producer on international projects, such as Shinji Aoyama’s new pic “Decadent Sisters,” and then serve as their marketer and publicist in Japan for a percentage of the B.O. “That makes it easier for us to recoup, rather than buy all rights,” Shiomaki comments.

Veteran producer and buyer Yuji Sadai of indie distrib Bitters End agrees that Japanese acquisitions activity has become “quieter in recent markets,” while minimum guarantees have trended down.

“(Sellers) understand how difficult our situation is,” explains Sadai, whose own recent releases are the Yang Ik-june thriller “Breathless” and the Miguel Cohan tango docu “Cafe De Los Maestros.”

Also cooling its corporate jets is Gaga, once one of the most aggressive buyers from Japan at Cannes, but since then forced to downsize its staff and ambitions after a succession of reverses at the B.O. (“The Golden Compass”) and in other biz areas.

“Of course we have become more careful picking up titles,” says Gaga acquisitions manager Haruko Watanabe. “And we have more opportunities now to buy films after screening them, compared to the past when almost everything was pre-buy.”

Gaga’s pickier approach has paid off with the hits “The Young Victoria” and “Oceans” this year. Among its upcoming titles are “Le Concert” from Wild Bunch and “Whip It” and “Brothers” from Lionsgate.

Likewise narrowing its buying focus is Asmik Ace Entertainment, long a leading distrib of foreign arthouse pics, though currently its lineup also features many local titles, including “Travels with Haru,” the latest drama by Cannes fave Masahiro Kobayashi.

But as acquisition manager Reiko Hakui explains, small arthouse titles without much theatrical potential have dropped off her buying list.

“We can’t do business with (these kinds of films),” she says. Once upon a time DVD sales could take up the theatrical slack on smaller pics, but with the DVD market in the doldrums, that is less often the case.

Also, instead of straight rights deals, Hakui is negotiating more of what she calls “creative deals,” in which the seller agrees to take on more of the buyer’s early-stage distribution risk in exchange for a bigger cut of the B.O. pie.

“Even though foreign films are in a slump (in Japan), they still produce hits,” she says. “Since there is less competition for them now, we can still expect to find good business chances.”

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