Like its signature “Godzilla” franchise, Toho normally towers above the rest. The company is a producer, distributor and exhibitor that operates Japan’s largest theater chain. As a distributor, it consistently accounts for the lion’s share of local hits, and in some years it gets to release the films of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki.
But even mighty Toho is being brought low by the coronavirus crisis, which shuttered the nation’s theaters following a government state of emergency declaration early in April.
For the first quarter of FY2021, from March 1 to May 31 of this year, Toho reported a plunge in revenues of 51% to $308 million, compared with $632 million in the same period last year. Meanwhile, profits fell 81% to $27 million, against $150 million in the first quarter of the last financial year.
Theaters started reopening after the state of emergency was lifted in late May, but with dozens of foreign and domestic releases postponed, recovery has been slow. Total box office in May for Japan’s twelve biggest distributors plunged 99% compared with May 2019 to just $1.8 million, according to broadcaster NHK.
On July 9 Toho announced that its distribution earnings from box office fell by 80% compared to the same six-month period last year, to $78 million.
In February, when the virus was first starting to spread in Japan, Toho’s box office revenues were already down 43%. In March, they fell 81%, in April 99%, and in May, 99%. Even with theaters reopened, June box office was down 87% compared with June 2019.
Toho’s theater business also took a massive hit in the first half, with revenues plummeting 70% to $134 million. The decrease accelerated from 14% in February to a disastrous 97% in May.
Nonetheless, in June re-releases of such Miyazaki classics as “Spirited Away” (2001), “Princess Mononoke” (1997) and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) kept Toho in the box office top ten.
New Toho films are once again appearing in theaters, starting on July 17 with the release of “Beginning Today It Is My Turn,” a high school comedy based on a popular comic, followed by “The Confidence Man JP: The Episode of the Princess,” a caper film about a gang of glamorous con artists. Coming up in August is “Doraemon: Nobita’s New Dinosaur,” the latest installment in the long-running Doraemon anime series, and in September “The Deer King,” an anime based on a bestselling fantasy novel.
Toho currently plans to release fifteen films between July 17 and the end of the year, adding to the six with 2020 runs already finished. By comparison, the company distributed a total of 37 titles in 2019.
Accounting for the difference are films whose releases have been pushed back to 2021, including “Monster Hunter,” the Paul W.S. Anderson fantasy/actioner based on a popular Capcom game that was originally set for September 4 opening, but will now appear next year.
Meanwhile, rivals Toei and Shochiku are also gearing up for new releases: Toei’s “Ganbareiwa!! Robocon,” an animation based on an iconic tokusatsu (live-action sci-fi) series will bow on July 31. Shochiku’s “Yowamushi Pedal,” a live-action film about a high school cycling team, will open on August 14.
“Box office year-to-date is running about 35% of last year, and I imagine they’ll be lucky to get to 50% for the year,” says an executive at a major foreign distributor in Japan who declined to be named. “The upcoming release of ‘Beginning’ will be a litmus test of how much audiences are willing to return to the cinema in droves, albeit with social distancing. It is projected to gross between $23 million to $28 million, but that means they need a two-day weekend gross of $3 million to launch it.”
If “Beginning” reaches this projection it will beat “Kaiji: The Final Game,” the concluding installment in a fantasy/action trilogy that earned $19 million following its January 10 release, and is the biggest Japanese hit of the year to date. The distributor, of course, was Toho.