The coronavirus crisis has shut down the Japanese film business from top to bottom, but a crowdfunding campaign has provided those who are most at risk with some relief.
While industry giant Toho, which operates the country’s largest theater chain and releases the biggest domestic box-office hits, is likely to survive and eventually thrive, the same can’t be said for art houses. Known as mini-shiatā (mini-theaters) in Japan, many of them were barely making ends meet before the crisis began. Though relatively few in number compared to corporate cinemas, they are a crucial part of this country’s cinematic ecosystem.
On April 13, directors Koji Fukada and Ryusuke Hamaguchi launched the crowdfunding campaign Mini-Theater Aid on the Motion Gallery website. Neither Fukada nor Hamaguchi could be considered struggling newcomers. Both have had films selected for the Cannes Film Festival — “Harmonium” and “Asako I & II,” respectively — and have won prizes and praise for their work at home. However, the pair also credit mini-theaters as vital to their careers. For many indie filmmakers like them, the Mini-Theater Aid campaign represents not just thanks for past services, but also insurance for future professional survival.
Fortunately, donations poured in and the campaign reached its goal of ¥100 million two days after it launched. On April 20, organizers set a new stretch goal of ¥300 million and, as of April 28, donations totaled ¥200,934,133 from 18,462 supporters. So Mini-Theater Aid may well achieve its target by the May 14 deadline, and if it does the organizers plan to distribute the funds to the participating (as of April 20) 109 cinemas and 92 related organizations after deducting credit card fees and administrative costs.
“Collecting ¥100 million in just three days and getting messages from many film fans has definitely given all mini-theater owners a big boost,” Fukada tells The Japan Times. “Also, we have decided to distribute at least ¥1.5 million to each of the more than 100 participating theaters. A lot of owners have told us that they can now keep their theaters closed without worry. They should be getting support from the government, but since that is not happening, we’ve realized that we’re helping to fill that gap.”
Meanwhile, veteran film industry journalist Harumi Nakayama believes that the Mini-Theater Aid campaign may lead to changes in the film world as a whole, “but it depends on how long the voluntary business closures last.”
“Also, I wonder how successful you can call (the campaign) given that the amount going to each theater is not so large,” she says.
Fukuda adds that a precise plan for saving theaters has yet to be developed. “That should be a job for not just the government, but the film industry as well,” he says.
The operators of mini-theaters are not the only ones struggling. On April 21, the Professional Motion Picture Workers Association Japan, an industry body that includes the Directors Guild of Japan, presented the government with a request for financial aid to television and film industry workers whose jobs have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to directors, the association counts scriptwriters, cinematographers, editors and art directors among its approximately 2,500 members.
Due to the spread of COVID-19, the request notes, work on films, TV programs and other projects has been suspended, postponed or abandoned, with the result being contractual defaults, salary cuts and nonpayment of fees. “Many of us are freelancers,” the request says, “and if this situation continues, we will lose the basis for our livelihoods.”
The government has yet to respond directly to the association’s request, but on March 28, Agency for Cultural Affairs Commissioner Ryohei Miyata issued a message to “everyone in arts and culture” that said, “There is no night that never ends. Believing in the power of the arts even more now, let’s progress together.”
The message had nothing to say about financial support, however, and no matter how well intended a crowdfunding campaign may be, it’s not going to bring back many industry jobs. As the motion picture workers association’s request puts it, “In the worst case, we’ll be out of work forever.”