The high-minded fare of the film festival circuit and the cheap thrills of B-movie pulp couldn’t seem farther apart, but the circuit will be closed when king of the B-movies Roger Corman heads the competition jury at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
Corman is a legendary producer and director, whose decades-long career has produced dozens of B-movie classics, ranging from biker flicks (“The Wild Angels”), hippie-era sex-and-drugsploitation (“The Trip,” “Women in Cages”), punk rock (The Ramones’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”), and a slew of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Vincent Price.
It was under Corman’s tutelage that a bevy of stars got their first break on some el-cheapo production; alumni include Jack Nicholson, Pam Grier, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron, to name but a few.
Just take a look at the TIFF jury this year: sitting by Corman’s side will be producer Luc Roeg, son of director Nicolas Roeg, who worked as a cameraman on Corman’s 1964 film, “Masque of the Red Death,” a fact that Corman dredged up quickly in a phone interview with The Japan Times, showing that this 86-year-old’s memory is as sharp as ever.
So is his wit: When mentioning Roeg Sr. — who went on to make such brilliant films as “Walkabout” and “Performance” — Corman notes, “So many people became directors after working with me. It’s either that I inspired them, or they felt, well, if Roger can do it, anybody can.”
This year will be Corman’s second time on a TIFF jury; he served on the Young Directors competition jury in 1994, the year that TIFF was held in Kyoto.
Corman may be known as the man who brought America grindhouse fare such as “Night Call Nurses” (1972), but what’s less well known is that he also introduced a generation to the finest auteurs of world cinema: It was Corman’s production company, New World Pictures, that brought the work of masters such as Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut and Bergman to American art-house cinemas.
Corman explains: “The low-budget American films I was distributing through my own company were very profitable, and I felt those directors were not being distributed well in the USA. The big studios didn’t understand how to distribute these films, and the smaller companies were more like aficionados, and didn’t have the know-how or power to distribute them correctly. I felt we could, and I did it simply because I wanted to work with and help those directors, who I admired.”
It’s interesting to note that art-house cinema back then did have a certain commercial potential, something which seems to have been lost over the years. Indeed, without meaning to single out TIFF, one would have to go back to 2000’s competition winner at the Tokyo fest, “Amores Perros,” to find a winner that did some decent box office, and nearly half the winners since did not even manage a theatrical release in Tokyo, a city with no shortage of micro-theaters.
When asked whether festival cinema has become too hermetic, Corman replies, “Most of the festival films today, I don’t know exactly how to phrase this, but they don’t have the scope or really the quality that can be shown in theaters. They’re pretty much made for festivals, and that’s all they play, except for a few that do get small theatrical releases.”
Is it more a case that the market has disappeared for smaller, artier films, or is it that filmmakers have turned away from the market? “Both,” says Corman. “The filmmakers — with some exceptions, you can’t generalize — are making films for themselves, and for festivals. But also, the market has slipped away for that type of film. Every now and then one of these festival-type films will break through and will do some business, but it’s much less so than when I was distributing them.”
Corman is hopeful regarding the TIFF competition, though, and is quick to add that back in 1994 he saw Paul W.S. Anderson’s debut “Shopping” at TIFF, and though it didn’t win any prizes, he was impressed enough to contact the filmmaker and distribute the film quite profitably in the States.
It’s impossible to hang up on such a long-time industry insider without asking what advice he’d give to filmmakers today.
“It’s a more difficult market today; the major studios, with these $100-200 million pictures, dominate to such an extent that it’s very difficult for an independent or low-budget picture to break through. If you’re doing a big-budget film, though, the studio is making decisions and looking over what you’re doing all the time. With low-budget films, the one thing they give you is the opportunity to do whatever you want; I had the freedom to experiment. But you have to be aware of the commercial potential of the film, and at the same time, make the film that you yourself are passionate about making.”
Tokyo International Film Festival runs Oct. 20-28. “Corman’s Way,” a tribute to the jury head, will feature an all-night screening at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills in Tokyo on Oct. 27 of three of Corman’s films and an appearance by the man himself. For more information, visit www.tiff-jp.net.