Japan’s sluggish box-office recovery may be a harbinger for Hollywood

Not all at once.
Not all at once.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Movie theaters in Japan began reopening a month ago. But it’s going to take much longer for the country’s box office to return to pre-pandemic levels—if it ever does.

One of the world’s relatively successful countries at stemming the spread of coronavirus, Japan has only had about 17,000 total cases of Covid-19, or 138 per million people. The United States, meanwhile, has had 2.1 million cases, or 6,490 per million people.

Still, the box office in Japan has been extremely slow to rebound, providing a glimpse of what bigger film markets like the US and India can expect as they reopen theaters with social distancing policies in place.

In the first full weekend after theaters reopened, May 23, the total box office gross in Japan was only $790,000—or just 5% of the total over the same period last year ($14 million). One caveat, of course, is there were fewer films playing in theaters (10 this year, compared to 17 last year). Another is that attendance capacity has been reduced: Toho Cinemas, the country’s largest theater chain, is requiring one empty seat in between each sold seat.

But the pandemic’s effects on cultural habits have made the recovery even slower than those caveats account for. On the March 7 weekend this year, the Japanese box office still grossed $5.8 million on 13 films—none of which were Hollywood blockbusters. (The highest-grossing film that weekend was Fukushima 50, a film about the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.)

As of June 12, Japan’s theaters were still only showing about a dozen movies.  That number will slowly increase over the coming months, and with it, there should be a corresponding increase in ticket sales. But the recovery will remain considerably slower than the speed at which the industry collapsed—especially since several blockbusters the international film market was counting on to remain in their original dates have now been pushed back, including Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984.

In Japan, where the coronavirus was not nearly as deadly or pervasive as it was in the United States, would-be moviegoers are staying home. In countries where the situation is much worse, moviegoers will have to be re-trained to return to the movies—a process that could be measured in years, not months.