How Hollywood can succeed in Japan

By Aristophanes

Japan, trailing behind international heavyweight China, currently sits at number two on the long list of most-profitable foreign markets for Hollywood films, even despite the continually declining market share commanded by American blockbusters in the country over the past decade. If movie studios in the United States maintain and expand their presence in the Land of the Rising Sun, it could counter the impending calamity of declining domestic revenue.

Twelve years ago, Hollywood films claimed over two-thirds of the Japanese box office. By 2012, that proportion had been cut in half, portraying the wishes of a nation increasingly dissatisfied with traditional big-budget franchise fare. Hollywood faces a challenge in pitching its domestically created content to foreign viewers. Understanding Japan, one of the largest of these international audiences, is crucial. For an industry in trouble at home, hope of survival exists primarily abroad.

Traditionally, Japanese cinema-goers have preferred anime and drama, two genres often neglected by American studios. Films such as Pacific Rim (2013) and The Wolverine (2013), both set in the eastern hemisphere, have flopped, collecting a paltry $10 million each. Whiplash (2014), on the other hand, became a low-budget sleeper hit in Japan, passing its production budget of $3.3 million on Japanese ticket sales alone. Could this have been from great word of mouth, or is there something else about the film which is uniquely appealing to Japanese audiences? Although making less in the country than the two larger blockbuster films, Whiplash was lauded by industry watchers primarily because, comparatively, it cost so little to produce.

In regard to total revenue, few films can match the haul of Disney’s Frozen (2013), which grossed an astounding $250 million on Japanese screens. Released as Anna and the Snow Queen, the title of the original short story from which the film was heavily adapted, the animated feature fell short of the total gross of only two other films in the country’s history: James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001).

Hollywood should take note: music, animation and drama are winning genres in Japan. In 2014, Frozen made more in the country than any other American filmThe year before, top honors went to Monsters University; before that, Les Miserables.

Action films are holding on, but the largest revenues date from over six years ago. In 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II took Hollywood’s first-place Japanese gross, preceded by Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Avatar in 2009, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End in 2007.

Local filmmakers are often successful, as well. Prominent names like Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, commonly dominate the box office alongside their Hollywood counterparts. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013) took the top spot the year it released, grossing nearly $120 million and beating out American contenders Ted (2013) and Monsters University (2013). Ponyo (2008), another Miyazaki feature, grossed nearly $165 million, tripling the takes of both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Wall-E (2008). Studio Ghibli’s popularity has even crossed the Pacific, as the company boasts an exclusive distribution deal with Disney.

Although comparatively less profitable, Japanese-produced dramas shouldn’t be overlooked. Bayside Shakedown 2 (2003), a buddy cop comedic drama directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro and based on a popular television show, is the highest earning live-action Japanese film of all timeAntarctica (1983), a live-action drama recounting the story of a failed Japanese expedition to the South Pole, also sits on the country’s top 20 list. The concept was so popular that an English-language remake, Eight Below (2006), was later distributed by Buena Vista.

To regain ground lost in the Japanese marketplace, Hollywood should focus on these genres first and foremost. No Japanese studio can currently match the scale and grandeur of the most expensive American films. Because of this, such epics will always have a seat at the table, earning revenue by sheer force. The task of Hollywood is to capitalize on that advantage and to do so, when feasible, by appealing to the specific desires of Japanese culture.

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