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Classy ads lure quirky Japan audiences

"Lost in Translation"
“Lost in Translation”

TOKYO (TR) – Despite Sofia Coppola’s popularity in Japan after “The Virgin Suicides,” Kanae Rai, executive vice president of independent theater Cinema Rise, knew that success for the director’s Tokyo-set sophomore feature “Lost in Translation” hinged on providing a special inducement to the theater’s typical customers: young girls out shopping.

“The girls in Shibuya are the ones making the scene in Japan,” Rai says of the ultra-fashionable district of Tokyo in which her theater is located. “But they have a very peculiar sensibility. Rather than thinking in words, they react to music and art.”

Instead of using the standard promotional shot of a glum Bill Murray seated at the edge of his hotel bed, the theater splashed an alluring image of Scarlett Johansson’s backside, clad in pink panties, across fliers and billboards. The approach worked. Though the film only earned $4.2 million in Japan, Cinema Rise accounted for a full one-fifth of that haul, making it the eighth-most-popular film in the theater’s 21-year history.

In Japan, auds predictably flock to Hollywood tentpoles, from “Pirates” to “Harry Potter,” just like everyone else. However, those same crowds have also been known to embrace pics that flop elsewhere while ignoring selections, such as “King Kong” and “Sin City,” that fill plexes in the States. The lesson, for those operating in what is perhaps the world’s most selective film market: Focusing on particular cultural quirks or traits can sometimes yield unanticipated results.

Marketers turned “Callas Forever,” the film about the final days of soprano Maria Callas, into a surprise success by directing their promotional campaign to an audience beyond the opera crowd. “The story gave courage to many females in Japan who have experienced suffering,” says Mari Kohda, a representative within the marketing and theatrical promotion division of distributor Gaga Communications.

For the film, which collected $4 million despite hardly registering in the U.S., an exhibition of photographs was arranged, a photo book was released, and a preview was hosted by fashion label Chanel. Instead of running key art of actress Fanny Ardant peering from behind a red curtain, Gaga created a custom illustration of Callas for its promotional bills. “We provided an image of her to the Japanese people as being accomplished or sophisticated,” Kohda says.

Paul Smith, president of worldwide theatrical operations for Sony Pictures Entertainment, was once told by an exhibitor in Tokyo that Japan likes to cry. So the campaign for this year’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the story of a homeless father abandoned by his wife to care for their son, was tailored to show the more emotional elements of the film, he explains. “The bathroom scene in the subway, for example, was featured prominently,” Smith says of a shot of the boy sleeping in a bathroom. The film took in an astounding $22.6 million, a sum that would have put it near the top 10 had it been released in 2006.

The chance to drop tears was part of the appeal for Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” the musical-drama in which a European immigrant (Bjork) struggles in America to save enough money for her son’s eye operation.

“When I first saw the film, I thought it would be a disaster,” says Kazunori Moriguchi, senior manager of acquisitions and co-productions at distributor Shochiku. “The normal way to distribute this type of film is to exhibit it in an arthouse theater. But we didn’t do that because we thought the shocking last scene caught people’s attention.” That sequence compelled emotional Japanese cinemagoers to outlay a staggering $25 million, even though it received scant distribution in the U.S.

“A.I.,” in which an artificial boy yearns for a real mother, showed that melancholy, too, has its charms. The impact of the film went beyond the universal theme of love, says Isao Matsumoto, who directs the film-buying department at exhibitor Warner Mycal, of the Steven Spielberg pic that gained more at the B.O. in Japan than the U.S. “There was also the symbolized grief that was beautiful enough for it to be adored by the Japanese audience,” he said.

Studio execs are reluctant to discuss marketing tactics for surprising failures but will admit that sports films, non-Disney/ Pixar animations and comedies are tough sells.

Cinema Rise was reminded of Japan’s choosiness following its experience with Todd Haynes. The director’s “Velvet Goldmine” generated more revenue during its 20-week run at Cinema Rise than in all of the U.S., but his critically lauded “Far From Heaven,” the story of a housewife whose husband lives a secretive gay life, was a bust in Japan, taking in a meager $1.3 million.

“Probably the girls couldn’t sympathize with the heroine in the film,” Cinema Rise’s Rai said. “The housewives, who could have shared the film’s sentiment, were not interested. Maybe the whole setup was a little too sophisticated.”

Note: A similar version of this article ran in Variety on May 17, 2007 as a part of a special package for the Cannes Film Festival.