Japanese cinema-goers paying $18 for a ticket tend to make conservative choices when they reach the front of the queue. This goes some way to explain the 59.5% market share garnered by local films at last year's box office. Audiences know what they will get from the new animation from Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea), the latest theatrical reworking of a TV police series (Partners: The Movie) and a feature adaptation of a popular manga TV series (Boys Over Flowers: Final).
Mainstream Japanese films are generally financed by production consortiums which invest in projects with familiar original content such as manga, TV series and novels they can then cross-promote.
With ad sales plummeting, TV networks are looking to films to plug the gap. Production consortiums are typically headed by a studio or TV broadcaster and include a distributor, publisher, advertising company and, sometimes, a video company. Talent agencies, record labels, post-production houses and toy-makers also take an interest. Everyone in the consortium has a say in the production, distribution and promotion of the film, which tends to skew the decisions toward a compromise rather than a wildly original solution - which might explain the stagnation in overall box-office figures.
The Motion Picture Association of Japan (Eiren) reports box-office revenues for 2008 reached $2bn (Yen194.8bn), down 1.8% year-on-year. Admissions were also down 1.7% year-on-year to 160.5 million.
'We cannot deny consumers' tastes (towards entertainment) are diversifying. Young people, especially, spend most of their leisure time on mobile phones or the internet. But we're not pessimistic - this slight decrease in admissions is not so serious or fatal a tendency for the Japanese market. It just depends on the title,' says Sakura Wakita of the exhibition marketing department at T-Joy, an affiliate of major entertainment company Toei.
Miyazaki's Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea, produced by Studio Ghibli, topped the charts, earning $172m. Like five other top 10 films, it was distributed by Toho, whose activities span film production, distribution and exhibition, and television, video, music, stage and related fields. With more than 500 of Japan's 3,359 screens, Toho is the industry leader and enjoys strong relationships with producers and broadcasters.
Yoshiko Fukuda, manager at Toho's international business department, notes: 'Toho's strength may be its ability to estimate the box office of a movie from past statistics. From it we form our yearly line-up, book theatres and plan our promotion. This does not only include our animation movie series, such as Pokemon, Doraemon, Detective Conan, Naruto and Studio Ghibli works, but also feature titles made by directors or cast we've worked with in the past.'
'To become a really huge hit you need to get teenagers and even children on board, and they prefer local films where they don't have to read subtitles,' says Fumiko Nagata of Nippon Television Network (NTV)'s film programming division. 'They will go to see the same film again and again if they like it, creating huge hits. But it's getting more and more difficult for foreign films.'
NTV's recent hit 20th Century Boys was based on a popular manga series and distributed by Toho. The production consortium was headed by NTV and included publisher Shogakan, video company VAP and NTV parent company Yomiuri Shimbun, a major daily newspaper, and affiliate Yomiuri TV.
Even Shochiku's Departures - the winner of the best foreign-language film at the Oscars last month, a slew of Japanese Academy Awards and a big hit at home - is based on a story familiar to Japanese audiences.
'Masahiro Motoki, a very well-known actor in Japan, came up with the idea for Departures after reading the story in the news of a man who did make-up for the deceased. He talked about it with the director (Yojiro Takita) and the producer at TBS and that's how this hit came about,' says Miyuki Takamatsu, media business department, TBS.
'Nowadays, most Japanese people get much of their daily information from television. People like to go for what they are familiar with, and they like to see the same actors and characters who are well known through TV by most Japanese people.'
Hollywood films that were hits in many other territories underperformed in Japan. 'The Dark Knight made money in Japan, but did not match our expectations,' says Kunio Yamada, director of sales, Warner Bros Pictures, Warner Entertainment Japan Inc.
Except for the Spider-Man franchise, film adaptations of non-Japanese comic-book superheroes cannot transcend the genre. Reasons often cited are that US superheroes wear uncool costumes, are unsympathetic and/or have excessively macho characters who might kill their enemies. The themes of these films are considered too mature for young audiences.
