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Toho masters the box office

Japanese distributor knows how to pick 'em

How to explain Toho’s smashing success as a distrib? In 2006, it released nine of the 10 highest-earning local pics, including the top three: the toon “Tales From Earthsea” ($65 million), sea thriller “Umizaru 2: Test of Trust” ($60 million) and laffer “Suite Dreams” ($51.5 million).

This is not a fluke, but a long-established pattern: Toho has released the No. 1 Japanese pics every year since 1989, when Toei won top B.O. honors for the Hayao Miyazaki toon “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

The clout of Toho’s theater chain is a central, but not sole, reason for this dominance. Archrival Shochiku also manages a large chain but generates nowhere near Toho’s number of B.O. winners. The best Shochiku could manage last year was No. 18 on the domestic box office chart with the kiddie pic “Helen the Baby Fox” ($15.1 million).

Toho rules because, more than its rivals, it has mastered the “production committee” (seisaku iinkai) system of making commercial pics, which it was instrumental in developing — and is unique to the Japanese biz.

In the biz’s golden age in the 1950s and early ’60s, Toho was home to some of Japan’s most successful helmers, including Akira Kurosawa, who made such classic, crowdpleasing pics as “The Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Yojimbo” (1961) with the studio. Toho also generated some of the era’s most popular genres, most famously the monster pic with the seminal monster lizard “Godzilla” (1954). The Godzilla series has produced 28 installments, while its scaly title character is known worldwide.

Following the mass migration of auds to television in the 1960s, the Japanese studio system collapsed, together with the B.O. As a result, Toho also had to slash costs, including production budgets, until by the mid-1980s it was making little more than the Godzilla series with its own coin.

At the same time, Toho realized that the biz’s talent pool had become stagnant and that if it wanted to lure back auds, it would have to look beyond the studio walls.

“We brought in talent from the outside, from the worlds of television, games, animation and advertising,” Toho topper Hideyuki Takai says. In the conservative local biz, which looked down on anyone not trained in the studio system, this was initially regarded as heresy.

Under the leadership of Isao Matsuoka, who became prexy in 1977, Toho began partnering with TV networks, ad agencies, publishers and other media companies to make pics, often based on bestselling novel or comics. Each partner pitched in a portion of the budget while contributing creative input and PR expertise.

“It’s not that these companies didn’t have the money to make movies on their own,” Takai says, “but by pooling their media resources, they could better publicize their films.”

Among the first fruits of this new seisaku iinkai system was “Antarctica” (Nankyoku Monogatari, 1983), a drama about the efforts of two Japanese scientists to rescue sled dogs abandoned in the Antarctic. Local auds wept buckets — and “Antarctica” became the highest-grossing Japanese pic of all time to that point. (It was later remade by Frank Marshall as “Eight Below.”)

This system has since become standard in the Japanese biz, but Toho is still the leader at both assembling consortiums and turning the resulting pics into hits. “We have the know-how to make the system work,” Takai says.

One of its most successful partnerships is with Studio Ghibli, the creative home of toon auteur Hayao Miyazaki, whose pics score astronomic numbers with metronomic regularity. Released by Toho in 2001, Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” grossed ¥30.1 billion ($255 million) and remains Japan’s all-time B.O. smash.

Another longtime partner is Fuji TV, one of Japan’s Big Three networks. Under the leadership of uber-producer Chihiro Kameyama, Fuji has churned out a string of hit pics in the past decade, most notably its “Bayside Shakedown” series of comic thrillers about cops in the trendy Tokyo Bay area. In 2003 “Bayside Shakedown 2” topped the box office with $147 million, outgrossing every Hollywood pic, including “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

This is not to say the production-committee system is flawless. Toho’s lineup for the first half of 2007 has failed to produce any major hits, though five pics have exceeded the ¥2 billion ($17 million) mark. The topper was the latest entry in the venerable “Doraemon” toon series, which took $30 million.

But Takai, noting several strong pics still to come in the second half, believes Toho will end the year “only slightly down” from the splendid gross of 2006.

Among the most promising pics is “Hero” which features megastar Takuya Kimura as a crime-busting prosecutor. Based on a hit Fuji TV series, “Hero” is expected to rack up “Bayside”-sized numbers.

Looking ahead to 2008, Toho has the prospect of another Miyazaki pic, “Ponyo on the Cliff,” to brighten its bottom line.

So in Takai’s ideal world, Toho crushes all opposition to reign supreme in the world’s second largest market?

Not really.

Japanese pics may have grabbed a 53.2% share last year — the first time they had a majority of the market since 1985 — but Takai would be happier if Hollywood pics were stronger.

“Japanese films can’t support the market here alone,” he explains. “If Hollywood films don’t do well, the market as a whole suffers.”

In other words, by drawing in fans who rarely come to theaters, Hollywood blockbusters raise all B.O. boats. And, of course, as an equal-opportunity exhibitor, Toho benefits as well. “I hope that Hollywood tries harder,” Takai says.

Meanwhile, many foreign fans hope that Toho will revive its Godzilla franchise, which went on hiatus with “Godzilla: Final Wars,” the 2004 pic that supposedly killed off the most famous movie monster of all time.

“Parents want to show their children ‘Godzilla’ because they remember enjoying the films themselves as kids. Then their children grow up and repeat the cycle,” Takai explains. “We’d like to wait until today’s children are a bit older before we bring back the series.”

Whether or not the Big G awakens again from the bottom of the Pacific, Toho will probably continue to thrive.

Even so, Takai insists there is no formula for success. “Each project has to stand on its own,” he says. “If it meets the unconscious needs of the audience, it will succeed. But what are those needs? It’s like a pitcher trying to hit the strike zone. You learn certain techniques for getting the ball across the plate a certain number of times a year. But not even the best pitcher is going to throw a strike every time.”

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