Sunday, January 21, 2007

Where Japanese film is at in '07

A recent thread on the Kinejapan email discussion list about the current state of Japanese film elicited a fantastic post from Aaron Gerow, a highly regarded Japanese film scholar and one of the list's owners. As it's the most perceptive and succinct appraisal of the industry I've seen anywhere, here it is reprinted for posterity's sake, with the permission of the author.

"It does seem like the papers and magazines are frequently running articles about the "healthy" Japanese film industry. You especially see the movie business appearing in the business pages more than you did in the past. There are a lot of films making money these days and it would be significant if hoga topped yoga for the first time since 1985 (some are already reporting that that is the case). But we should all note that most of these articles on the business point to a number of problems. I also encounter a number of people in the film community here who see the industry in crisis, not in a boom.

"Here are some factors of concern:

"1) While the hoga share is rising, the pie is not getting bigger. Maybe 2006 will see a rise in the total BO, but it will be too early to call it a trend. The total BO has basically gone up and down over the last five years and shown no major expansion. This all means that it is still debatable whether Japanese films are really capturing audiences on their own; perhaps fickle audiences are just temporarily separating from yoga. With total BO not increasing as the number of screens does increase, that means that revenue per screen is going down. The number of films released is also increasing, which means the revenue per film is decreasing.

"2) The hoga distribution market is radically unbalanced. In 2005, Toho films captured over 60% of the hoga market. That is one single company monopolizing 60 yen out of every 100 yen spent on Japanese movies. The situation probably will not change in 2006 since Toho just announced it had record sales last year (even though its year end releases flopped). Some are saying that with the rise of cinemaplexes, one of the evils of the Japanese film industry--the block booking system which basically prohibited 80% of the films from ever having access to the vast majority of theaters--has loosened up. And it is true that some of the films that are doing well on small release are getting picked up by the shinekon--something that didn't happen before--but with Toho being so dominant, the playing field is still tremendously skewed. This is especially the case with the rising force of TV capital. With the major hits all having TV backing, some of the business articles are reporting that theaters are refusing to show films without TV backing. And when theaters are showing non-Toho films, they are reportedly pulling the plug faster than they did before. As more films appear, it is not only getting harder to book a theater, but theaters are quickly dumping films that don't perform in the first week. Word of mouth hits are going to decrease and the market may separate into two polar opposites: TV/Toho majors and the rest.

"3) The major hits are mostly films backed by TV networks and/or based on TV shows. Many people say that Japanese are moving to Japanese movies because Hollywood films are getting repetitive and formulaic. But that is precisely what the Japanese majors are making these days. Not a few predict this boom will soon peter out. The question is whether the industry actually has the talent to produce original work that can bring in people. It is encouraging to see the rise of filmmaking programs around the country, but one wonders what kind of films they will make. I ran into a friend last weekend, someone who is a well-known director and teaches filmmaking at a major university, and he was quite depressed: none of his students, he says, go to the movies. They all want to make movies, but they make no effort to see movies, especially the classics. A lot of filmmaking programs don't even offer film history courses.

"4) But this is also a question of management. The Japanese film industry is undergoing a profound transformation as various media companies are buying up film companies. This shows that the contents industry is taking the movies seriously, but one wonders what they will do to it. A colleague told me the other day that last year the head of DVD/video sales of a major film studio called him to ask if director A was someone important. My colleague was floored: director A happened to be one of the major directors of Japanese cinema history, someone that anyone on KineJapan would know. And this was a director who was a major figure in that company for decades! And this was the head of DVD sales in that company! Oh My God! Is this the kind of personnel who are running the movie companies today? (In some ways it makes sense, because the people in their 40s who are becoming the kacho and bucho these days are the generation that never watched Japanese movies.) I have had complaints about how the film industry treats its own history and those who study it--I have long argued that they are shooting themselves in the leg over how they deal with their catalog of films--but this stunned me as well."

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