Monday, July 19, 2010

"8000 Miles" director Irie Yu: Indie filmmaker wa tsurai yo

I'm sure there are more than a few foreign fans of Japanese cinema (myself included) who at one time or another have harbored dreams of becoming a filmmaker in their own right in Japan. My own such ambitions lasted about as long as it took for me to learn the realities of the industry from people already working in it. This is not a vocation you take on if you want to lead a comfortable lifestyle, let alone become affluent, and yet there are still plenty of young people signing up for film schools, or making their own films on their own buck, out of a sheer love for film.

Irie Yu is one of them. Inspired by the films of James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, he enrolled in Nihon University's College of Art (famous for producing such luminaries as Ishii Sogo, Tsukamoto Shinya, and Fukasaku Kinji among others) hoping to eventually make movies on a similar scale, and supported himself with random gigs such as shooting footage of plankton for the National Museum of Science and Nature.

His independently-produced low-budget comedy "8000 Miles" (a play on the title of Eminem vehicle "8 Mile"; the original Japanese title translates as "Rappers from Saitama") about aspiring b-boys in the boondocks started out in cinemas with the kind of limited late-show release usually given to obscure self-made films that invariably disappear within the space of two weeks.

The response surprised Irie more than anyone. Word of mouth was overwhelmingly positive, boosted by its grand prize win in the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival's off-theatre competition, as well as praise from influential supporters such as veteran Japanese-language rapper and self-styled film critic Utamaru who championed it on his popular Saturday night radio show. Its burgeoning popularity led to it being picked up for screening by other cinemas around Japan, as well as several overseas film festivals, and eventually garnered a best newcomer award for Irie from the Directors Guild of Japan. A sequel, "8000 Miles 2", is currently enjoying a much wider release than its predecessor, and Irie's ultimate aim is to turn it into a long-running series to rival Yamada Yoji's "Otoko wa Tsurai yo".

However, such success doesn't necessary pay the bills, as Irie himself explained in an eye-opening blog entry that offers an insight into the kind of difficulties facing independent filmmakers in Japan today.
Due to insurmountable circumstances, I'm leaving Tokyo after living here for over 10 years.
There are lots of reasons why, but the main one is financial.
The impracticality of being constantly involved in promoting and distributing “8000 Miles” and making “8000 Miles 2” since late 2008 has finally come to a head, making it extremely difficult for me to keep on top of things as they are, such as rent and living expenses.
You could also say that I've totally failed to manage my own situation, but it seems quite amusing (maybe “interesting” is a better way to put it) when looking at it objectively, so I'd like to write a few notes about it and give it some consideration in my own way.

In a nutshell, I have to leave Tokyo because my silly little film “8000 Miles” was “acclaimed” (even if I do say so myself) beyond all expectations.

It's perfectly reasonable to think “Huh? If it was acclaimed, aren't you well off now?”, and even people who are making independent films these days are probably less aware of the reality than you'd expect.
If you're reading this blog and hoping to get a chance to have your self-made film theatrically released, I hope it'll be of some use to you.
(There are plenty of people in the film industry with a background in self-made films, but they don't talk very openly about it.)

Ultimately, the harder you work to have your film shown, the poorer you get.
This is totally unrelated to how the filmmaker and the film itself is received.

So, why are things this way?
I'll describe how it works step-by-step as follows.

At the very least, this is how it happened with “8000 Miles.”
I've measured the financial achievement (FA) and critical achievement (CA) of the film at different stages on a positive and negative scale, and as “8000 Miles” was completely paid for out of my own savings, I've started out suddenly with a negative 100 in terms of financial achievement (the 100 isn't equivalent to a yen amount; it's just a relative figure).

1) The film is set for a theatrical release. I did it!
FA: -100
CA: +10

2) The promotional campaign begins.
I begin making flyers, setting up a blog, fielding interviews etc.
My spirits are running high, so I pay off all the production costs.
FA: -150
CA: +30

3) The film's theatrical release commences.
The reaction is better that expected, and its run is extended.
FA: -150
CA: +50

4) Surprisingly the response continues to improve, and after the film's release is expanded to venues outside of Tokyo, I make every effort to do onstage greetings, radio appearances and the like so that non-Tokyoites will come and see it.
FA: -170
CA: +80

5) The film's reputation grows, and I end up taking it to film festivals overseas.
Meanwhile, I have no time to work because of all the promotional activities, stage greetings and what have you, so I have zero income.
Day after day I find myself burning through the money I need to pay living expenses.
FA: -180
CA: +100

6) About a year has gone by since the film first began showing in theaters and it's still playing, so I continue to promote it in a low-key way.
Distribution of the income from the theatrical release finally begins, but by this point there's been a pretty big timelag since the film first opened.
The payment order is cinema→distributor→(promotions)→filmmaker (me), and on top of that each takes a predetermined share of the profits.
(In some cases, filmmakers don't even recoup half of their production costs.)
On the other hand, the film wins awards which further enhances its reputation, as well as my own.
I realize that my financial situation and critical reception are diametrically opposite.
FA: -150
CA: +150

So, I've simplified things quite a lot here,
but the reality of independent film promotion is that the more you push on with promoting your film, the less you're able to work, and the longer your film screens, the more money you lose.
(Recently, the fact that 'regular' films are being heavily promoted over as short a period as possible and released on DVD as soon as their theatrical run finishes could be because filmmakers want to avoid income losses and delays.)

