Chiaki Omori, in charge of acquisitions at Shôchiku

Chiaki Omori, in charge of acquisitions at Shôchiku

Shôchiku is one of Japan's oldest cinema houses. In operation since 1920, the company originally started out producing Kabuki theater performances from 1895. Shôchiku has produced the films of Ozu, Kurosawa, Imamura, Kitano, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and many others, but it is also a major player in the Japanese distribution and exhibition sectors. And French films are of particular interest to Shôchiku...

Unifrance: While Shôchiku is the majority producer and distributor of its own productions, it distributes very few foreign films—an average of four per year. Yet three of the four films you're distributing in 2019 are French: Promise at Dawn, Rolling to You, and Return of the Hero. What's the reason for this choice?
Chiaki OMORI: Our company's policy at this time is to focus on films that are more directed to female audiences. Our flagship cinema, the Shinjuku Piccadilly in Tokyo, has a brand, called Piccadilly Prime Label, which is applied to films geared toward women. My responsibility is to find the films for this label, films that convey positive values and with a certain amount of commercial potential. They are actually rarely art house titles. These three French films fit in perfectly with what we're looking for in that they place family and family relations at the center of their intrigue, and offer an optimistic vision of family ties, which is very important for films that Shochiku produces and distributes. Even if the protagonists in these films are mainly men, and even if our label seeks to place women in the spotlight, these films feature very strong female characters, such as the surprising role played by Mélanie Laurent in Return of the Hero, or Charlotte Gainsbourg in Promise at Dawn and Alexandra Lamy in Rolling to You. We pay great attention to the marketing of these films to female audiences as we know that if we rely on audiences that are majority male, the returns will not be sufficient. For us, it is women and the powerful word-of-mouth promotion that women can create that make all the difference.

What's your distribution strategy for these films, and what are you expecting from a commercial perspective?
We initially release the films in a circuit of twenty theaters situated in key cities for movie audiences in Japan: Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, and Hokkaido. This circuit can be increased to up to eighty theaters, but it's the exhibitors who make that decision, even if they're Shochiku theaters: theaters have total independence in their programming, which means that for us, as distributors, it's often a battle to keep films on the screens for as long as possible. Despite the fact that the second week of release is better than the first, programmers tend to start showing films in smaller theaters from the third week, and screen them at less favorable times. I should add that the Shinjuku Piccadilly is one of Japan's most important movie complexes, not so much in terms of its size but more in terms of its prestige, meaning that competition between distributors is fierce and to show French films there is complicated. At the same time, this cinema complex, which screens many highly commercial films, also needs this kind of programming to show audiences that it can also offer "something different." It's often very hard to find a balance.
We will soon be releasing Return of the Hero because last year we released Up for Love, which also featured Jean Dujardin in front of the camera and Laurent Tirard behind it, and it was a success for us, attracting around 50,000 spectators. That's more or less the figure we expect to achieve when we release a French film.

Do you think there's a trend in Japan of aging of audiences for foreign films?
Perhaps. What is striking, though, with the younger audiences is that they're able to go see any kind of film as long as there's a certain buzz around it, even if that "buzz" is extremely volatile. People in this audience segment, which is an unstable but highly sought-after segment, don't care if it's a Japanese film or a foreign film, if it's a general audience or art house production: they want to see something "interesting." If one of the French films we release is suddenly seen by them to be "cool," they'll come. They're not a target audience, however, as you can never really predict anything with them. They have so much to do, so much to see—in fact, everything is pretty much geared toward them, but if something appeals to them, it's fantastic. A few months ago, we released The 9th Life of Louis Drax, an American film by the French director Alexandre Aja, which targeted older audiences, but the main character was a rather cute 9-year-old boy, and all of a sudden there were crowds of young girls coming to see the film, just to see the actor! That lasted a few days, and then the enthusiasm of this audience evaporated as fast as it had appeared. What's advantageous with more mature audiences is that we can release films for a longer period. This is the problem that foreign films are facing now in Japan. The gap between successful films and the more modest performers, which are more complex to distribute, is widening at an increasing rate. And this is not just a local problem, it's quite universal! But we believe that French films come out of it very well: we released a Dutch film two years ago, and it became clear to us that there was no market for Dutch films here! But Japan remains a loyal and steadfast supporter of French culture and French cinema. We will always acquire French films. And an event like the French Film Market in Tokyo provides an essential service for us in helping us to continue to distribute French films, and we would like to thank UniFrance and the Institut Français for setting this market up.

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