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TV steers Japanese cinema

TOKYO (TR) – A scan of Japan’s recent year-end box office charts reveals a familiar recurring theme: Storylines for top films are typically based on a hit television series or drawn from a popular manga comic.

With ad revenue falling, the major nets are partnering with Toho and other major distributors in an effort to fill that gap with features based on material with which local audiences are already widely familiar.

“Japan is under a unique circumstance in which terrestrial TV programming is of high quality and remains the most powerful media outlet,” says Naoki Suganuma, deputy manager within the film business division of Nippon Television Network (NTV). “And not only kids but also adults read manga in their daily lives. So it’s a natural thing for these kinds of titles to become the basis of movies.”

The result is a consolidation of power in the biz — and Hollywood, with the exception of an occasional “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Avatar,” is increasingly losing clout.

Leading 2009 was baseball drama “Rookies,” inspired by a Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) series and comicbook from Masanori Morita, which took in $94.4 million. The year before, worldwide smash “The Dark Knight” was kept out of the top 10 with the help of six net-produced pics, including “Suspect X” from Fuji TV, “Boys Over Flowers: Final” by TBS and NTV’s “20th Century Boys.”

The trend dates back to the ’80s and ’90s, when the big studios largely shut down production and concentrated on distribution and exhibition. Fuji TV, however, continued to produce big-scale blockbusters — most notably “Bayside Shakedown,” the 1998 cop drama based on a TV series that was followed by a wildly popular sequel, which smashed the country’s box office record for a nonanimated film with its $172.5 million take.

“When ‘Bayside Shakedown 2’ came out in 2003, we still couldn’t imagine local productions overtaking Hollywood blockbusters,” says Minako Mita, deputy director within Fuji TV’s motion picture department, “but in a matter of a few years that is exactly what happened.”

Other nets have since followed Fuji’s move into feature production, driven in part by the weakening economy. In 2009, television advertising expenditures totaled $16 billion, down 16% vs. the previous year, reported advertising and research firm Dentsu in a media white paper.

The industry will continue with a similar strategy this year — “Bayside Shakedown 3” is scheduled to unspool over the summer — but experts believe the trend will not last forever, given the finite amount of source material.

“We never can tell whether a TV series will be eternally popular, and the number of well-known manga is limited,” says Suganuma. “The person who discovers the next source will lead the Japanese film industry.”

Meanwhile, there are doomsayers who worry about the impact on the film business as a whole. Producer Takashige Ichise (“Ring,” “The Grudge”) says that relying on the nets for filmmaking talent creates an environment that is not suitable for making creative new films or nurturing young directors and producers.

“This year will mark the burst of this ‘bubble era’ in the film industry,” believes Ichise, “and next year it will be devastating.”

Note: This article originally ran in Variety on February 11 as a part of a package on the Berlin Film Festival.