Global Indies 2011: Japan

Following the triple disasters of March 11 — 9.0 earthquake, massive tsunami and reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant — many in the Japanese biz said audience needs would change, with less of an appetite for dark, violent pics and more demand for cheerful, uplifting ones.

Distribs rejiggered their skeds, dumping pics with disaster themes or even footage (goodbye China’s earthquake epic “Aftershock” and Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter”), while helmers rewrote scripts (Yoji Yamada with “Tokyo Family”) or pushed back projects that didn’t fit the current mood (Takashi Kitano’s follow-up to his bloody gang epic “Outrage”).But the year’s B.O. through September shows little evidence of radical change, especially at the top. A toon from perennial powerhouse Studio Ghibli, “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is No. 1 among domestic releases so far this year, just as another Studio Ghibli toon, “The Borrowers,” was the year before.

Some indie pics, though, definitely benefited from the aud’s post-disaster mood change. Released in Japan on Feb. 26, “The King’s Speech” defied box office gravity week after post-disaster week, as its story of triumph over adversity continued to connect with auds. It finished at $22 million, while ranking in at No. 9 for the year to date among foreign releases.

Overall, the biggest trend for the year has been a B.O. slide for both foreign and domestic pics, though the latter have been hit harder. In 2010, three local pics topped $90 million; this year, none had.

Also, box office for the lineup of Toho, which distribs most of the highest-earning domestic pics, was $589 million or 78% of last year’s in the January-September period.

Toho attributed the drop to a combo of a weaker-than-usual lineup and a shift in aud psychology. The company also noted that the impact of the disasters has been less than feared, with summer box office rebounding strongly when anticipated power cuts failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, in the indie sector, a long decline in auds for arthouse fare has forced some small-to-medium indie distribs out of business and many indie theater operators to either close their doors or add more populist fare to their lineups.

Japanese buyers, however, have been busy making deals for indie pics throughout the fall, with pickups including the Korean meller “Always” (Pony Canyon), the spy thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Gaga) and Philippe Garrel’s “That Summer” (Comstock).

One reason for optimism is the launch of 12 broadcast satellite channels on Oct. 1, to be followed by seven more in March, all using frequencies freed up by the end of analog broadcasts last July. Foreign pics, including indie titles, feature heavily in the lineups of the new Cinema strand of entertainment channel operator Wowow and the three all-pic channels offered by movie specialist Star Channel.

Number of screens: 3,412
Number of 3D screens: 763
Top 5 indie films and B.O. (through the end of 2010): “From Up on Poppy Hill” ($56.5 million); “Gantz” ($44.7 million); “SP Kakumeihen” ($43.3 million); “Detective Conan” ($40.2 million); “Gantz: Perfect Answer” ($35.4 million)
Top indie distribs and total box office for 2010: Toho ($975 million); Shochiku ($177 million); Toei ($177 million)
Top exhibition chains for indie films: Toho Cinemas (582 screens); Warner-Mycal (496 screens); Movix (226 screens)
Typical minimum guarantee paid: Traditionally 10% of production cost, though the recent trend has been lower
Upcoming indie pickups: “Always” (Pony Canyon); “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Gaga); “That Summer” (Comstock); “Beginners” (Phantom Film); “Chantrapas” (Bitters End)

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