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1,700 yen for the inconvenience of seeing a movie.

1,700 [yen] for the Inconvenience of Seeing a Movie

Seventeen Hundred Yen -- That's the price of a movie ticket in Japan! Although Japan has emerged as the second largest market in the world, getting an independent film successfully distributed is extremely difficult.

Since 1970, the number of screens have been decreasing every year. Real estate has become so valuable that theaters in small cities are closing down at an alarming rate. In 1970, there were 3,246 screens compared to the current 1,836.

These are broken down into three categories: 600 screens exhibit only Japanese films, 501 screens exhibit Japanese and foreign films and 735 screens exhibit only foreign films.

With the maximum number of screens available for foreign films at 1,236, competition is strong among the 17 theatrical distributors, including the four major studios.

To make matters worse, Japan has no laws restricting a distributor from owning a theater. Toho Towa, for example, has an exclusive arrangement with 40 theaters--just like their competition, they only exhibit their product. This competition makes it difficult to book any one movie into more than 100 theaters. In fact, in Japan, a film opening on 70 screens in 30 cities is considered a wide release! These 30 cities includes the nine major cities, which collectively only house 24 theaters!

In 1990, 465 foreign films were released in Japan. Out of that, 248 were American. Every week approximately 10 new pictures open, with just as many closing at the same time!

An average theater in any of the big cities, only seats between 250-300 people. Each theater has four showings per day, starting at noon. Even in the big cities, 7:00 p.m. is the time of the "last" show.

The ticket prices are high -- about $12. There is also an "inconvenience" factor: priority of admittance is given to advance ticket holders. A high profile film, like Terminator 2, would render such long ticket lines that the probability of admittance would be low. The multiplexes are expected to change this. Soon, six to eight screen multiplex theaters will begin springing up in the big cities. In addition, Warner Bros. has announced that within five years they will have three, 12 to 15 screen multiplexes of their own.

Although pre-sold or "advance" ticket sales is a popular concept in Japan, there are certain built-in risks to the buyer. A strong marketing campaign is vital, since the exhibitors give very little time for "word of mouth" to build a picture. If the campaign has been successful, a percentage of the theater-goers will buy advance tickets, which are cheaper. However, the film may not be running when they go! If the exhibitor isn't satisfied with the attendance in the theater after the second weekend, the film may be pulled and replaced with another. This would render the advance ticket worthless, since there are no refunds.

Japanese distributors do audience tests of the teaser/trailers and have sneak previews. Certain aspects of the film may be emphasized, which differ from those in the West. A film's title, however, seldom changes. Westerns typically do not do well in Japan. Science fiction and action/adventure films do very well in Japan. Love stories do well, as we've seen most recently with Pretty Woman. Driving Miss Daisy was a bit of a surprise because comedies and dramas often do not work.

Generally speaking, the target audience is 17 to 35 years of age, primarily female and primarily secretaries, due to their 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. work schedule. College students are too poor to buy many tickets, so for them to see a film, it has to be one that is very "special." The other target is children 10 to 15 years old, who like to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons and Sunday. The peak release seasons are during the summer and Christmas.

The business practices between the producer and the distributor are fairly universal. The producer negotiates for a minimum guarantee from the distributor, which for a movie with strong pre-saleable elements, may get two to three million dollars. The difference lies in the print and ad costs. In the U.S., the P&A may be paid for or shared by the producer, the distributor, and exhibitor. In Japan, usually the distributor picks up all of the P&A costs. The contract between the distributor and the exhibitor is a percentage deal, with no minimum guarantees.

In a longer run, the percentage may be re-negotiated every four to five weeks. Each distributor keeps the percentage they get a secret because the bigger companies can get a larger percentage than the smaller ones. The exhibitors determine their ticket sales by tallying "head counts."

P&A costs, are very expensive, television spots being extremely costly. Gone are the days of "bicycling" first release prints. The distributors strike as many prints as they need for a first release. Second release bookings may use prints no longer needed from the first release bookings. Foreign films are subtitled for theatrical release and dubbed for television. Video uses both subtitled and dubbed versions, such as with Die Hard 2. If there are songs in a film, those would be left in their original language. Soundtrack distribution is a separate deal from the theatrical contract.

Susan Stanford is the L.A.-based associate producer and distribution executive for Sho Productions, Inc. of Japan.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Stanford, Suzanne
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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