New prexy aims to energize UIP

Co. boosts slate, plans synergies to enhance a film's presence

TOKYO — When Paul T. Takaki took over the reigns at United Intl. Pictures Japan (UIPJ) in mid-February, the local industry was abuzz with rumors about the fate of the Japanese branch of London-based UIP.

Lackluster returns for UIP-distributed films at the box office during the past few years, even for tentpoles, and a shrinking number of films for annual distribution were blamed on a stale and unresponsive management, together with a lack of vision in a rapidly shifting marketplace. Mused one Japanese distrib exec: “UIP has lost its function in the Japanese market.”

Longtime film and media vet Takaki, who followed Kiri Inomata as president-chief operating officer, vows to change this perception. “When I worked at Warner Bros. Japan in the ’80s, UIP was big and a model for us,” Takaki recalls. “Now WB is the giant here, and we (at UIP) will rise again.”

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It might be a while until such lofty targets are met. The first big UIP release under Takaki, “Catch Me If You Can,” scored a disappointing $22 million at the local box office, although Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio are top names for Japanese auds.

Masao Mitoma, UIPJ’s advertising and publicity manager, explains: “Spielberg and the stars canceled (their all-important) appearances in Japan because of the pending war (in Iraq).” The story in itself is also “difficult here: 1960s USA and a story without much romance is hard to sell.”

Things are changing rapidly, though, as proven in late May when UIPJ released “8 Mile” with a boffo opening of $2.3 million on just 269 screens, followed by a modest decline of 23% during the second weekend. UIPJ’s marketing general manager, Katsuhige Hayashi, devised an attention-getting campaign based on director Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential”-generated popularity, rap music and the name value of co-star Kim Basinger.

Already, this year will be much busier for UIPJ. A total of 23 films will be released, vs. only 16 last year. On Aug. 2, “The Hulk” hits Japanese screens, this year’s biggest UIPJ film. And Takaki’s team is working on ad campaigns and plans for 30 films in the pipeline.

Among them are such Revolution and Spyglass films as “Seabiscuit” and “Bruce Almighty,” which were transferred to UIPJ after the Revolution/Spyglass agreement with local distrib Toho-Towa was discontinued.

“We are working on many synergies, which can be used to enhance a film’s presence,” Takaki says. One of them is a cross-marketing concept with Universal Studios Japan, which operates a major theme park in Osaka.

Another new source of films for distribution are Asian activities of Universal Pictures (Japan) Inc. As announced at Cannes, U Japan pre-bought Japanese rights to Korean director Kang Je-gyu’s mega-budget (by Korean standards) $12 million “Tae Guk-gi” (National Flag). The film will be released by UIPJ. Given Kang’s previous hit, “Shiri,” which made some $16 million in Japan, the pre-buy could pay off for UIPJ.

Takaki and his team, their long experience and energy notwithstanding, will have to fight hard against one fact their company cannot avoid: Studios selling a film to an independent Japanese distributor, such as Shochiku, Herald or Gaga, get a minimum guarantee at the risk of the local distrib. That’s money in the bank, something UIPJ cannot offer because of its different business structure. “We have to prove that we can do even better”, Takaki says.