Why do movies take so long to come to Japan?
One thing that I continue to question while living in Japan these past 3 years is, why it takes so long for western movies to be released in Japan. Especially, when I compare the release schedule to Australian timings, which is generally either similar or in line with the US/UK. Further investigation revealed however that the delay isn’t always specific to Japan, and can be delayed in other regions and at a much later date too. Perhaps before we explore the Japanese market specifically, let’s approach this at a more general level to see how it happens on the international stage.
Preparation for Foreign Shores
Firstly, an obvious and time-consuming task that impacts the release of movies in foreign markets, is the time required to prepare subtitles and dubs for a movie. Subtitles and dubs too are obviously a time-intensive task, whether going through each movie’s line of dialogue or coordinating various people to record voice-overs. Clearly, this takes time, to go through the whole movie for both translation and recording. Then there are the rating agencies for various countries, who need to preview the film first to ensure it complies with their countries standards or censorship guidelines. Furthermore, there is the possibility the movie may need to be re-cut based on any requested changes, which can further delay the process.
Of course, marketing is a whole other ball game. Not only marketing in the domestic market to appeal to local audiences, but also preparing foreign marketing to appeal to overseas audiences. Through the use of trailers, posters and online promotions, they try to garner audience appeal and interest. In addition, some films with especially lower budgets may wait for success in their local market, before trying to penetrate other overseas locations, in the hope that positive reviews and feedback continue to spread excitement across the internet into other regional areas.
The timing of award nights like the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, People’s Choice and more also play a pivotal role in generating audience intrigue. In particular, the main award winners like best picture, best actor, best actress, etc are exceptionally convincing and a great marketing tool to match! Such that distributors and marketing companies will use this as the basis or decision to import the movie to their local market. The same can be said of Japanese distributors.
The Domestic Market Conflict
Local movie schedules can also be problematic for the timing of schedules, and of course, release dates of foreign titles will also need to fit in with the local competition. If I consider the Australian film industry, the domestic market is significantly smaller than that of the Japanese domestic market, which continues to produce feature films, animation and children’s movies on a regular basis. For this reason alone, it would be a lot easier to seamlessly enter movies into Australia’s schedule than Japan’s. Australia’s other advantage is as an English speaking country, meaning there is no need for subtitles or dubs. In general, it is usually in line or very close to the US/UK release dates.
Foreign distribution is also another crucial factor, especially when deciding whether a movie will enter a specific local market or not. Some films may have agreements already in place, particularly because of their reliance on these funds to for success and completion of the movie. On the other hand, films with larger budgets may wait for local success in their home country, before trying their luck overseas or to secure better deals with their foreign counterparts.
Finally, there is the physical film reel itself, which is very expensive to produce and usually only distributed in limited quantities. As a result, local films will stay in their home area until the cinema is finished with them, at that point, they can then shipped to movie theatres overseas. This expense is also a burden to cinemas themselves, especially smaller independent operators who probably cannot afford to buy their own copy to align with a worldwide release date. Despite these challenges, the evolution of the digital age and its impact on distribution should hope to drive down costs and reduce the gaps between local and international release schedules.
Most recently, we have seen films such as Star Wars, with all of Disney’s wealth and resources behind able to lock down the same day release both in the US, UK, Australia and Japan. This applies to the last 3 release under their umbrella, including Episode 7: The Force Awakens, Rogue One and the upcoming Episode 8: The Last Jedi too. This proves that with the proper preparation and planning done well in advance, simultaneous release schedules can be achieved in multiple locations. Furthermore, there is the argument against delaying releases globally, as this can promote international piracy. Evidence suggests that the closer that release dates are globally, the lower the rate of film piracy.
A Focus on Japan
Examining the Japanese market in greater detail, there are a few things to consider. Namely, the core distributors that import western movies, the high cost of purchasing films and their aversion to risk. In addition to the general factors mentioned above, these are the main items which determine the schedule of western movies.
