U.S. pics have it made in Japan

Sony, Disney titles lead way as H'wood reclaims b.o. crown

After a tough 2006 in Japan for the U.S. majors — when local films regularly outdrew even the largest American titles at the boxoffice — Hollywood appears to be reasserting its longtime dominance of the territory's theatrical marketplace.

In the first six months of 2007, boxoffice for features from the five Hollywood majors in Japan collectively rose nearly 22% from 2006's first half, to $366.7 million.

Films from the three Japanese majors — Toho, Shochiku and Toei — fell over the same period by 13%, to $322.5 million, according to Rengo Report, a Japanese trade newsletter covering national boxoffice.

It was the Japanese majors, particularly Toho Co., which powered 2006's boxoffice for local films to $1.7 billion — a record 53.2% share of Japan's theatrical market. It marked the first time in more than two decades that Japanese titles bested U.S. films to claim the greater share of local boxoffice.

Reclaiming that market share in Japan would spell substantial revenue for the U.S. majors, which last year pulled in $384.3 million in theatrical rentals from the market, Hollywood's second-largest international territory (after the U.K.).

According to the Motion Picture Assn., Japan-generated film rentals — the distributor's slice of boxoffice — for the U.S. majors rose 16.9% in 2006 from the prior year. But the year-to-year rentals growth was the second slowest of the top 25 international markets. Korea brought up the rear at 12.2%.

In the January-June period this year, Toho Co. was the strongest individual distributor, garnering boxoffice of $194 million. But the first half of this year was down 13% from last year's record performance, when its releases accounted for more than 50% of the Japanese majors' total 2006 boxoffice. Overall, in the first half of 2007, Japan's boxoffice was essentially static, up 0.7% to $777.5 million.

The top-performing U.S. major in the first half was Sony Pictures Releasing International, which registered boxoffice of $105.1 million, up 25.6% from 2006's comparable period, thanks to strong performances from "Spider-Man 3" and the latest James Bond entry, "Casino Royale."

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International, the No. 1 U.S. distributor in Japan last year, followed Sony with boxoffice of $93 million, down 12.3% from last year. Disney opened "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" in the first half of 2007 to strong results — more than $50 million in the period. However, the studio lacked the one-two punch provided last year by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Fox had a terrific first half of 2007 on a year-to-year percentage growth basis, grossing $54.5 million — a 301.9% increase from the year-ago period. The jump, fueled by "Night at the Museum," "Rocky Balboa" and "Die Hard 4.0," marked the best year-to-year hike ever recorded in the market.

Shochiku Co. posted the second-best boxoffice percentage growth during the first half, spiking 99% from last year with boxoffice of $89.2 million. Japan's oldest studio had a string of first-half hits, including director Yoji Yamada's samurai drama "Love and Honor" (boxoffice of $33.6 million), manga-based fantasy "Gegege no Kitaro" ($19.3 million) and "Tokyo Tower," a drama based on a successful Fuji Television series ($15.1 million).

Toei Co. had two hits in the first half, the biggest being its co-production with Fuji TV, "O-oku: The Movie," which grossed $19.3 million. Overall, Toei recorded first-half boxoffice of $39.3 million, down 41.4% from last year.

Warner Bros. jumped 5% with first-half boxoffice of $73.5 million, thanks to a series of strong releases, including "300," "The Departed" and Clint Eastwood's well-received "Letters From Iwo Jima."

Both Universal and Paramount have reconfigured their arrangements in the market with United International Pictures, which will shut down at the end of this year. Universal said its films grossed $12.8 million in the first half, the biggest being "The Holiday" (gross $11.1 million).

In February, Universal designated Toho-Towa Co., the foreign import-distribution unit of Toho Co., as distributor for most of its films in Japan. First up under that deal is "The Bourne Ultimatum" in November.

For its part, Paramount will continue to farm its releases in Japan through UIP until the end of this year, and then through its own distribution outfit. First-half boxoffice for five Paramount titles — including DreamWorks co-production "Dreamgirls" — tallied $24.3 million in boxoffice.