As one of Japan’s oldest and largest movie companies, Shochiku Co. has developed a celluloid empire encompassing movie production, distribution and exhibition. It also acquired a reputation for conservatism, as well as immense influence over Japan’s mainstream film industry.

But in recent years, the company has set out to show it’s willing to take a chance on new ideas. Two uncharacteristically audacious moves by Shochiku, for example, are absorbing the rest of Japan’s movie industry and prompting analysts to question whether the empire will expand or crumble.

The first is the October opening of Shochiku’s $200 million Cinema World complex, billed as Japan’s answer to Universal Studios. The complex, located just west of Tokyo, encompasses working studios, display sets and a vast indoor entertainment center with a sliding roof. The second project is an ambitious and costly scheme unveiled in April to build 100 new cinema screens, mostly in multiplexes and location-based entertainment sites across the country.

Warner Bros., in a Japanese joint venture, built the first multiplexes in Japan in mid-1993; other U.S. firms, including AMC Entertainment, have followed suit. But American-style multiplexes have so far been kept out of Japan’s nine major cities – the real money-making centers for movies nationwide.

Shochiku’s aggressive scheme, by contrast, could set the Japanese exhibition industry on its head, if – and only if – the Cinema World project proves successful.

Analysts say the costs of Shochiku’s plan to construct new multiplexes and upgrade existing single-screen sites in major cities into multiscreeners are likely to far exceed the company’s estimate of 8 billion yen ($81 million).

“A lot, including the multiplex strategy and possibly Shochiku’s future, will hinge on whether their Cinema World gets off the ground,” says one American movie exec in Tokyo.

Describing itself as the “first Japanese major to announce a development strategy of this scale,” Shochiku says it would develop multiplex theaters and entertainment centers in key Japanese cities, as well as in suburban areas.

The company’s first multiplex, currently under construction, is in Kobe, the south-central city that was devastated by an earthquake in January. Shochiku had just begun construction on the seven-screener when the quake struck. The structure “managed, amazingly, to ride it out unscathed,” says a spokesman. But the chaos of the quake set back the opening date to March 1997 and sharply raised costs.

With its vast network of cinemas throughout Japan’s major cities, Shochiku has a definite advantage over its U.S. competitors in the choice of sites.

Proposed locales include major cities such as Kyoto, Osaka and Yokohama. Many of the sites feature existing Shochiku cinemas that are in need of renovation.

If Cinema World is not a runaway success, Shochiku’s saving grace may be outside investment.

Shochiku execs say the decision to launch the massive multiplex program was spurred by the success of Warner-Mycal.

“Let’s just say we’ve seen they’re succeeding,” says a Shochiku exec who declined to be named. “The industry’s obviously going in this direction – it just needed someone to come in and prove it could be done.”