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H’w’d down but not out in Japan

Local pics take more than 50% B.O.

TOKYO — Hollywood pics have dominated the conversation at the Japanese B.O. for so long — they first took a majority share in Japan in 1975 — that the Japanese biz had all but resigned itself to slipping in the occasional hit edgewise.

Last year, however, Japanese pics were the talk of the industry — and not only one or two blockbusters. Six passed the ¥5 billion ($41 million) mark, qualifying them for megahit status, while Japanese pics took a better than 50% share for the first time since 1985.

Is Hollywood’s day done in the world’s second-biggest pic market? Hardly — “Pirates of the Caribbean 3,” “Spider-Man 3” and the next “Harry Potter” are all likely to steamroller the competition this year, leading Pia, Tokyo’s premiere entertainment listings mag, to call 2007 the year of Hollywood’s gyakushu (“counterattack”).

But the majors can hardly afford to be complacent. Though their bread-and-butter will continue to be the big franchise pics, mid-range product has fallen on hard times — and has consequently become scarcer in theaters.

And U.S. comedies, no matter how big at the American B.O., usually get the cold shoulder in Japan. Local distribs have adjusted accordingly.

“Napoleon Dynamite” famously went straight to DVD, while “Borat” is conspicuous by its absence (so far) from Fox’s lineup for the first half of the year.

To keep B.O. numbers up, the Hollywood majors have been scouting distribution opportunities among Japanese and Asian pics — or even producing them themselves.

Among those trying the former approach is Warners, which reaped the rewards when two teen-targeted thrillers it distribbed,  “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name,” scored a collective $65 million.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan is also counting itself among local producers. It started with toons (it was a co-producer and distrib of the 2006 Satoshi Kon hit “Paprika”) but is now making Asian and Japanese live-action movies as well.

The latest is “Sukiyaki Western Django,” by cult fave Takashi Miike, which Sony will release this fall. Another is “26 Years Diary,” a Japan-Korean co-production, based on a true story about a young Korean student who sacrificed his life to save a Japanese man from death on the rails at a Tokyo train station. Sony released nationwide Jan. 27.

While describing local production as “one step toward broadening our reach” in the market, SPE marketing veep Dick Sano places a higher priority on what he describes as “expanding the pie,” instead of simply taking a larger slice.

Despite the growth of the Japanese exhibition sector — the number of screens has expanded from 2,000 a decade ago to 3,065 — the total number of admissions has failed to keep pace.

“The last time we had 3,000 screens was 36 years ago,” Sano notes. “Back then, we had 255 million admissions annually — now it’s about 160 million. That should be a concern for everyone.”

Sony plans to do its bit by growing its annual B.O. from $125 million in 2006 to $167 million in 2007 with the aid of “Spider-Man 3.”

As it did last year with “The Da Vinci Code,” Sony figures to bow Spidey in May, traditionally an off-season in Japan.

“We want to make it the first ¥10 billion ($83 million) movie to be released in that month,” Sano says. 

One intent is to change industry thinking. “Right now there are only four big seasons for films in Japan — spring break, Golden Week (the holiday period in late April and early May), summer break and New Year’s,” comments Sano. “We should make every month a big season.”

Meanwhile, rival Buena Vista is ramping up its PR machine for “Pirates 3,” which is skedded for a May 25 bow, while slimming down its annual lineup to 10-15 pics from 20-25.

“We’re trying to be more effective in term of quality,” explains sales veep Ichiro Okazaki.

Filling in the gaps with local production is a possibility, but the barriers to profitability, Okazaki notes, remain high.

“Only 10% of the Japanese films made account for 90% of the box office,” he says. “It’s not that easy to succeed with them.”

Also, the 10% in the winner’s circle are produced mostly by consortia of local studios, TV stations, publishers and ad agencies, who book the best screens.

“Even independents like (the Warner Mycal multiplex chain) have committed themselves (to partnerships with the big consortia ),” Okazaki says. “It’s hard to break through that.”

Brand recognition

Buena Vista has certain advantages over the local competition, however, the primary one being what Okazaki describes as its “Disney branding.”

“Disney is the only Hollywood studio with a clear vision of its brand, which is family-oriented entertainment,” Okazaki notes. “It really helps us in promoting our product.”

What does not necessarily help is Hollywood star power. “It’s not the star who really sells a film here, but the character the star is playing,” Okazaki explains. In other words, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is popular, not Johnny Depp per se.

Over at UIP, hopes are high for “Dreamgirls,” but only if it wins an Oscar in a major category.

“The Golden Globes are not in the same class,” says prexy Paul Takaki.

UIP is also big on its summer pic “Transformers,” which has what Takaki calls “a new look to its CG — not the Japanese anime style (of the original “Transformers” toon series), but still impressive.”

Still, a Japanese connection can be good to have in a Hollywood movie, Takaki admits. One recent example is “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which has made more than $41 million in Japan. “It plays like a Japanese film,” says Takaki. “There’s no sense of strangeness.”

What else works? The Korean boom has faded (“Japanese audiences got tired of seeing the same types of Korean romantic dramas over and over,” Takaki says), but Korean and other Asian pics can still succeed in Japan, “as long as they have something that makes them stand out.”

Jackie Chan still fits that category — UIP has added his actioner “Rob-B-Hood” to it first half lineup.

But to really get a grip on local trends, UIP is trying a method the local biz seldom uses: an in-depth market research study, with the results due in late April or early May.

The ultimate worry among industry execs is that young auds, obsessed with their mobile phones and other gadgets — and spending money on them that might have otherwise gone to tickets — are drifting away from the theatergoing experience. The local biz has been trying various enticements, including discounts for groups of three or more high-schoolers, but a solution remains elusive.

“The baby boomers will come back (once they retire),” Sano says. “They got the moviegoing habit when they were young and never lost it. The ones we have to reach are the junior high and high school kids. If they don’t become movie fans now, they never will. Then we’re all in trouble.”

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