‘Plexes Proliferate Amid Downward Box Office Trend

The age of the multiplex cinema is taking off in Japan, with the opening March 1 of the sixth multiscreener in just under three years by Warner-Mycal, the joint venture between Warner Bros. Intl. Theaters and its local partner, supermarket operator Niichi. The partnership plans to open its seventh Japanese multiplex later this month, an eight-screener near the central city of Nagoya.

The venture’s healthy profits are defying the downward trend in box office receipts in Japan, where filmgoing sank last year to an all-time low, while the number of screens across the country soared to an 18-year peak.

Movie theaters nationwide collected about 64.1 billion yen ($640 million) in receipts in 1994, down about 10% from 1993, with attendance slumping to a record low of 122.99 million, according to the Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan.

In ticket revenues, non-Japanese movies generated 38.44 billion yen, a 16.6% drop from 1993, while Japanese pix generated 25.71 billion yen – a slight increase of 0.1% from the previous year.

The drop in filmgoing is largely due to continuing growth in the homevideo biz, amid a proliferation of video rental shops and continuing improvements in home TV sets and VCRs. Another key factor is the wide gap between the average $13 charge for a firstrun movie and the $3-$5 charge for a rental video.

But that hasn’t deterred the large U.S. firms from moving in to revolutionize the Japanese exhibition business. The number of movie screens in Japan rose in 1994 by 13 to 1,747 – the first increase in 18 years, according to the MPPAJ.

Driving the growth is the spread of suburban cinema complexes, in particular the Warner-Mycal multiplex cinemas. The joint venture plans to have 20 to 25 sites in operation around Japan by the year 2000.

Leading the next wave of multiplex giants into Japan is United Cinemas Intl., the Paramount-Universal co-venture, which will begin construction of its first two multiplexes here this year.

Close behind is American Multiplex Cinemas, which announced plans in December to build a 13-screen complex in Fukuoka. When it opens in 1996, the 2,600-seat complex will become the largest multiplex in the country. AMC intends to take its Japanese challenge a step further than other exhibitors by importing movies directly, bypassing Japanese distributors.

The multiplex giants have cause for optimism, despite the gloomy outlook for moviegoing audiences in Japan. The Warner-Mycal cinemas saw admissions rise between 20% and 50% last year, according to a spokesman for the co-venture.

Entertainment industry analysts say that in a country known for its love of novelty, the multiplexes are offering the Japanese something new: a wider choice of films in large, modern surroundings equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual facilities.

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