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The impact of the Japan earthquake, tsunami and unfolding nuclear crisis on Hollywood could be felt for months as studios and foreign distributors re-evaluate release calendars and showbiz stocks take a fall.
And if the catastrophe worsens, the impact on box office could be even more devastating.
“Everybody is going to look at their lineup for the rest of the year,” one studio distributor says. “Once you start moving films back, you are going to pinch other movies. Sequencing will become very tricky.
“It’s an hour-by-hour, day-by-day situation,” the exec adds. “If these nuclear reactors actually do have a big problem, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
The most immediate concern is pulling films that might appear insensitive to the tragedy, like Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, which begins with a chilling re-creation of the deadly 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Warner Bros. yanked Hereafter from theaters almost immediately after the 9.0 earthquake struck March 11. Likewise, Japanese distributor Shochiku has canceled the March 26 opening of Chinese box office hit Aftershock, about China’s massive 1976 Tangshan earthquake.
While sci-fi action pic Battle: Los Angeles isn’t a disaster movie per se, Sony is canceling the alien-invasion pic’s April 1 debut in Japan because of the images of mass destruction.
The Japanese box office has become very important to Hollywood, representing 10 percent of all international ticket sales and generating more than $2.5 billion in revenue in 2010.
Craig Dehmel, senior vp sales and strategic planning at Fox, estimates that 110 theaters in the Tokyo area and northern Japan — about 16 percent of the total — remain closed due to safety checks and power shortages.
In the north, as many as 20 movie theaters might have been destroyed, according to anecdotal reports. All told, there are 3,000 screens in Japan.
The most recent time studios had to contend with major scheduling shifts was the 2009 swine flu epidemic in Mexico.
“But the scale of this is so big, I don’t know if our experience means much,” one frightened Hollywood executive says.
Theater traffic in Japan came to a virtual standstill on the first weekend after the quake, with business off by 60-70 percent, according to studio estimates. Disney’s Tangled opened at $1.6 million, while Fox’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader plummeted 66.2 percent from the previous weekend. The King’s Speech dropped even more, or 72.5 percent.
The growing nuclear crisis also saw stock markets tumble in Japan and the U.S. as of press time on March 15, impacting the entertainment conglomerates. Sony has been hurt the most from the disaster, dropping another 8.9 percent on the Nikkei on March 15 to ¥2,324.
But Sony’s rivals weren’t spared. Disney, News Corp. and Viacom all fell March 15 amid a broader sell-off on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.
Looking to the future, Warners also has delayed the March 17 opening of The Rite, titled The Pledge in the country, “in deference to the tragic events in Japan,” says Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international distribution. The pic was considered a lucrative prospect in Japan.
Adds Kwan-Rubinek, “We are presently evaluating our next releases as well.” Those titles include Sucker Punch, slated to open in Japan on April 14.
Paramount has decided to go ahead and open True Grit on March 17, as planned. It will be a relatively small release — 40 prints — and will play mostly in bigger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. In Tokyo, rolling blackouts are impacting movie theaters, however.
Among upcoming titles, Fox is scheduled to open Gulliver’s Travels on April 15 in Japan. Then come the big summer tentpoles: Disney is scheduled to open Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on May 21 in Japan, Warners has Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 on July 15, and Paramount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon follows in late July.
“People don’t feel it’s appropriate, emotionally or otherwise, to be entertained when your country is going through a tragic situation,” NATO president and CEO John Fithian says. “But at some point, the need to escape comes back.”
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