It’s not easy making indie movies in Japan. The big studios only want commercial projects with proven fan appeal, usually based on hit manga, novels or TV dramas. Given the need, government funding schemes are paltry, with much of the money going to films about safe, uncontroversial subjects.
“Lowlife Love” (“Gesu no Ai”), Eiji Uchida’s 2015 black comedy set in the depths of the Japanese film industry, features some of the dodgier fund-raising methods indie filmmakers here have been known to use, from churning out porn for gangster clients to running an acting school for naive no-hopes.
What “Lowlife Love” doesn’t mention, however, is crowdfunding, which the film’s British producer, Adam Torel, used to raise nearly ¥1 million from 126 backers on the Kickstarter site. “It’s still easier to do this in the U.K. and the rest of the West than in Japan,” Torel says, citing local unfamiliarity with the method as a reason for its omission in the film. To get fans interested, Torel tried to be creative with the incentives for donating, such as offering drinking sessions with the cast and crew. “We had people coming from all over Japan,” he says with a smile. And the movie got made.
Torel’s successful campaign is part of a growing crowdfunding wave in Japan, with more Japanese-language sites — such as Campfire, Makuake and Motion Gallery — springing up to meet the demand. Motion Gallery in particular has contributed substantially to the coffers of indie films: From its start in 2011 to mid-2014 the site raised a total of ¥178,429,576, of which 59 percent went to films, beginning with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s set-in-Japan drama “Like Someone in Love” (2012).
Among recent Motion Gallery beneficiaries have been Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s “Three Stories of Love” (“Koibitotachi”) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Happy Hour,” both dramas made with little-known actors and long running times (two hours and 20 minutes for Hashiguchi’s film, five hours and 17 minutes for Hamaguchi’s). Both were widely proclaimed by critics (this one included) as among the best Japanese films of last year, but neither would have stood a chance with production committees (seisaku īnkai), the consortiums of TV networks and other media companies that underwrite nearly all commercial films here.
Motion Gallery founder and head Takeshi Otaka admits that the crowdfunding is “still not suitable for big budget projects, compared with the production committee system.” But the method, he adds, has the big advantage of “widening the range of possibilities for filmmakers who want to make challenging films, since they can raise money by a different standard.”
That is, instead of a producer selling a project to a production committee based on its hot source material as a sure commercial bet, filmmakers seeking crowdfunding have to make what Otaka describes as “a direct appeal” to funders (which Motion Gallery calls “collectors”). This method, he says, “avoids the sort of misjudgments” often found in the production committee system, which has its eyes on fixed on the box office — but not necessarily on what fans really want to see.
Non-native filmmakers in Japan often face a different set of hurdles in getting their films funded. When filmmaker Robert Nishimura looked for funding for “Go! Go! Second Time Gaijin” — a mokumentary he hopes to make about a foreigner who wakes up a rabid rightist after a bonk to the head — he says he didn’t consider a Japanese crowdfunding site.
“I thought it best not to advertise a film that seemingly mocks ultra-rightwing nationalists,” he says, noting that his idea was also aimed more at the foreign than domestic audience. He opted for the U.S.-based Kickstarter because it is, he says, “more widely known and gets more traffic” than Japanese sites.
By contrast, veteran Tokyo-based director John Williams has launched a campaign on Motion Gallery for his new film, which is based on Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and set in Japan. “I used to think that crowdfunding was a sort of charity method for young filmmakers or people with projects that couldn’t get funded otherwise,” says Williams, “but I now think it is actually a kind of way of reaching an audience.”
The method, he adds, is similar to Japanese film companies pre-selling tickets or Hollywood studios pre-selling territories: “Crowdfunding is pre-selling the film to the audience.”
The film’s producer, Sachie Takagi, is also one of the founders of Eiganabe (Independent Cinema Guild), a non-profit that assists members’ crowdfunding campaigns for their independent films. “We have supported almost 30 projects by different independent filmmakers and around 20 of them achieved their goals using Motion Gallery,” Takagi says. Williams’ “The Trial” (“Shinpan”) is among the latest.
“Corporate sponsors are less willing to take a chance on a small film and sometimes that has led to many creative people not even trying to make their art or tell their stories, because the obstacles seemed too daunting,” Takagi says. “As crowdfunding continues to gain traction and respectability I think we are going to see filmmakers of John’s experience, as well as new voices, have more opportunity to make challenging work, to engage with their audience from the start and share their journeys with them.”
Of course, as Torel found, getting prospective funders to undertake that journey can require inventive incentives. In place of the all-too-common posters and T-shirts, Williams is offering funders a chance to become local exhibitors by buying screening rights or even serve as co-producers.
“They can be involved in the development of the script, the shoot and the marketing,” Williams explains. “So we’re actually offering a kind of boot camp for filmmakers too.” And they don’t have to pay to join the drinking parties.
For more information on “The Trial” (“Shinpan”), visit motion-gallery.net/projects/shinpan.