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Japan finally gets taste of ‘Borat’

Offbeat titles can be a tricky sell for country

Japan is just now getting a look at “Borat.”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s offbeat comedy is finally going into the country’s theaters several months after finishing a successful run in most other markets, with worldwide grosses topping $260 million, half of that from outside the U.S.

Fox’s cautious approach underlines how tricky it can be for studios to get movies into Japan, particularly if those pics lie outside mainstream tastes, even though the market’s the top-grosser outside the U.S. at $1.7 billion last year.

Fox is definitely playing it safe here — pic is in a limited, 30-screen run, going up against “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” which launches as part of Disney’s massive worldwide opening.

Fox execs admit that they’ve taken an especially careful approach with “Borat” due to the unpredictability of the Japanese market, the cultural differences that could make the humor in “Borat” less than accessible, the sky-high costs of marketing movies in that country and the strength of local pics. Japanese films took the majority share last year for the first time in two decades.

“We always were kind of suspect about how well we would do in Japan because the market is such a wildcard,” said Craig Dehmel, Fox VP of sales and strategic planning. “We were able to find the audience for ‘Borat’ in most markets, and it did very well in English-speaking markets and Europe, but less so in Latin America and Asia. So we’ve been pretty cautious in Japan, and we’re aiming it at the real zealous fans.”

Dehmel noted that Fox’s last two big comedies — “Night at the Museum” and “The Devil Wears Prada” — performed well in Japan with $30 million and $15 million, respectively. But Japan turned a cold shoulder to Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” which grossed only $8 million — half the total of the original “Ice Age” in a reversal of the trend in most other markets.

Dehmel’s more bullish on prospects for Fox’s “Live Free or Die Hard” in Japan than for its “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Although “Spider-Man 3” has hit $44 million, Dehmel noted that many superhero vehicles have found only moderate traction in Japan: “Fantastic Four” grossed $9 million, “Superman Returns” $11 million and “Batman Begins” $12 million.

“Borat” performed best internationally by far in the U.K., Baron Cohen’s home turf, with $46 million, followed by $14 million in Australia, $13 million in Germany, $8 million in Italy and $6.5 million in France.

UIP took a similarly quiet approach in handling “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” opting to wait until last September open the bawdy comedy in Japan — more than a year after its domestic launch — in a very limited run that grossed a mere $66,000.

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