Japan's Reopened Cinemas to Screen Classics 'Ben-Hur,' 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Blade Runner'

Blade Runner - Photofest - H 2017
Warner Bros./Photofest

Cinemas in Japan, the world's third-largest box office, suffered their worst month in decades in April, when earnings fell 96 percent. Now they're starting to reboot — by bringing Hollywood classics like 'E.T.,' 'East of Eden,' and 'Bonnie and Clyde' back to the big screen.

When cinemas in Japan began preparing to reopen last week, theater operators were faced with a puzzling question: What to show?

Studios and distributors from Hollywood to Tokyo have postponed most major new releases for months in response to the novel coronavirus, aware that box office earnings will be minuscule until social distancing policies can be relaxed on a massive scale. That's forced the smattering of international exhibitors who are resuming business to get creative.

In Japan, the solution speaks rather highly of local filmgoers' tastes. Toho Cinemas, the country's largest multiplex chain, which opened 10 locations last weekend, has decided to lean heavily on the classics. Among the titles the company has brought back to the big screen are William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), The Wizard of Oz (1939), James Dean's East of Eden (1955), Bonnie and Clyde (1969) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Westside Story (1961) and John Wayne's Rio Bravo (1959) also were playing at several locations, along with other favorites of the 1980s and 90s, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Asked about the lineup by Reuters on Tuesday, a Toho executive simply said: "We're playing films that are popular."

The exhibition giant has been rolling out a few Japanese and regional Asian favorites too. Makoto Shinkai's recent anime blockbusters Your Name (2016) and Weathering With You (2019) are back on screens in some areas, as is mighty Godzilla in his most recent local incarnation, Shin Godzilla (2016). Bong Joon Ho's Oscar best picture winner Parasite, which was still pulling in strong earnings before Japan's theaters shut down in March, is showing again as well.

The cinema business in Japan — like virtually everywhere — will need all the help it can get to bounce back from the pandemic. The country is home to the world's third-largest national box office, so a significant resumption of business there will represent an important step toward getting the global theatrical sector back on track.

The total box office earnings of Japan's 12 largest movie distributors in April totaled just $6.4 million (688.24 million yen), a 96.3 percent plummet from the same period last year, according to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ). That's the lowest monthly figure the MPPAJ has ever recorded, the group said.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week lifted the nation's state of emergency in 34 prefectures where COVID-19 is on the decline. The major population centers of Tokyo and Osaka remain on lockdown though.

Toho said Tuesday that it would reopen an additional 23 cinemas on Friday in regional prefectures that have been deemed safe. The company has been employing a range of safety procedures, including reduced theater capacity, socially distanced seating arrangements and requiring both customers and staff to wear masks.