· The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby (New Select)
· Dance With the Wind (SPO Inc.)
· Goal! (Toshiba Entertainment)
· Perfume (Gaga)
· Shortbus (Asmik Ace Entertainment)
2004 STATS
Top film 2004: Howl’s Moving Castle (Toho, $187 million)
Top indie film: as above
Total B.O.: $1.97 billion
Releases: 649
Screens: 2,825

TOKYO — Japan’s distrib scene looks decidedly different from last year. Two major independent distributors were saved from insolvency by takeovers and there’s a new fondness for local productions.

Gaga Communications is now Gaga Usen, in the wake of Usen Broad Networks taking over the ailing distrib. Nippon Herald Films will be a fully owned Kadokawa Holdings subsid by August.

Another major shift was the aggressive expansion of Kadokawa’s deal with Dreamworks that gave its subsid Asmik Ace Entertainment exclusive distrib rights to all Dreamworks pics in Japan at the beginning of the year.

Distribs blame pricey U.S. titles for steering them into financial straits. Minimum guarantees usually hover around 10%-12% of budget. So, a $100 million tentpole can be priced at upwards of $10 million, with some tough overage requirements. And then there’s the marketing costs.

A local pic, meanwhile, can cost between $3 million-$5 million and do as well as a Hollywood pickup.

“It makes more financial sense to produce and distribute Japanese films,” affirms Takeo Hisamatsu, managing director of production and theatrical distribution at Shochiku, which was disappointed by “The Aviator” (jointly distributed with Nippon Herald).

In addition, the ongoing South Korean pic boom is eating up screens that used to go to U.S. indie fare and European pics.

“Korean stars have big names here, and most of their films are still cheaper than major U.S. pics,” explains Yuki Sakurai, general manager at distrib SPO.

One exception is “April Snow,” starring Korean superstar Bae Yong-joon, which Universal Pictures Japan bought for close to $8 million. (Pic was reportedly made for $6 million.) Still, according to most projections, it was a good deal.