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Industry Report: Produce - Coproduce...

UniJapan: Talking about European cinema in the Japanese marketplace

by Liza Foreman

12/11/2010 - As part of the Tokyo International Film Festival’s (TIFF), (October 23-31) push this year to become more of an international event, UniJapan, the Japanese entertainment-industry umbrella organization, has organized an Entertainment Forum, including a series of panels looking at a range of issues facing the global entertainment industry. Kicking off with a Special Session entitled “Co-Producing with Asian Countries”, in which the British producer Jeremy Thomas discussed his long-standing relationship with Japan, the series continues this week with some two dozen panels unfolding.

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Although many of the discussions focus on Asia, Wednesday saw a gathering of international journalists talk about the subject of European Films in the Japanese Market place. A power-point presentation assembled by Screen International’s Japan Correspondent, Jason Gray, gave an overview of the situation in Japan, where local films and Hollywood films dominate the box office. Gray began by referring back to the heyday for European cinema in Japan, between the 1950s and 1950s when arthouse heavyweights such as Jean Luc Godard introduced Japanese youth, at the time, to European culture of the cinematic kind. Several charts presented by Gray showed a decline since then in the number of European films screened in Japan. Back in 2004, there were 92 European films releases in the Japanese market, followed by 80 films in 2005, 103 films in 2007, 72 films in 2008, 77 films in 2009, and 84 films in 2010. The decline, Gray attributed, to a shrinking DVD market in Japan as well as other factors, including a decrease in the number of European acquisitions for the Japanese market. On the other hand, spend on Hollywood films has increased in Japan since the 1990s, with Japanese and American films dominating the scene.

A second chart presented by Gray outlined the number of European films to have screened at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals, the world’s top three film festivals, and then to have subsequently had a release in Japan. Gray put that figure at 14 for 2004 followed by a count of 12 in 2005, 11 films in 2006, 16 films in 2007, 7 films in 2008 and 5 films in 2009.

A third chart included a list of all the films Japan has acquired for distribution from the European Union. France has made the most sales to Japan. In 2004, there were 31 film deals, followed by 23 in 2005, 31 in 2006, 25 in 2007, 26 in 2008, 25 in 2009 and 24 in 2010, bringing the total number of French acquisitions in Japan to 185 for the period in question. England placed second on the list, with 12 sales in 2004, 11 in 2005, 12 in 2006, 17 in 2007, 15 in 2008, 17 in 2009 and 7 in 2010 to Japan. Germany followed with 4 sales of films to Japan in 2004, followed by 8 in 2005, 9 in 2006, 9 in 2007, 5 in both 2008 and 2009 and 1 in 2010.

Germany was followed by Italy and then Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Sweden, Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Turkey, Austria, Iceland and Romania in terms of the number of sales of their films to Japan. Gray spoke to the importance of the role that TIFF can play in this situation by taking a greater part in introducing local audiences to European films.

Earlier in the festival, TIFF chairman Tom Yoda spoke about making a “leap forward” in terms of the festival’s evolution in making this more of an international event. “We remain committed to making this the premiere platform for Asian films and at the same time making it more of an international event with films from South America to Africa,” said Yoda. “All films are equal here.”

At his panel, Jeremy Thomas said the situation for Japanese films abroad and for European films had become “harder”. “The industry and audiences have shut out the type of specialized arthouse films that producers like myself make,” he said. Thomas’s credits include The Last Emperor and this year’s Venice title Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Thomas has been a regular collaborator with Japanese directors going back several decades, and is currently executive producing an untitled Japanese 3D film, shooting in the old Japanese capital of Kyoto. He is special advisor to TIFF this year.

The panel on European films in Japan also included a discussion on the situation for Japanese films abroad. Mark Adams, Chief Film Critic for Screen International, spoke about the wave of enthusiasm for Asian Extreme titles which had been heralded in to the U.K. though companies such as Tartan. He said there was now less of an interest in the genre for several reasons, including the fact that there are less arthouse screens available in the United Kingdom. German critic Jan Shulz-Ojala spoke about an interest in Japanese films that had been witnessed in Germany following the win by a Japanese animation of the Berlin film festival’s main prize The Golden Bear in 2004. “This is what got German audiences really interested in Japanese anime,” he said.

Limited numbers of Japanese films have been released in the U.S., recently, where the market has drastically changed for independent films of all nationalities thanks to the closure of the so-called mini-majors such as Warner Independent.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for foreign language films to be released in the U.S. Some companies like Miramax, Warner Independent, etc. have folded,” said publicist Fredell Pogodin who handles a large number of European films in the U.S.

