Film

Rebooting Japan's movie business, one theater at a time

by Mark Schilling

Contributing writer

After being shuttered for more than a month, movie theaters in Tokyo are set to start reopening.

On May 22, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike outlined a road map for easing social distancing measures and business closures in the capital in three stages. Cinemas will start reopening in the second stage, which may begin as by the end of May.

Movie theaters in other parts of the country with fewer cases of coronavirus infections have already started to screen films, primarily older titles such as the 2016 film “Shin Godzilla,” which will show viewers what they’ve been missing by giving them a big-screen experience they can’t get at home.

New titles are conspicuously absent from marquees. As long as theaters in their biggest market, Tokyo, stay closed, distributors would rather hold back films than risk anemic box office returns.

And thanks to the pandemic, this year’s returns have been bad indeed. According to numbers compiled by veteran industry journalist Hiroo Otaka, from January to April box-office revenue in Japan was ¥32.02 billion, a drop of 53 percent from the same period last year. The total for April alone was ¥690 million, or 4 percent of the previous year’s figure. “Given the complete shutdown of theaters around the country, May could be worse,” Otaka tells The Japan Times.

The COVID-19 crisis has also pushed back the release of spring and summer titles from Toho, Disney and other major distributors to the fall or beyond. In the meantime, cinemas have been scrambling to adjust their schedules while trying to create a safe environment for reopening by enforcing social distancing.

“Since they’re selling tickets to only certain seats to leave enough space (between patrons), they’re limited as to how much they can earn,” Otaka says.

Also, now that many movie fans have gotten used to watching films at home on Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, “a lot of people in the film business feel a sense of crisis,” says Otaka. “They’re wondering if they can draw audiences back to the theaters.” But many of the films those cinema-goers most want to see — from the latest installment in the popular Pokemon anime series to the newest entry in the James Bond franchise, “No Time To Die” — will not play in theaters during the peak summer box-office season.

Distributors also have to fill their pipelines with new releases, but film production in Japan has come to a shuddering halt. On May 14, the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (Eiren), an industry body whose members are Japan’s four biggest studios, announced guidelines for restarting production. Its aim was to reduce what the government describes as the “Three Cs”: closed spaces with insufficient ventilation, crowded places, and close-contact settings.

“Everything has come to a stop in the film world, from upstream (production) to downstream (theaters),” Eiren Secretary General Naotaka Kacho was quoted by Tokyo Shimbun as saying. “We’ve been totally handcuffed, but we’ve finally started to move. There are still a lot of problems, but we want to take the first step.”

For all the changes a new normal is set to bring, Otaka believes that fans will always want a true cinematic experience.

“You can’t really replace what a movie theater gives you: a space where you can laugh and cry and be moved, together with many other people,” he says. “The appeal and charm of movie theaters are deeply rooted in human nature. That’s never going to go out of style.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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