Plus, with independent films you often don't have famous actors in the cast, so it's necessary for directors to handle interviews and promotion themselves.
There aren't many directors who don't want people to see their films, so in most cases they'll jump at any interview or talkshow offer that comes their way, and travel here and there to drop off flyers.
When a film is well received, actors and camera operators and composers receive offers of other work as a result, but even if they do take up a job on another production, it's standard for the director to remain focused on his own film for as long as it's screening.
Besides, if the colleagues who kindly toiled away on your film for a pittance manage to find other work through its success, that's about the only way a director can repay the favor.
Striving to promote your film as much as possible is also something you do for the people who helped you out.

In my case, I was also involved in the production of another independent film, my latest work “8000 Miles 2,” and have spent about a year and a half (three years if you count the work I put into the first “8000 Miles”) making and promoting it, so its rather amazing that I've managed to eke out a living this long.

So, I think the essence of this situation is that “it's nobody's fault.”

The cinemas who decide to screen your independent film, the people who take a liking to your film and write about it to help get its name out there, the filmgoers who are nice enough to say they want your film to be screened near where they live too, and the film festivals at home and abroad who can only cover transport costs but still want you to present your film in person, are all people who are supporting your film, and their contributions are invaluable to a filmmaker.
Without those people, it's not possible for a film to be seen by a wide audience.
Therefore, if someone calls me up today, I'll gladly go along.

If I was to go out on a limb and blame someone, I'd have to say it's the fault of the guy who passed up part-time jobs and contract work in putting his film's promotion first, namely me.
(The number of film and video production jobs I've turned down since I began work on “8000 Miles,” large and small, is well over twenty or thirty.)
But I don't think there are many directors out there who would normally decline jobs like that if their film was already being screened (that's because they probably would have gone through quite an ordeal to get their film shown).
This systemic problem is something that I think the few directors I know have all experienced, but in actual fact, hardly anyone is aware of it.

Unfortunately, right now don't know of an effective way to solve this problem.
You could say this could be averted by cutting yourself free at some point, but the choice to cease promoting a film that's still screening in order to shift to a new project, or to refuse interviews from media who take more of an interest in independent films than major ones, or to receive payment as a director even though the staff haven't been paid a decent wage, are ones I don't want to make.

That's exactly why I intend to reboot my lifestyle and write new scripts and things, while attempting to change this 'insane' situation in Japanese filmmaking.
Because “8000 Miles” fortunately enabled me to keep making films (I've no idea about the future though) I view this as my responsibility.

So, it's sayonara to Tokyo for a while.

I'll still pop back in whenever I'm being interviewed.
That's because I want my films to be seen by as many people as possible.
Jason Gray kindly provided an update on Irie's situation:
Was told some good news today that Irie's video royalties have allowed him to come back to Tokyo. He's working on a script about a crazy band and their manager. Band is real, film will be a combination of narrative/documentary.


  1. Even in the best of times it can be hard for artists to earn a proper living, and facing today's stark economic realities I don't see it changing for the better. Though I won't have access to see his film (perhaps there are opportunities with tie-ups through digital distribution i.e. Nico Nico Douga or, I sincerely wish all of the best to Irie-san and others like him, struggling to make ends meet while they pursue their craft in earnest. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks Ken. You never know, a subtitled DVD might be released somewhere down the track. Hopefully by that time Irie will be in a better financial position.

  3. Was told some good news today that Irie's video royalties have allowed him to come back to Tokyo. He's working on a script about a crazy band and their manager. Band is real, film will be a combination of narrative/documentary.

  4. I always liked this one by The Clash:

    Hitsville in U.K.

    They cried the tears, they shed their fears,
    Up and down the land,
    They stole guitars or used guitars
    So the tape would understand

    Without even the slightest hope of a 1000 sales
    Just as if, as if there was, a Hitsville in U.K.
    I know the boy was all alone, til the Hitsville hit U.K.


    They say true talent will allways emerge in time,
    When lightening hits small wonder
    Its fast rough factory trade
    No expense accounts, or lunch discounts
    Or hypeing up the charts,
    The band went in, 'n' knocked 'em dead, in 2 min. 59
    I know the boy was all alone, till the Hitsville hit U.K.

    So hit it

    No slimy deals, with smarmy eels in Hitsville U.K.
    Lets shake and say, we'll operate in Hitsville U.K.
    I know the girl felt all alone, till the Hitsville hit U.K.

    The mutants, creeps, and musclemen,
    Are shaking like a leaf,
    It blows a hole in the radio,
    When it hasn't sounded good all week,
    A mike 'n' boom, in your living room, in Hitsville U.K.
    No consumer trials, nor A.O.R., in Hitsville U.K.,

    I know the boy felt all alone,
    Till the Hitsville hit U.K.

    Now the boys and girls are not alone,
    Now that Hitsville's hit U.K.

    I know the boys and girls are not alone,
    Now that Hitsville's hit U.K.

    I know the boys and girls are not alone,
    Now that Hitsville's hit U.K.

    I know the boys and girls are not alone,
    Now that Hitsville's hit U.K.