Monday, December 15, 2008

Film business in the 21st century, part two

In this second instalment of a three-part series (read part one here) on the state of the Japanese film industry, entertainment reporter Kanazawa Makoto gives an overview of the crucial role that the ubiquitous 制作委員会 (seisaku iinkai) - production committees - play in modern day Japanese filmmaking. To be concluded in part three.

Film business in the 21st century
Part two: The pros and cons of "production committees" - a necessity for making hit films

These days it's not uncommon to spot the words "production committee" in a film's credits. This is an organisation in which several investing companies contribute funds for making a film. Major film companies are often involved as are television networks, advertising agencies, publishers and talent agencies.

Its merits are the ease of raising production finance, and the diversification of risk for the investing companies. It can be an effective method of production, as it's hard to tell whether a film will be successful until it's released.

If film companies with their own cinema screens and studios for making films, television networks with the publicity vehicle of broadcasting, and publishing companies that own the rights to original properties all pool their capital, production committees can follow through with the key stages of filmmaking: planning, production, advertising and promotion.

Breaking the oligopoly of the majors: "Kurobe no Taiyo"

During Japan's cinematic golden age that spanned from the 1950s to the mid 1960s, each studio made films utilising the star system. Its greatest sales point was its marquee stars, who made multimedia advertising unneccessary. As prints were distributed directly to each company's own theatre chain, film promotion also operated like an assembly line.

"Kurobe no Taiyo"1, released in 1968, was an attempt to break the status quo where a few studios dominated everything from planning to promotion. The film was a collaborative effort by two major star-owned production companies, Mifune Productions and Ishihara Productions. It became that year's number one box office hit, despite receiving flak from the major studios prior to its release.

The film that made Fuji get serious: "Antarctica"

The 1970s saw the Japanese film industry grow moribund, but in the latter half of the decade Kadokawa Films came up with a new promotional strategy that mixed film and television with publishing2, and revitalised the market. This was taken to another level by "Antarctica", a 1983 co-production between Fuji Television, Gakushu Kenkyusha and Kurahara Productions3. The film grossed 5.8 billion yen in distribution revenue, which in current box office terms equates to a hit in excess of 10 billion yen.

Encouraged by this success, Fuji Television began film production in earnest, and other commercial enterprises also began to sense the big business potential in film production despite its numerous uncertainties.

The production committee system was complementary to the ascendancy of an information-driven society. A film is no longer limited to theatrical release, as there are now a host of other distribution options such as video, DVD, satellite television and even internet and mobile phone streaming.

This way, each company that adds its name to a production committee can profit in various ways whether a film becomes a hit or not, by receiving rights for secondary usage and pursuing business opportunities in their respective specialist fields. Also taking into account the diminished power of film companies to continue to produce films independently, the production committee system has become standard in filmmaking since the 1970s.

The multimedia mix of production committees has also created a scenario where 'films become hits through mass advertising'. Since this scenario came about, there has been an growing tendency to prioritise the development and delivery of films that are easy for sponsors to promote, ahead of the creativity of actors and directors, who are the authors of the film.

As the production committee system has become firmly established, it might be said that films have shifted from being 'productions' made by the people who act in and direct them to 'products' maximised for consumption through multimedia consolidation.

Under the production committee system, there are some cases where investing companies make demands in the interests of making a better 'product'. One example would be when television networks give directives to avoid extreme depictions that would result in an R-rating and other content that could lead to complaints from sponsors when films are later broadcast.

The more that the scale of production committees increases in this way, the more bosses that must be dealt with, as well as the amount of demands they make. In addition to the considerable influence that the expectations of investing companies can have on a film, making sure everyone is on the same page is time-consuming. This can be a burden on the staff involved in the actual filmmaking, and there is also the danger that it could have a negative effect on quality.

A financing ally? Film funds

A new method of raising production finance that is attracting interest is the film fund system. When Shochiku was producing "Shinobi - Heart Under Blade" in 2005, it sought funds from around the country through a fund aimed at film fans and other individual investors, which was a first for Japan.

The 2006 hit "Hula Girls" was also made through the use of a fund. It was intended for projects by primary producer Cine Qua Non as well as around 20 foreign films that it had bought the rights for4. In future, if the industry environment improves and the film fund system catches on, there is also the possibility that funds will become popular with financially-challenged small and medium-sized film companies as a means of creating large-scale productions to challenge the majors.

1: Don't expect to see this epic portrayal of dam construction on DVD, Blu-ray or any other format except film until 2039 when it enters the public domain: its star and producer, the late Ishihara Yujiro, forbade video transfers of any kind out of his desire for people to see the film in theatres. Revival screenings only occur once every few years, and for some nebulous reason, when they do it's an export version edited down from 3 hours and 15 minutes to just over two hours, which effectively means the original cut has gone unseen since its original release in 1968. A CG-enhanced television remake starring SMAP cheeseball Katori Shingo in the Ishihara role and Kobayashi Kaoru (who gave a rivetingly internalised performance in this year's understated but powerful capital punishment drama "Kyuka" (Vacation) in Mifune's part will be broadcast on Fuji TV next spring.

2: The "media-mix" strategy mentioned in part one.

3: Kurahara as in Kurahara Koreyoshi, the filmmaker celebrated in a special retrospective at this year's Tokyo Filmex (read my wrap-up here). "Antarctica" also formed the basis for Disney's 2006 film "Eight Below" starring Paul Walker. In addition, Jason Gray looked at Fuji TV's lack of luck/interest in the international marketplace for a recent blog piece.

4: See JG's piece for Screen Daily for more about the CQN fund.


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