May 12, 2014

Wagging the long tail

Hulu has a decent catalog of Japanese movies, though it's the same sort of selection you'll find at Netflix (and, back in the day, Blockbuster): heavy on the classics, art house, and genre flicks, especially samurai, yakuza, and horror. A handful of anime movies and remakes.

The Japan box office is, in fact, not that different from the U.S. box office--only delayed a few weeks--plus a bunch of home-grown films you will never hear about unless the list includes a feature-length anime or the odd Takashi Miike production.

Think Disney and Quentin Tarantino. That's the kind of artistic range we're talking about. In other words, the same as in the U.S., where you'll find Frozen and Captain America on the same list with RoboCop.

Then there's the old complaint that while PG and PG-13 movies make all the money, far more R movies are made. I suspect, though, that in bottom-line terms, R-rated movies are a safer bet. A studio can buy in with less risk and be sure to at least break even.

And those R-rated movies are easier to export. Takashi Miike cranks out a couple of low-budget films a year, producing a bona fide hit now and then. With low sunk costs, licensing is less of a concern. The licensees, in turn, can fill an established "same only different" niche.

By contrast, Japan's biggest big-budget film this year is Eien no Zero ("Eternal Zero"), a Gallipoli-style companion piece to another war movie you'll never see, Otoko-tachi no Yamato ("Our Yamato"), about the doomed crew of the fabled battleship.

After a film festival or two (though even that's doubtful), it will go straight to DVD when it arrives in the U.S. (and who knows when).

The better box office of big PG movies notwithstanding, U.S. audiences are less forgiving. Despite the marketing muscle of Disney behind it (its distributor in Japan too), Ghibli's most successful U.S. release, Arrietty (based on The Borrowers), grossed only $20 million.

Spirited Away, the top-earning film in the history of Japanese cinema, took in barely half that, despite an Academy Award.

An "agnostic" Hollywood hit in the U.S. will probably be a hit in Japan. (Frozen is huge.) But not the other way around, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. This is where the long tail could come to the rescue. As with ebooks, streaming media need never go out of print.

To be sure, to really work, streaming will turn every ISP into a CDN, but that was going to happen anyway. The only question is who will pay what to whom to make it so.

Infrastructure problems aside, there's a lot in the streaming universe to look forward to. Instead of gathering dust in a warehouse, content can be left on a server to find an audience. As Joe Konrath puts it, "Ebooks are forever. Forever is a long time to get noticed."

But the perennial problem is, that long tail will never get noticed if nobody's wagging it. Japanese distributors of live-action television fare are notoriously slow off the mark in this regard, especially compared to their South Korean counterparts.

Speaking of which, Crunchyroll recently gave the long tail a shake. It announced a partnership with Fuji TV to stream 21 live-action television series, including the classic GTO and the great police procedural Galileo (like Bones except the scientist is a physicist).

I can only hope that Japan's other TV networks and studios--especially NHK--will take note and soon follow suit.

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