Dialogue: Isao Matsuoka

The Toho Co. chairman discusses his company's place in the global entertainment sector after its first 75 years

While Toho Co. celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, it is being less publicly proclaimed that 72-year-old chairman Isao Matsuoka also is marking 50 years with the company. In that time, he has played a key role in reviving the fortunes of both Toho and the wider Japanese film industry. Matsuoka, who will be honored at ShoWest with the International Lifetime Achievement Award, spoke recently with The Hollywood Reporter's Julian Ryall about Toho's longevity, the state of the Japanese film sector and the company's plans for the future.

The Hollywood Reporter:
Congratulations on the company's birthday. How has the industry changed in the past 75 years?
Isao Matsuoka: Of the film companies in Japan, we're only in the middle in terms of age -- Shochiku celebrated a century a few years ago -- but yes, the changes have been significant. In 1958, there were 1.1 billion tickets to film theaters sold in Japan; last year, there were 160 million, and we hit bottom about 20 years ago with 130 million admissions. I joined Toho when we were at the peak of the movie business, and then it started to decline, but two decades ago (was) the very lowest (point) for the domestic movie industry. Back then, there were five big film companies; we're down to three now, and there was a possibility of the industry dying out entirely. Those were difficult times. But in the last decade or so, we have seen the advent of new media -- particularly DVDs and the Internet -- which means media content is more widely delivered and, because movies account for a major portion of new media, we're now seeing a big increase in our growth. The industry has also introduced U.S.-style multiplexes now, and that has led to growth in the number of screens across the country, while our purchase of Virgin Cinemas' operations in Japan has helped our market share. So, while I do not believe we will get back to the good old days of 1 billion-plus tickets being sold a year ... I do think that the industry here is getting stronger little by little. My job is to keep that rising trend going.

THR: How can the industry get more people to go to the movies?
Matsuoka: In the U.S., people go to the cinema on average five times a year, but here in Japan, it is only 1.2 times a year. My immediate aim is to encourage the public to go twice a year, and even that moderate change will have a major impact. The way to do it is not only to provide movies that people will be interested in or just to show Japanese movies but to screen movies from around the world that are of a high quality. Having said that, I'm very pleased that in 2006, Japanese movies did better at the boxoffice here than U.S. films for the first time in 21 years. One reason is that there were more Japanese movies produced and fewer U.S. imports -- partly because Hollywood has made a lot of comedy titles recently, and they don't travel to Japan so well -- but I believe this level is a good balance.

THR: How do you monitor the trends among the moviegoing public?
Matsuoka: If I understood that, then Toho would be the biggest film company in the world, I can assure you! Sometimes a title is a surprise hit or a surprise miss, but my aim is not to have extremes of success and failure but to ride smaller "waves" of steady success. One of Toho's advantages is that we have a large back catalog, and when we go through one of the periodic down cycles, then we are able to remake old properties. And because we have a large base of wealth locked into our property holdings, we can always fall back on that in the hard times.

THR: In all the years you have been with Toho, what has been your greatest achievement?
Matsuoka: In 1974, "Submersion of Japan" hit movie screens here, and that was my project. It was a huge hit, but to get it made, I had to overcome quite a lot of opposition and break some rules in the Japanese movie industry. Back then, one ticket gave people access to two movies, but I made tickets to 'Submersion of Japan' the first single-entry film in Japan. And while the New Year period is traditionally the busiest time of year for the film industry, a lot of people thought it would be a big mistake to screen a tragic movie that portrayed Japan sinking into the Pacific at that time of the year. I had to break down a lot of walls to get the film out as I wanted it to be -- but it was a great success. I believe that was when Toho started to climb out of the bad years and laid the foundations for where we are now.

THR: And the future?
Matsuoka: If I compare the last 25 years with what I expect of the next quarter-century, I believe we will see improvements in the industry. That is in terms of the number of people going to see movies, the quality of the films, the technical skills, new developments such as three-dimensional images and a better experience for the cinemagoing public. The future will see huge changes, and it will be very interesting to be a part of that.

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