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TOKYO (Reuters) - Paramount Pictures is bringing "Ghost" back to life with a Japanese version of the romance blockbuster, becoming the latest Hollywood studio to launch a local-language production as U.S. films stumble at Japan's box offices.
The unit of Viacom Inc also is starting to dub more U.S. movies, such as "Shutter Island," into Japanese to lure elusive young audiences, an unusual step in a country where most foreign fare, apart from kids' films, is shown with subtitles.
Hollywood studios are increasingly eyeing the potential of local-language production, particularly in the $2 billion Japanese market where once-dominant American movies have been outgunned by local films the past three out of four years.
Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner Inc. is already an established player in Japan's local-language game and recently saw its animated movie "Gintama" grace the box office top 10 for five weeks.
Fox International Productions, part of News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox film studio, is planning a Japanese remake of the Cary Grant classic "An Affair to Remember," show business newspaper Variety reported.
"We have this great property" in our library, Paramount Japan marketing director Hisamichi Kinomoto said of "Ghost." "If the essence of that story appeals to Japanese, we should use it to attract new audiences."
"Ghost" was a smash hit in 1990 with its universal tale of a love that knows no boundaries such as real life and the after life. Swayze portrays a murdered man who must warn his loving wife (Demi Moore) that she is in danger, and it is most memorable, perhaps, for its scene of Moore making pottery as Swayze wraps his arms around her while the song "Unchained Melody" plays in the background.
The new "Ghost," which Paramount is making with Nippon TV and distributor Shochiku, is set for release in Japan this autumn. It will star Japanese actress Nanako Matsushima ("The Ring") in Moore's role and South Korean heartthrob Song Seung Heon (TV drama "East of Eden") in Swayze's part.
Paramount sees local production as one strategy to build its business, but it currently does not have any other Japanese productions in the works and will first see how it goes with "Ghost," he said.
Hollywood ruled Japanese box offices for two straight decades into the mid-2000s, but has since struggled to compete as tastes change and audiences favor local films based on familiar "manga" comic books and TV series over the recent slew of U.S. superhero movies.
Homegrown franchises benefit not only from having built-in audiences but also the marketing muscle of the TV networks behind many of these movies, such as last year's top-grosser "Rookies," originally a manga about high school baseball adapted for TV by TBS and later the big screen.
Imported movies accounted for 43 percent of Japan's 206 billion yen ($2.25 billion) box office last year, far off a peak of 73 percent hit in 2002, according to the Motion Pictures Producers Association of Japan (MPAAJ).
Kinomoto said another reason for the decline may be an aversion to subtitles among the younger generation, which has grown up watching dubbed movies on DVDs and TVs that provide language-setting options.
"To those who are so used to watching dubbed movies at home on DVD, reading subtitles on the screen is somewhat of a hassle," he said, citing research that teenagers in particular find that subtitles make it hard to focus on the action.
In response, Paramount broke convention by dubbing into Japanese almost half of the 450 prints for the Martin Scorsese suspense thriller "Shutter Island," released in Japan in April, using a special editing process to ensure accurate translation and proper lip-syncing.
Paramount plans to step up its use of dubbing in Japan, and will use the same editing process for the action-fantasy "The Last Airbender," to be released in July, with about the same dubbed-subtitled ratio as "Shutter Island" or a little higher, Kinomoto said.
Hollywood movies so far look on track to overtake Japanese films in box office revenue this year for the first time since 2007, purely on the strength of 3D juggernauts "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland," MPAAJ figures show.
But the overall trend still looks tough: Of the top 10 movies at the box office last weekend, only three were U.S. films, according to box office tracker Kogyo Tsushinsha.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte