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Turning Tokyo Into Tinseltown


He sits behind a gunmetal gray desk in a big room filled with dozens of other staffers -- a setting that doesn't exactly shout "movie mogul." But Chihiro Kameyama, chief of the motion picture unit of Fuji Television Network Inc., is just that. He is the brain behind a string of movie hits that have turned Fuji TV into one of Japan's top film studios. In the process, Kameyama -- more Jerry Bruckheimer than Akira Kurosawa -- has helped wake the Japanese film industry from its decades-long slumber. "We aren't big on cultural films," says the chipper 48-year-old. "We put a premium on raw entertainment value."

That's something Japan's traditional film studios have been slow to figure out. In the first week of November, Fuji had a hand in two of the four home-grown productions that placed among the top 10 films in Japan, the world's second-largest movie market. Kameyama, who honed his moviemaking skills by producing hit TV mini-series in the 1990s, says American movie execs are beating a path to his door to discuss joint projects. No wonder. Kameyama's 1998 film Bayside Shakedown: the Movie and its 2003 sequel Bayside Shakedown 2 each earned north of $100 million.

Those are blockbuster numbers by Japanese standards. And they have helped boost the fortunes of Fuji TV, which last year took in revenues of $4.1 billion. Although feature films accounted for just 2% of the company's total sales, they contributed an outsize share of the $225 million in profits. Bayside Shakedown 2, for instance, cost $8 million to make but grossed a record $160 million at the box office. And with spending on television advertising flat for the past five years, Fuji is betting on movies to help fuel its growth. "Moviemaking is a fickle business, but it can add to Fuji's bottom line as long as they keep the hits coming," says Yutaka Murakami, an analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. in Tokyo.

GEE-WHIZ FACTOR

Even better, movies can keep paying for years after their initial release. Fuji TV is part of Fuji Sankei Communications, one of the biggest media groups in Japan, which has a daily newspaper and a stable of magazines that can publicize films -- and a TV network to broadcast them. "We can use our status as a media power for promotion," Kameyama says.

In a sign of its long-term commitment to the silver screen, Fuji last year upgraded its film business from an arm of the TV production unit to a separate department. This year, Fuji paid $3.2 million for a 10% stake in GDH, a maker of animated films, with which it plans three co-productions. Meanwhile, Fuji is building a $518 million studio complex in Tokyo scheduled to be completed by 2007.

To keep the box-office rally going, Kameyama is betting on films with gee-whiz special effects and digital sound comparable to those made in the U.S. Although cheap by U.S. standards, these films will be among the most costly ever made in Japan. Fuji's latest project, Lorelei, a fictional drama due out next spring about the crew of a World War II submarine, has Aegis, an $11 million budget -- more than twice the cost of the average Japanese film.

Fuji will face some stiff competition in that arms race. Old guard studio Toei Co. is behind a World War II sub film of its own called Yamato estimated to cost $26 million. And rival studio Shochiku Co. is backing an $11 million contemporary naval drama, due out next year.

Given the success of recent Japanese-themed movies such as Lost in Translation and Hollywood remakes of Japanese films such as The Grudge, Fuji seems well positioned to export its success. Kameyama's first foray into the West may be in 2006 with the release of a co-production with GDH, a film called Brave Story, about a boy's search for a magic cure for his sick mother. If that plays well in Japan, don't be surprised to see it on U.S. multiplex screens soon, too.

By Chester Dawson in Tokyo


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