'Japanese parents go in droves year after year to the familiar and risk-free local franchises Doraemon, Pocket Monsters, Crayon Shinchan and to this year's Miyazaki animation,' adds Yamada.
Co-distributors Asmik Ace and Kadakowa worked hard to ensure Kung Fu Panda made a dent in the market against the local animations. They carried out an aggressive cross-marketing campaign in seven key cities and online to familiarise audiences with the character. They even enrolled famous celebrities 'as the secretary of each character and had them appear in events targeting children and parents in order to make 'noise'', explains Kayo Yoshida, manager of Asmik Ace International.
'Local films can easily book local stars to promote a film 24 hours a day, but it's difficult to bring a Hollywood star to Japan, especially since we usually open their films three months later than the US release and they are already doing other things,' explains Yusuke Horiuchi of the international department at leading distributor Toho-Towa (the company is a subsidiary of Toho, which handles only Japanese films; Toho-Towa also handles the Universal slate in Japan exclusively).
However, Horiuchi says on balance the delay in the Japanese release of most of the big US films is not a problem. 'Piracy is not so much an issue in Japan (hence few day-and-date releases), and we prefer the later releases because it gives us time to localise the promotion and make sure there are no problems with materials-delivery timing.'
Will Smith, in particular, is popular in Japan because he assiduously attends to the promotion of his films in the territory. 'When he comes, he is all over the TV, in the news and magazines. Japanese viewers go to see the movies of stars they feel familiar with, can identify with and feel sympathy for,' notes NTV's Nagata.
The grey yen
Finding an independent route amid the well-funded and synergised mainstream films is not always easy. Hexagon, which handles six to eight films a year, is targeting the growing senior-citizen class.
'They have money and time. They have been movie-goers since their younger days,' says Yoichi Sakai, president and CEO of Hexagon. 'We did films like 12 and Away From Her with success. For the arthouse market here, our main audiences prefer European culture. So we keep buying films from France, Italy, UK and Germany. They prefer good dramas based on historical events or people.'
'We have the capacity to release around 15 films per year,' says Asmik Ace's Yoshida. 'We're trying to produce four to six local films every year, and the rest are our international pick-ups. We cannot count on the DVD value nowadays, so we're trying to find films with stronger theatrical potential. We would like to acquire something different, original, unique, new.'
Mina Mita, deputy director, motion picture department, sales and acquisitions at Fuji TV Network, says: 'The market is becoming increasingly saturated and it's getting harder to promote films with so many releases each Saturday - although some Hollywood studios are starting to try Friday releases for their films.
'It's getting increasingly hard to make a film stand out in the crowd. You can't just go through the motions - the big premieres, star interviews and appearances on variety shows. It takes more creativity.'
Fuji TV, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, is putting its money where its mouth is. It is producing a big-budget action thriller called Amalfi, shot entirely in Italy. It is not based on any pre-existing material but written by Yuichi Shimpo (Whiteout).
Fuji also has the Japanese-language remake rights to Sideways, co-produced with Fox, coming out in the autumn, and is part of a consortium that is releasing a foreign film, Lasse Hallstrom's Hachiko, A Dog's Story starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen. 'This is material familiar to Japanese audiences - it's based on the legend of the loyal dog who faithfully waited every day at Shibuya station for his master even after his death,' says Mita. It is a remake of a 1987 Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari.
The company is also co-releasing Slumdog Millionaire in April - Fuji is the local producer and broadcaster of the Japanese version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire'Another route taken is that of Red Cliff Part 1, which was co-distributed by Toho-Towa and Avex. Toho-Towa's Horiuchi explains: 'The original novel, The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, is well-known and popular. Avex is one of the leading music companies in Japan and also had a singer on the official soundtrack. We were able to cross-promote using the Avex celebrities, who have a lot of influence over young people in Japan.'
Red Cliff Part 1 generated a huge amount of publicity when it opened the Tokyo International Film Festival in October, months after the film's release in its other co-production countries of China and Korea. The film was one of only two international films to feature in Japan's year-end top 10 for 2008, along with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, the fourth and third highest-grossing films respectively.