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Japanese Moviegoers Show A New Taste For Artier Fare

Quite suddenly Japan’s moviegoing public has developed a penchant for art films.

The unexpected success of a string of arthouse releases has changed both the way that the public thinks of movies and the kind of movies that the Japanese will buy at Cannes this year.

Bruno Nuytten’s “Camille Claudel” and Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” started the trend in 1989 and 1990 with runs of more than 200 days at two Tokyo theaters. “Cinema Paradiso” took $2.8 million (370 million yen for 262,400 tickets) at its Ginza theater before going on to a successful tour of other single-release cinemas around the country; total rentals reached 325 million yen ($2.4 million).

“It has suddenly become the fashion for working girls to go to classic films,” says Kayo Yoshida, the head of acquisitions at Herald Ace. “These two films completely changed audience perceptions in Japan.” Herald Ace “distributed 17 art movies last year.

Cine Saison, which has 19 single-release theaters and is part of the Seibu department store conglomerate, scored its biggest success in 1990 with Louis Malle’s “Milou en Mai,” which played to full houses in Roppongi for over three months.

Other arthouse successes during the year included “Sex, Lies And Videotape” (111-day run) and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover” (119 days).

The big four commercial chains, acknowledging the changing mood, have converted serveral of their 1,800 odd theaters to arthouses. Although the total number devoted exclusively to art films is still small (between 30 and 50) the new trend has affected the films being selected for general release.

“There is now a very narrow border between quality pictures and art films,” says Miyako Ejri, president of Dela, which, together with Ace Herald, distributed “Cinema Paradiso.” “Five years ago ‘Reversal Of Fortune’ could have played in only one theater.” Today it is a general release picture.

Over 40 independent distributors are vying for this burgeoning market. Competition is fierce and prices for Japanese rights to the top award-winning pictures are high.

“When I like a film I have to have it,” says Dela’s Ejri. “I chase the producer and go everywhere until I have it.”

To hedge against the risk of failure, as well as to help raise the increasingly larger antes needed to secure such rights, small distributors have begun banding together to make joint-purchases of rights, as Dela and Herald Ace did with “Cinema Paradiso.”

At last year’s Cannes they teamed up with the private tv company, Tokyo Broadcasting System, to secure “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which opened in Tokyo last month. All three companies are sending delegations to Cannes and expect to do more joint buys.

What worries the independent distributors, however, is that, like most Japanese fads, the passion for art films may not last long. Five years ago everyone was buying – and watching – horror movies. Last year there was not one success in this genre.

“The market has become increasingly unpredictable,” wails Dick Sano, president of Ascii Pictures, who will be leading a three-man delegation to Cannes. He has concluded a four-picture deal with Ed Pressman (the first of which, “Blue Steel,” was released last year), and is now looking for another major producer to secure him a flow of up to five pictures a year to replace his lost tie-up with Vestron.

Japan’s market has always been quirky but it is becoming increasingly so. Despite huge promotional efforts neither “Batman” nor “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” took off. Warner Bros. spent close to 1 billion yen promoting “Batman” but earned less than 2 billion. Although that meant that the caped crusader was not a complete flop – it came in as the fifth highest earner in 1990 – it meant it fell far short of the 5.5 billion yen earned by the top hit, “Back To The Future, Part II” (which is the second highest earner in Japanese history, topped only by “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” which earned 9.6 billion yen or $6.6 million).

“Back To The Future, Part III,” which was also released last year, earned 4.7 billion yen and was the year’s second highest earner in Japan.

Japanese distributors, who were appalled by the lack of product at AFM, are hoping to find better fare at Cannes.

“We found at AFM that the number of titles in the market this year was much less than usual,” says Kazuhiko Tadashiki, president of international operations for Gaga Communications. “This means everyone is chasing the one title and prices are high. We think we have to move much more quickly.”

But Tadashiki, who will be leading an 18-man delegation to Cannes and expects to spend $6 million to $7 million, notes that buying films in the script stage is no longer the preferred route for most Japanese buyers, because the risks are now too big.

“In the past we acquired much more films in the pre-production stage,” he says. “We still buy sometimes in the early stages. If our sales agent is really reliable, and he advises us to buy, then we do so.”

Notes Nippon Herald’s Sam Nanba, another Cannes delegate, “The only movies worth buying nowadays are those with real quality – and named stars.”

A few years ago a good dramatic movie did not need stars. Today it is impossible to get a booking without them.

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