The Japanese film industry released 615 films last year, according to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan. That figure may include glorified student productions and dressed-up pornography, but is still substantial by any measure. Relatively few of those films, however, are sold abroad.
Even in the world cinema centers of London, Paris and New York, Japanese films seldom appear on regular theater schedules, while in Asian markets where Japanese films find a friendlier reception releases are usually small and profits, paltry.
Three professionals trying to change this situation — British distributor/producer Adam Torel, sales agent/publicist Miyuki Takamatsu and Cool Japan Fund executive Nobuhiro Nagai — spoke at a roundtable discussion held at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October. Listening to the war stories of Torel and Takamatsu (who, full disclosure, are personal friends) and the vague policy prescriptions of Nagai, I was struck by the yawning gap between the first two, with their hard-won experience in the sales trenches, and the last, with his rear echelon view of the battle, if more ample corporate war chest.
Founded in 2013, Cool Japan Fund is a private-public entity dedicated to boosting exports of Japanese cultural products and services, including live-action films, anime and other — dread word — content.
A related initiative is JLOP+, which administers ¥6 billion in subsidies supplied by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to promote and localize Japanese visual media abroad. Among projects already approved is the making of English and Italian subtitles for a special screening of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 period drama “Ran” at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Nagai, who worked for two decades at the Fuji TV network producing music, sports and other entertainment programming prior to becoming executive manager of Cool Japan Fund’s business development group, gave a generic presentation heavy on bullet-point charts, light on concrete proposals.
Torel, who founded the U.K.-based DVD distributor Third Window Films a decade ago and has since moved into film production, including the new Eiji Uchida black comedy “Lowlife Love,” jumped hard on both JLOP+ (“It’s almost run its course but a lot of money is still unspent”) and Cool Japan Fund (“It’s only cooperating with the really big companies — their representatives haven’t even talked to the producers of mid-budget films.”) Sour grapes from a guy who didn’t get his application approved?
Having spent time in the trenches myself as a trade magazine reporter and film festival adviser, I heard Torel and Takamitsu’s comments as speaking the simple truth to power. At the same time, Nagai was at least trying to listen — and not play the corporate bad guy. “I am thankful for the opportunity to speak tonight,” he commented at the end. “It helped me to organize my thoughts.” Acting on them, though, might be another matter.
Torel, whose company also distributes South Korean films, drew a sharp contrast between the focused efforts of the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) to promote local movies abroad, with the backing of the government and industry, and the scatter-shot approach of the Japanese competition. “Japanese films can recoup their budgets within Japan, so producers don’t care about international sales” he explained. “It’s very surprising to me.”
Takamatsu, who runs the Free Stone Productions film sales and publicity agency, nailed why this industry indifference has to end: As Japan’s population ages and shrinks, the domestic market will decline as well. “We can’t overlook the importance of the international market,” she continued. “We have to confront it.”
Torel and Takamatsu rightly complained that Japanese films, especially at the commercial end of the spectrum, have become too predictable and their makers too unaware of what’s going on in the outside world. TV networks produce films that are TV dramas writ large, cast with pop idols chosen more for their local audience appeal than acting ability. Production committees — consortiums of studios, broadcasters, publishers and other media companies — will green light such films as sure bets, but foreign buyers are less impressed. “Films shouldn’t be like that,” said Torel. “People go to the cinema to see movies, not television programs.”
My final takeaway: The Japanese industry and government approach to international film markets is too often short-sighted and Japan-centric. Instead of devising a proper strategy, with resources to back it, they settle for ad hoc approaches and partial solutions — or spout generalities as they scroll through PowerPoint slides.
“To grow in a foreign market you have to change your thinking, and consider it an investment,” concluded Takamatsu. “I have tried to explain this to producers but so far they cannot understand.”
To which I say good luck and ganbare (keep trying).