3-D hits disguise fears over cinemas’ future

Distributors worry fad will fade away while small, distinctive theaters are closing down

Kyodo News

Japan saw box-office receipts soar to a new record in 2010 as multiplex theaters running 3-D blockbusters did brisk business, but industry officials and experts are worried about the future of the industry as small, distinctive cinemas continue to close.

Movie producers expressed mixed emotions about the future of 3-D at a news conference on Jan. 27 in which they announced record 2010 box office receipts of around ¥220.74 billion.

“Too many 3-D films will end up tiring viewers,” said Hideyuki Takai, president of Toho Co., a major movie distributor.

Nobuyoshi Otani, president of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, said: “3-D movies may help boost the box office, but probably only for a few years. It will be a different picture if they become commonly available.”

The top three movies at the box office, far outpacing the rest, were all 3-D Hollywood productions released in the first several months of the year — “Avatar,” which raked in ¥15.60 billion, “Alice in Wonderland,” which pulled in ¥11.80 billion, and “Toy Story 3,” which did ¥10.80 billion.

In the latter half of the year, the passion for 3-D movies apparently waned as “Despicable Me” generated only ¥1.2 billion.

While big-budget productions drew audiences, art films entered a slump. As the concept of multiplex theaters spreads, film buffs who frequent smaller theaters specializing in art house movies are getting rarer.

“The market has transformed to center on trendy films,” said Yasushi Shiina, senior managing director of Kadokawa Pictures Inc. “People well-versed in movies are seen as ‘otaku’ (nerds) and this perception is helping people shun movies.”

There is a tendency even among young people to stay away from movie theaters unless they notice a film is making waves in blog or Twitter posts. “What is sought after is movies that are easy to understand,” an employee at one distributor said.

Takashi Nakagawa, the president of Toho Cinemas Ltd., the biggest multiplex chain in Japan, also expressed concern.

“Those movie fans who used to visit theaters several times a year are declining,” he said.

2010 was also a great year for Japanese movies, which set a new revenue record. The hit titles, however, were animations, theater versions of popular TV dramas or movies based on comic book stories.

Of the 408 Japanese movies released last year, only 29 scored ¥1 billion or more in box office receipts, accounting for roughly 72 percent of all revenue. This suggests a huge disparity between big hits and other works.

“I can’t imagine that the young people who only watch the wildly popular Japanese movies now will be sustainable movie fans. Since they come to see a film just because it’s in vogue, they’ll probably end up watching it only once,” movie critic Sadao Yamane said.

Recent data also show that Japanese are infrequent moviegoers, averaging only 1.4 theater visits per year, compared with around four in the United States and three in France and South Korea.

Multiplex theaters used to be built as part of suburban shopping malls but are now stretching into urban areas. Last year, such theaters opened near major railway stations in Yokohama and Kyoto.

Multiplex theaters account for 81 percent of all screens in Japan, according to the Motion Picture Producers Association. New theaters are also expected to open at buildings adjacent to key railway stations in the cities of Osaka and Fukuoka.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 29, Ebisu Garden Cinema in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, closed. Cine Saison Shibuya, a minitheater that was a favorite of many fans, particularly in the 1980s, will close this month.

One fan who used to frequent the theater said, “After work, I now tend to go to a multiplex theater that is open late at night.”

According to Community Cinema Center in Tokyo, which supports small movie houses, Shimane and Tokushima prefectures only had multiplex theaters, excluding those offering adult films, at the end of 2009.

“The movie industry needs a broad base that helps a young director move from a film for a single theater to a production undertaken by a big producer,” said Shigeki Ito of the center.

“We hope to keep the diversity of movie productions by helping (small theaters) show productions seen by a wide range of people,” Ito said.