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Rising Theater, Audience Numbers Boost Movie Industry

March 15, 1998

Shohei Imamura (left) and actor Koji Yakusho of Unagi show off their Golden Palm. (Photo: Kyodo)

After a while in the doldrums, the Japanese film world is experiencing a reinvigoration. The number of moviegoers was above 150 million in 1997, for the first time in 11 years. This turnaround from the lowest figure, marked in 1996, has been ascribed to a string of hit movies from both domestic and foreign studios, but there is also a structural aspect to the boom: the increase in the number of "cineplex" theaters featuring multiple screens and higher customer-drawing power.

Most Moviegoers Since 1986
The Japanese movie industry was boosted by plenty of positive news in 1997. Japanese films took top honors at international film festivals: Shohei Imamura's Unagi (The Eel) won the Golden Palm in Cannes, and Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi won the Golden Lion in Venice. On the domestic side, Hayao Miyazaki's animated feature Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke), a huge hit, became the first film in Japan to take in more than 10 billion yen (77 million U.S. dollars at 130 yen to the dollar) at the box office.

It was this movie that contributed an overwhelming share to the growth in movie audiences. Widely enjoyed, especially among younger people, Princess Mononoke had sold 13 million theater tickets as of the end of 1997. American films like Independence Day and The Lost World: Jurassic Park drew crowds with the latest special effects technology, and older moviegoers flocked to see the domestic film Shitsurakuen, bringing overall audience numbers to a peak not seen in over a decade.

Box office receipts marked a strong increase right along with attendance. A movie is considered a major hit in Japan if it earns 1 billion yen (7.7 million dollars); last year saw 17 movies--7 of them domestic--clearing this mark.

More Viewers, More Theaters
The Japanese movie industry had been described as on the wane, exposed to strong competition from satellite and terrestrial television, videos, and diversifying entertainment interests. But it is now showing signs of a resurgence. The number of theaters in Japan reached its apex in 1960, when some 7,500 movie halls were in operation. That number dropped steadily thereafter, reaching a low of 1,734 halls in 1993--a mere quarter of the peak figure. But a rebound since then has boosted the number of theaters to approximately 1,800 in 1996 and about 2,000 as of the end of 1997.

Movie audience numbers reached their all-time high in 1958, when 1.12 billion tickets were sold. That figure dropped steadily after that, falling below 200 million in 1972. Attendance dropped to its lowest level in 1996, when only 119 million tickets--just over a tenth of the peak level--were sold. This makes the rebound of the 1997 figure to 150 million all the more impressive.

According to some observers, the movie-viewing population actually has not shrunk by much. Theater ticket sales indicate that Japanese people saw an average of only 1.2 movies in a theater in 1997, but the number of people who watched a movie outside a theater, even excluding films shown on terrestrial television broadcasts, is estimated to be as high as 750 million, with 600 million viewings of rental and retail videos and the remainder being watched on satellite or cable television. Terrestrial broadcasts are said to account for an additional 4 or 5 billion movie viewings per year.

According to an organization of film producers, while 1996 saw foreign and domestic films bring the entertainment industry 149 billion yen (1.1 billion dollars) in theater revenues, 208 billion yen (1.6 billion dollars) was brought in by video sales. It seems that the perceived decline in the movie industry has not been caused by shrinking viewership, but rather by sinking theater attendance.

Cineplexes Packing 'Em In
Industry insiders, however, positively view the movie industry's banner year in 1997 as indicating an end to this decline in attendance. Multi-screen cinema complexes, or "cineplexes," are seen as at the heart of this rebound. A joint enterprise between a large Japanese supermarket chain and a major U.S. media corporation got this trend off the ground in 1993, when it opened its first cineplex in a prefecture neighboring Tokyo. This seven-screen facility was followed in rapid succession by others around the country; the theater chain now boasts 13 facilities with a total of 93 screens. The joint venture's first cineplex sold an impressive 940,000 tickets in 1996, and the company now hopes to expand operations to 200 screens by the end of 1998.

Stimulated by the success of this chain, a cineplex boom centered on tie-ups with foreign firms seems set to take off. In autumn 1997, a major American entertainment company began construction of a 16-screen complex in a shopping center run by a large Japanese supermarket operator in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu. The company plans to open 1,000 screens nationwide over the next 10 years. Others launching cineplex ventures include domestic companies from the film-distribution, pachinko, and video-game industries.

These cineplexes offer a range of services not available at traditional theaters. They are conveniently attached to shopping malls or large restaurants and boast large parking lots. They also frown on making people stand through a show by overselling tickets, offer clean, comfortable seats, are flexible enough to show popular films on multiple screens, and show movies later into the night. It looks like the opening of new cineplexes, with this range of services for the customer, could be what is needed to get movie fans back in theater seats.

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Trends in Japan Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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