Several micro-distributors that have taken the place of the mini-majors, such as Film Movement, and Olive Films (The Milk of Sorrow), which offers a selection of hard-to-find domestic and foreign films, and Vitagraph Films. Vitagraph began in 1999 as the theatrical arm of the American Cinematheque. In 2005, Vitagraph Films released Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia's comedy Ferpect crime, in the U.S. Vitagraph has acquired rights to thirteen Japanese genre films that were well shown at American Cinematheque screenings during its Japanese Outlaw Masters series. Although made some 30 years ago, none of these films had ever been released in the U.S., neither had they been available on video. Partnering with Image Entertainment, Vitagraph distributed the first four titles (Black Tight Killers, Female Convinct Scorpian - Jailhouse 41, Go, Go Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy Of The Angels on DVD and home video in 2000, and booked the films theatrically in New York, San Francisco and Boston. A fifth title, Black Rose Mansion (1969) from acclaimed director Kinji Fukasaku was released in 2002. Following were releases of Pale Flower (Mashiro Shinoda), Bloody Territories and Sex Rock Hunter directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, Kinji Fukasaku's Blackmail Is My Life and If You Were Young – Rage and Seijin Suzuki's Tattooed Life, Kanto Wanderer and Underworld Beauty. In 2001 and early 2002 Vitagraph acquired prolific Japanese bad-boy director Takashi Miike's now infamous horror film Audition and Everything Put Together, a DV feature directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) starring Radha Mitchell (Neverland, Silent Hill [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
) & Megan Mullally (Will & Grace). Both films opened theatrically and were subsequently released on DVD and video in Spring 2002. The release of Audition broke Miike in the United States. Vitagraph went on to release Miike's City Of Lost Souls and Happiness Of The Katakuris.

IFC and Magnolia continue to release European and Japanese films in the U.S., among others, and it's possible for them to support these titles because they are doing it through multiple platforms such as VOD. Another company, Music Box has also been extremely successful, with Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
film profile
]
and a few other titles and there is also Sony Pictures Classics.

”In speaking to many of the sales agents overseas, they say the deals are far smaller than they used to be to the U.S. Still, the films are being sold, but the deals are smaller,” says Pogodin.

In terms of more recent Japanese releases in the U.S., the Oscar-winning Japanese film Departures made $1.5 million, after it was released 2009 by Regent Releasing. Yojiru Takita’s film follows an unemployed cellist who takes a job preparing the deal for funerals. It won Best Foreign Language film of the year in 2009. A second Japanese title, Tokyo Sonata, made $277,000 in the U.S. when it was released in 2009 by Regent. Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s film follows family that disintegrates after a patriarch loses his job as a surgeon.

”It was a pleasure bringing both Tokyo Sonata and Departures into the U.S. theatrical marketplace. Japanese Films are so well received by the press with the long lineage of Japanese Filmmaking. Tokyo Sonata was a remarkable film. The statements on the failing world economy was prophetic filmmaking. The complete support from the filmmakers and the resonance that their participation with the press gave the film a strong theatrical support. It is a favorite film of colleges and universities across the U.S.

Departures was truly an exceptional film. It held a rich warmth in dealing with a "tough" subject matter for the typical movie patron. The overwhelming critical support was also well supported by the Filmmakers. This helped sustain the film a "long life" in the U.S. theatrical marketplace. It was a simple, beautifully orchestrated story that resonated with anyone who has felt a loss in their lives. It personally touched so many people and it was a pleasure to make the film available to viewers. I have never had so many phone calls and positive email response from people who were not used to seeing such an inspirational experience. One person called personally to say that they were giving copies away to all their friends for Christmas,” said John Lambert, Former President of Regent Releasing, now with his own company Lambert Releasing.

Two Japanese films have so far received international recognition by being selected to the compete in major film festivals this year – Caterpillar by Kōji Wakamatsu was in competition for the Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, and won the Silver Bear for Best Actress. Outrage by Takeshi Kitano was in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

A list of recent winners of the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars shows the limited box office foreign films often make in the U.S.

2005: Tsotsi [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
: South Africa: $2.9 million at the U.S. box office.

2006: The Lives of Others [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
film profile
]
: Germany: $11.2 million

2007: The Counterfeiters [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
: Austria: $5.4 million

2008: Departures: Japan: $1.5 million

2009: The Secret In Their Eyes [+see also:
trailer
making of
film profile
]
: Argentina: $6.3 million so far.

Currently, the top 100 films at the U.S. box office for the year are all North American, beginning with Toy Story 3, at rank 1, down to Case 39, with Renee Zellweger, placed at 100.

 

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