A very good year for Japan b.o.

Six titles top $42 mil; network film units flex muscles

For Japanese films and filmmakers, 2006 has been an excellent year. Business has been so good and titles have attracted so much international attention that some are even saying that it will go down in the history of the domestic industry as the year Japanese cinema came of age.

Releases surpassed the total of 356 from the previous year, with six titles earning more than ¥5 billion ($42 million) at the boxoffice. The top earner was the Studio Ghibli animated title "Tales From Earthsea," which brought in about ¥7.8 billion ($66 million), followed by "Limit of Love," which earned about ¥7.1 billion ($62 million).

And while the dedicated film studios have fared well, Japan's terrestrial broadcasters have tested the waters this year like never before, edging from telefilms toward full-length theatrical releases.

"2006 is clearly a turning point for us — we could even say it's epoch-making — because we are likely to achieve the best boxoffice records since we started this business," said Makito Sugiyama, deputy vp of the content business department at Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Inc.

"We are forging ahead to provide increasingly exciting entertainment and challenging new genres that we have not tried before — such as comedy and action titles," he said.

"We have also found that one of the advantages of a TV broadcaster producing full features is that we are able to develop both features and TV drama series based on the same source, as we have done with 'Memories of Matsuko' and 'Kisarazu Cat's Eye: Sayonara Game."

TBS produced seven feature films this year, including "The Sinking of Japan," which earned an impressive $44 million at the boxoffice, and "Nana 2."

Household names in the cast helped boost sales, according to Sugiyama, which has a ripple effect in terms of foreign sales. The broadcaster also has made a conscious effort to raise its profile abroad, adding a presence at the Pusan film festival market and the event at the Tokyo International Film Festival to its regular appearances at Cannes and the American Film Market.

Nippon Television's film de-partment also is leveraging the know-how it has accumulated in selling TV programs to market its films, said Seiji Okuda, manager of the division.

"Here are two main reasons for us to move into international sales," he said. "First of all, the number of countries acquiring Japanese films is increasing, even with presales. And secondly, it is becoming more popular to release the titles theatrically very close to the Japanese schedule, particularly in Asian markets.

"We are convinced that it is better that we handle both production and sales to simplify the process and also to earn more profit," he said.

NTV produced four titles in 2006 and invested in another 10 pictures. The best performer was "Death Note" and its sequel, which has earned ¥7.5 billion ($63.5 million) to date and is still going strong.

"The market for feature films in Asia is growing," Okuda said. "Previously, only artistic films worked overseas, but Japan's modern entertainment culture — especially the commercial ones of film, manga (Japanese comics) and animation — have become more popular and attracted more attention."

Terrestrial broadcasters getting in on the movie act are looking to the success of the largest Japanese TV company, Fuji Television, which first began producing feature films in 1969 and has produced more than 170 titles, many of which also have been sold overseas.

Fuji's motivation was that broadcasting rights for Hollywood blockbusters were becoming prohibitively expensive.

"We have increased the number of our productions this year, and that is because we are constantly expanding and diversifying our feature film business, and we don't intend to rest on our laurels," said Chihiro Kameyama, head of Fuji's motion picture department. "I feel that the domestic boxoffice still has room for growth, so our goal is to get more people to come to movie theaters to watch films."