September 25, 2005

'Geisha' translated for Japan
Pic's o'seas marketing differs from U.S.


For decades, a pic's international marketing followed the cues of the all-important domestic launch. But the Japanese campaign for "Memoirs of a Geisha" is more lavish -- and on a much faster track -- than the U.S. version.

A three-minute trailer for the film has been playing in Japanese theaters since August. The U.S. trailer, which bows this month, is shorter, relying more on allusions to Arthur Golden's bestselling novel (which was less of a hit in Asia). The U.S. trailer is also more keyed up, with almost an action-movie vibe, and it features fewer lingering shots of Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Kogi Yakusho.

Spyglass, which co-financed the $85 million pic with Sony and DreamWorks, is distribbing "Geisha" abroad, using different distribs in different territories.

Buena Vista Int. is releasing the film in Japan. In a gesture that's part strategic, part cultural, Buena Vista teamed for the first time ever with Japanese distrib Shochiku on the release.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" unspools Dec. 9 and 10 in the U.S. and Japan, respectively. Yet as far back as last January, a huge press junket for the pic was held in Tokyo.

Tokyo will also host the film's world premiere on Nov. 29. Los Angeles will have its party later in the week, on Dec. 4.

There are a few reasons behind this aggressive -- and geographically specific -- marketing push, not least of all the fact that "Memoirs of a Geisha" is an innately Japanese story.

"Because of the storyline, Japan is obviously a critical market for us," says Spyglass co-chairman Gary Barber.

The fact that Japan is by far the biggest film market in Asia adds to the impetus to target the territory with care. (Warner Bros. also went out of its way to woo Japan when it released "The Last Samurai" -- a move that paid off at the Japanese box office.)

However, the strategy to pull out all stops in Japan is not merely a flood-the-zone marketing tactic.

There's preemptive thinking at work as well -- namely to curb, and hopefully eliminate, criticism that the pic has received for its ethnically inaccurate casting.

Even before "Geisha" started filming in Japan last year, controversy swirled over the fact that Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li plus Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh had been cast in Japanese roles. Some claimed the decision smacked of Hollywood imperialism/blindness, and the issue quickly became a marketing headache.

Most of the complaints came from Japan, but Japanese-Americans also took offense. "We're really unhappy about the way the casting's been done," says John Tateishi, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League. "This isn't a situation like in the 1920s, '30s or even '50s, where there were so few Asian, and Japanese, actors who could play a role. Now there are plenty of Japanese actors who can play those parts. This is typical of Hollywood."

In response to attacks like these, director Rob Marshall has defended his choices, saying that Zhang, for example, was "the one woman on earth who could play this role," and that he's made unusual casting decisions before, such as choosing Queen Latifah to play the prison warden in "Chicago."

Spyglass and Buena Vista decided to do more than just offer conciliatory words.

The Tokyo junket in January was a sweeping effort to simultaneously spread good will and court Japanese auds. Four hundred journalists were invited to the event (650 showed up), which one attendee describes as a "big love fest." The film's cast and director were trotted out, clips of the film were shown, and the pic's Japanese heartthrobs Watanabe and Yakusho were given plenty of ogle time.

Although American auds haven't been privy to such elaborate salesmanship, expect that to change once awards season sweeps in.

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