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Sunday, April 22, 2001

MEDIA MIX

PR OVERDRIVE

All together now: Let's all shill for Universal!


Before Universal Studios Japan opened on March 31, media commentators were asking why the new Hollywood theme park wasn't called Universal Studios Osaka. After all, Tokyo Disneyland isn't called Japan Disneyland. Here's the punch line: If they called it Universal Studios Osaka, the acronym would be USO, which means "lie" in Japanese.

The overdone joke, like the overdone coverage, characterizes not only the new park's relationship to the region where it's situated, but also its debt to that other sanctuary of uber-American culture in Japan, the one that's been expanding like a sinkhole in Urayasu for close to two decades.

Since the beginning of the year, the media have been inundated with features and specials about USJ. Legitimate news shows have run lengthy, almost identical puff pieces about the park's attractions and the projected economic windfall it will bring to Osaka. Somewhere behind this promotional white noise sits Tokyo Disneyland, poised in its proven financial reliability.

TDL is the precedent on which the fortunes of USJ are being staked, and the mad rush to make the place a success right off the bat seems harried and desperate when you think of the gradual and sustained growth TDL has enjoyed since it first opened in 1983.

TDL predates the Resort Law and its attendant proliferation of so-called third-sector construction, epitomized by white elephants like the Seagaia resort complex in Miyazaki. This February, seven years after it opened, Seagaia filed for bankruptcy. The media's coverage of that failure was supplemented by dozens of stories about other poorly conceived tourist-oriented projects on a smaller scale, like the one that celebrated the culture of New Zealand (in Okayama) and a village about Gulliver's Travels (in Yamanashi).

In contrast, the optimistic coverage of USJ is based on two points: The entertainment know-how comes from America, and the Osaka Municipal Government is the main shareholder and, thus, will do everything in its power to make it a success.

But why should Osaka be more successful than other local governments who've failed miserably in their theme-park schemes? Much of the analysis has focused on how appropriate the region is to accommodate such a park. I don't mean reports about toxins in the soil (which have mostly vanished from the vernacular dailies), but rather how effective Osaka's peculiar "culture" will be in making the park a hit.

Some analysis seems willfully arcane. The Asahi Shimbun asked a "theological anthropologist" to report on Osaka and the park from a historical-philosophical perspective. It's implied that the city's emphasis on commerce will work to the park's advantage, and that its reputation as the "entertainment capital" of Japan means it can run such a park.

This latter belief is founded on two entities: the Takarazuka theater company and the Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy agency. But while these two businesses are famous nationwide, they are not "tourist attractions" in the sense that people flock to Osaka just to enjoy them. Takarazuka has a venue in Tokyo, and anyone with a TV set can see Yoshimoto's comedians.

Osaka, in fact, has never been known as a tourist destination. Nara and Kyoto (itself a kind of theme park) are nearby, but the point of USJ is to bring visitors and their cash into the city and its oversupply of hotel rooms, because despite Osaka's rep as a town that knows how to do business, right now business sucks.

Somehow, the idea that USJ will single-handedly bring Osaka back from the brink has been extrapolated to take in the entire national economy. USJ will create 30,000 jobs in Osaka and more than 40,000 nationwide. In the first year of operations it is expected to boost the local economy by 450 billion yen and the national economy by 650 billion yen.

Obviously, a lot is riding on the park's success, and at the core of the frenzied PR is a rock-hard belief in the "power of Hollywood," as USJ CEO Thomas Williams puts it. It's a given that people will come from all over the country to see re-creations of "Jaws" and "Terminator" and "Jurassic Park" simply because everybody knows nobody does mass entertainment better than the Americans.

Comparisons to Disneyland are therefore inevitable but not necessarily instructive. In 1983, many Japanese had never gone overseas, and an American theme park of this type was very exotic. USJ is not exotic at all.

The key to USJ's success, as we've heard over and over, is in its projected repeat business. TDL was made a success by "repeaters," and though many of these return visitors come to see the new attractions that open every few years, TDL's main strength is its built-in promotional component. The brand is self-perpetuating: Disney products and Disneyland are designed to complement each other.

Universal Studios doesn't enjoy the same kind of media synergy, and it's not just because Mickey Mouse is more ubiquitous than Woody Woodpecker (or, for that matter, Steven Spielberg). People associate Universal projects with USJ only by accident. People associate Disney projects with Disneyland without even thinking. In the annals of commercial entertainment, Disney Enterprises is unique, and no amount of media reinforcement will give Universal Studios the same kind of aura.



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