Each January, the Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan holds a press conference to reveal the previous year’s box office data and its list of top-grossing films.
One year ago — at what was then thought to be the height of the coronavirus pandemic — the event was a somber gathering: Receipts for 2020 were down a whopping 38% over the year before.
On Jan. 25, the mood was a tad more upbeat with the announcement that the total for 2021 reached $1.42 billion, a figure still well below pre-pandemic levels but up 13% over 2020. Further boosting spirits was the strong performance of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and local animated feature “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” over the holidays.
“This year, the New Year’s box office got off to a good start,” said Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan chairman Yoshishige Shimatani. ”I think the movie industry is in for something of a vintage year.”
The chairman’s prognostication could be a tad optimistic given the pandemic is ongoing but for now exhibitors are leaning on local productions while the fortunes of Hollywood films remain up in the air.
Shimatani is also the president of Toho Co., the entertainment giant that not only exhibits films but also distributes them. Over the past decade, its bread and butter has been in animation.
It was not a surprise, then, that last year’s top three grossing films were animated features distributed entirely or in part by Toho. Ranking No. 1 was “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” (pictured), an anime directed by Hideaki Anno and derived from the popular television series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”
According to Jefferies analyst Shinnosuke Takeuchi, consumers have become more selective in how they spend their free time during the pandemic. This has resulted in content with strong IP being favored by enthusiastic fans while others get ignored.
“Younger generations are going outside more actively than older generations,” he says. “Toho’s theater business, whose consumer base is younger generations, achieved its highest quarterly revenue in the latest September-November quarter over the past five years.”
On the other hand, the theater business for venerable Shochiku, which features “kabuki” dramas favored by the elderly, “is still much lower than pre-pandemic,” he notes.
The pandemic has also not been kind to foreign films, which have been hit with delays, the association also revealed. The result was local films taking 79% of the market in 2021, up from 76% the year before.
“I think the biggest reason why Japanese box office revenue itself is still in the process of recovery is the drop in foreign films,” said chairman Shimatani. “Fifteen big foreign films that we had high hopes for were postponed or went straight to streaming.”
With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, hurdles could surface for exhibitors if the government declares a state of emergency, which was last in effect in Tokyo in September. Worryingly, the highly contagious Omicron variant has caused the number of cases to spike nationwide in recent weeks. If another declaration is made, theaters would likely be required to shorten hours.
Surprisingly, the pandemic has not cut into the number of screens operating nationwide. Last year, the total was 3,648, up from 3,616 in 2020, according to the association.
Streamers, however, could put pressure on exhibitors. According to marketing firm GEM Partners, the value of Japan’s SVOD market surged by around 35% between 2019 and 2020.
But the young consumer finds streaming content inside their typically cramped Japanese home to make for an unrewarding experience, says analyst Takeuchi. He expects exhibitors to remain a force going forward.
“In Japan, exhibitors are one of the most important channels to grow and monetize IP,” says the analyst, who points to the 2020 blockbuster “Demon Slayer” as an example. “Potential animation fans are increasing thanks to the penetration of e-comics, so I believe animation will continue to underpin growth at the box office.”