Firstly, there are 5 main distributors in Japan for US Films Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. For western film distribution, the partnership will involve one of these major distributors to ensure a film reaches the Japanese market. Smaller or more independent films may find it difficult to enter the market, especially if they have no agreement with any of these companies.
Once a distribution agreement is in place, the Japanese operator will then usually buy the whole film outright. This means they are taking on both the financial burden and risk of success of a given title. It is not uncommon for them to rely on awards events, local reviews and domestic market success as an indicator of its potential success. They also will capitalise on this as a marketing tool to ramp up interest in both the film and the cast, sometimes months in advance in the lead up to the release date of the movie. They hope that this will help to maximise the return on their investment into a film.
This basic aversion to risk is one that is ingrained and prevalent in Japanese culture. It is something they try to manage and avoid to the best of their ability in almost every way. For instance, when they make a decision this is done via a consensus to make sure they consider all options when someone learns a new skill they want to learn it to the nth degree before calling themselves a professional. When they learn English they do not feel full confidence in speaking the language until they know they are on par with a native speakers level. The same way of thinking can be said for importing western films, and their desire to reduce any potential adverse risk associated with a given film.
In conclusion, it could be said that multiple layers have an impact on the release schedule of foreign movies, not only for Japan but across the globe. Japan isn’t the only market that experiences delays with foreign film imports, and depending on the movie the timing could be similar to the US, a few weeks late or even months down the track. It really comes down to multiple factors, including planning ahead, distribution networks and the film’s domestic success and more that will determine the timing of a release.
Ultimately, filmmakers and distributors should not underestimate the Japanese market, and as the third largest in the world, it is still an important region. This is evident in the exceptional success of blockbuster films such as titanic (over 26 billion yen) Avatar (over 15 billion yen), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (over 20 billion yen) and even most recently Frozen (over 25 billion yen), all earned in the Japanese market alone.
Looking at some of the Blockbuster releases for 2017, and picking 15 main movies at random comparing the US to Japan release dates, there was only one case of the movie premiering in Japan prior to the US. That is, Resident Evil, which I assume is a title that pays tribute to its founding company Capcom the video game studio. All other titles commenced after their American release schedules, on average this was equal to 57 days when taking into account all titles, as shown below.
Appendix – Titles used in the comparison
1. XXX 3: The Return of Xander Cage
US Release: Friday, January 20 2017
Japan Release: Friday, February 24 2017 (34 days later)
2. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
US Release: Friday, 27 January 2017
Japan Release: Friday, 23 December 2016 (34 days earlier)
3. John Wick Chapter 2
US Release: Friday, 10 February 2017
Japan Release: Friday, 7 July 2017 (147 days later)
4. Beauty and the Beast
US Release: Friday, March 17 2017
Japan Release: Friday, April 21 2017 (24 days later)
US Release: Friday, March 3 2017
Japan Release: Thursday, June 1 2017 (88 days later)
6. Ghost in the Shell
US Release: Friday, March 31 2017
Japan Release: Friday, April 7 2017 (7 days later)
7. The Fate of the Furious (F8)
US Release: Friday, April 14 2017
Japan Release: Friday, 28 April 2017 (14 days later)
8. The Circle
US Release: Friday, April 28 2017
Japan Release: Friday, November 10 2017 (192 days later)
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
US Release: Friday, May 26 2017
Japan Release: Friday, July 1 2017 (35 days later)
10. Alien: Covenant
US Release: Friday, May 19 2017
Japan Release: Friday, September 15 2017 (109 days later)
11. Wonder Woman
US Release: Friday, June 2 2017
Japan Release: Friday, August 25 2017 (83 days later)
12. Transformers: The Last Knight
US Release: Friday, June 21 2017
Japan Release: Friday, August 4 2017 (43 days later)
13. Cars 3
US Release: Friday, June 16 2017
Japan Release: Friday, July 15 2017 (29 days later)
14. Spider-man: Homecoming
US Release: Friday, July 7 2017
Japan Release: Friday, 11 August 2017 (34 days later)
US Release: Friday, 15 September 2017
Japan Release: Friday, 3 November 2017 (48 days later)