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Business trends

Chinese filmmakers eye Japanese novels for storylines

Growing industry searches for new content material as audiences' interests expand

With about 1,000 new theatrical films a year, China is in need of content and storylines from Japan and Asia.   © AP

TOKYO -- As China's film industry expands, including a greater number of online movies and dramas, the country's filmmakers and investors are looking to Japan for stories and books that could turn into potential hits.

Last year saw a number of Chinese films based on Japanese novels. "The Devotion of Suspect X," adapted from popular mystery author Keigo Higashino's book, had sales of about 400 million yuan ($63 million), according to online ticketing platform Maoyan.

The Chinese-Japanese co-production "Legend of the Demon Cat," based on writer Baku Yumemakura's "Shamon kukai tou no kuni nite oni to utagesu," hit screens in December, pulling in about 530 million yuan.

The attention to Japanese content was strongly influenced by the 2014 hit film "Stand by Me Doraemon," which was released in China in 2015, said Yusuke Wakebe, CEO of consulting firm JC FORWARD. The animated Japanese film was based on the classic comic series about a robotic cat from the future, earning nearly $87 million, according to website Box Office Mojo.

China's box office grew 13% in 2017 from the previous year to nearly 56 billion yuan, according to state media. The country's box office receipts from January to March this year stood at 20.2 billion yuan, overtaking North America to become the world's biggest market, according to data from Variety, a U.S. entertainment industry publication.

With about 1,000 new theatrical films a year in China, and even more video content for online streaming sites and television dramas produced in the country, demand for quality content is soaring. An online hit this year has been a remake of the Japanese drama "Tokyo Joshi Zukan" ("Tokyo Girls Picture Book"), shown on Amazon Prime Video in Japan. The Chinese adaption is set in Beijing and streaming on Alibaba Group Holding's video site Youku Tudou.

With skilled homegrown filmmakers and money pouring in from investors for the potentially lucrative industry, China is in need of content and storylines.

A Japanese animated movie featuring the Doraemon character was a huge hit in China in 2015.   © Reuters

"Japanese content is popular because they are culturally close to Chinese audiences compared with other countries," said Li Qiang of Tokyo-based creative agent Creek & River. The company had a booth at last month's Beijing International Film Festival's film market to showcase the rights for about 200 titles of Japanese books and others works.

The rights for Chinese content are already popular and are dominated by large production companies, such as Wanda Group and Beijing Enlight Media, or internet-streaming sites backed by Alibaba, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, according to Li. The rights of Chinese books and other written works that are well-known by readers and audiences in the country are often bid up to 20 million yuan, while foreign content is still cheaper and more available, even with prices increasing over the past few years.

Choices are also affected by politics, since Chinese films or media content are checked by the government. "Foreign content adapted to Chinese-made films are less prone to political restrictions compared with foreign films," said Wakebe of JC FORWARD.

The current environment is relatively warm for Japanese content. Previously popular South Korean content has been limited after political tensions heightened over the U.S. deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system in South Korea in 2016.

"Chinese companies contact us almost every week," said Koichiro Kikuchi, senior manager of Japanese publisher Bungeishunju. While complex discussions over changes to storylines and terms of rights narrow the number of concluded contracts to about five a year, "business enquiries are increasing -- especially since last year," Kikuchi said.

Books already translated into Chinese are especially popular, since movie and television adaptations of well-known titles are likely to attract bigger audiences. It also proves to be more attractive for investors.

Yoshio Kaneko, director of the international rights department of Japanese publisher Kodansha, said, "We publish our books in Chinese to make our content more attractive." The company publishes about 200 titles a year in mainland China and Taiwan.

"Manga is more popular because it is easier to imagine what scenes would look like," Kaneko said. Kodansha manages the licensing rights to the manga series "Kaiji," which has been made into the Chinese film "Animal World" starring Chinese actor Li Yifeng and Hollywood A-lister Michael Douglas and will premier in June.

Wanda Group's Oriental Movie Metropolis, new movie studio and entertainment complex, in Qingdao, China.   © Reuters

The Chinese market is attractive for Japanese publishers, which are suffering domestically from a shrinking population and demand for traditional books and magazines. "The global licensing business, including rights for character-related merchandise and events, is increasing its percentage of [Kodansha's] revenue," Kaneko said.

The risk of infringement on intellectual property could be decreasing, since the Chinese government has been tightening control over illegal content under President Xi Jinping. In 2017, Beijing launched a campaign against copyright infringement, deleting more than 2,500 websites. Local governments in China last year also launched campaigns against trademark infringements.

The campaigns to strengthen control on intellectual property could be motivated by last year's so-called Special 301 Report by the U.S. government, which states that it "continues to place China on the priority watch list."

It is now "safer to partner with trusted local companies who will take care of our content," said Kikuchi of Bungeishunju. But risks remain as political influences shift and the filmmaking process often requires three or more years.

The rapid growth of the industry also means that the Chinese public is increasingly interested in new types of content. While Hollywood still dominates the number of foreign films shown in China, non-English language films from other countries in Asia, especially India, are becoming more successful.

The Bollywood film "Dangal" starring Aamir Khan was No. 9 at the box office last year, taking in $193 million and topping Hollywood blockbusters such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming," according to Box Office Mojo.

No less than three other recent Indian movies have also performed well in China this year. "Secret Superstar," also starring Khan, has earned more than $100 million since its release in January, while "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" has pulled in more than $45 million since March, according to Box Office Mojo. "Hindi Medium" has earned $32 million since last month.

Last year, Thailand's "Bad Genius," about a group of high school students cheating on exams, earned $41 million in China; "Doraemon: Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi" from Japan pulled in more than $21 million; and the drama "Father and Son" from Vietnam took in nearly $19 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

In the competitive market, the biggest challenge for Chinese film adaptations may be to produce high-quality movies and online programs, even though filmmakers have to navigate the path through censors, political considerations and requests by the authors of the source material. Some of the adapted films and dramas have been criticized for failing to meet the popularity of the original stories due to such difficulties.

The film market at April's Beijing International Film Festival, where Creek & River showcased the rights for content.

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