On Jan. 19, Japan’s largest movie theater chain, Toho Cinemas, announced that it was cutting ticket prices at regional shinekon (short for “cinema complexes,” or multiplexes) starting April 5 in Utsunomiya, Midorii, Yojiro, Nagasaki, Kofu and Ueda. At present, standard ticket prices, meaning the price you pay at the box office, is ¥1,800 for adults. This will be reduced to ¥1,500 for persons 18 and older and ¥1,000 for persons under 18. The current pricing structure is more complicated. Patrons under 18 pay ¥1,500, while seniors 60 and older shell out ¥1,000. Then there are special discounts for advance purchase, women patrons on certain days, and other deals. In fact, one of the reasons Toho is initiating this new pricing system, which will supposedly go nationwide in a year, is to simplify ticketing; but, of course, the real reason is that movie prices are way too expensive and have been for years.

Since Toho is the biggest chain, others are eventually expected to follow suit, which is good news for theater-going fans, at least economically speaking. In terms of variety and quality of product, the news is not so good. Despite the fact that 2010 saw an increase in Japan’s box office revenues — a record ¥220.7 billion yen, 7 percent more than the box office in 2009 — the actual number of tickets sold was less than that sold in the previous year. Sales increased because of 3-D movies, which can add between ¥200 and ¥400 to the price of a regular ticket. With all the special discounts factored in, the price of an average ticket in 2010 was ¥1,266, which is 4 percent higher than the average ticket price in 2009.

In particular, 3-D boosted the profile of foreign films. The top five foreign box-office hits were all 3-D, while only one of the top five domestic hits, “The Last Message,” was a 3-D movie. Consequently, some analysts say the success of 3-D is misleading. One industry insider told Asahi Shimbun that 3-D had momentum in 2010 because of the success of “Avatar,” one of the only movies that did 3-D right. He sees interest in 3-D already fading in Japan, which could be extrapolated as meaning even less interest in foreign films. For the third year running Japanese movies outsold foreign movies overall, which is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. As fewer people patronize foreign films, distributors who specialize in them cut back on releases or go out of business altogether, thus reducing the availability of foreign product in theaters.

The real story is the number of screens. At present there are 3,412 throughout Japan, which is about the same number as there was 40 years ago. The difference, however, is that 80 percent of these screens are now in multiplexes, the number of which has doubled since multiplexes debuted in Japan in 1993. As multiplexes have multiplied regular stand-alone theaters have gradually vanished. The most extreme example of this situation is the city of Tokushima where, in 1988, there were 30 movie theaters. Today, in the entireprefecture of Tokushima there is only one, and it’s a multiplex. Last summer Fujisawa’s last movie theater closed its doors, making it the largest city in Japan (pop. 400,000) without one.

One of the victims of this trend is the so-called mini-theater, which traditionally shows what in the West are called art-house films. Last month in Tokyo, Ebisu Garden Cinema, where Woody Allen’s films, even the worst of them, have always found a home, closed. At the end of February,Cine Saison Shibuya will fade into memory. According to another expert interviewed by Asahi, young people who do go to movies are only interested in “topical” movies, but whereas “topical” meant Oscar or Cannes winners in the 1980s and ’90s, today it mostly means CG-laden blockbusters, preferably Japanese. During a recent discussion of the theater industry on NHK radio, one insider said that some urban multiplexes seem to be booking movies that in the past would have played in mini-theaters, but in order to attract younger people, more theater operators are opting for ODS (Other Digital Stuff), such as simulcasts of sporting events, plays and concerts. A recent four-night simulcast of AKB48 shows in movie theaters throughout Japan was sold-out, with tickets ranging from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000 a seat. The only positive news for diehard movie fans is the revival of repertory programs and theaters (meigaza). Toho had great success last year with its Gozen Juji Eigasai (Before Noon Film Festival), which showed classic foreign films at discount prices at select Toho Cinemas during the morning hours. The company plans to do it again this year.

In any event, if movie theaters have any future in Japan operators must cultivate younger moviegoers, which is why the ¥1,000 price for under 18 is more important than the ¥1,500 for adults. As it stands, elementary school kids see lots of animated movies in theaters, but once they enter junior high school they stop going to the cinema. To theater operators what they watch is less important than the fact that they’re there.

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