On June 10th, 2012, the managing director of UK label Third Window Films published online a letter explaining why the label is done with theatrical releases (following the “resounding opening weekend failure of Himizu“); the enormous fees from the BBFC, too much money wasted in advertisement for nothing, the lack of support from theater chains/owners…
As a quick reminder, TWF is one of the few (the only?) distributors in Europe to release (indie) Japanese films, like Sawako Decides, Confessions, Cold Fish, Instant Swamp… And the lineup of 2012 includes titles such as Tsukamoto’s Kotoko, Sogo Ishii’s Isn’t Anyone Alive? or Yuya Ishii’s Mitsuko Delivers. Pretty interesting!
So this small company is really trying to discover some of gems produced in Japan and rarely screened elsewhere in the world. To prove there are other J-directors than Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano or Akira Kurosawa.
But, this label is now facing a harsh reality that many other niche-oriented distributors have experienced before: it doesn’t seem to attract audiences – keeping in mind, theatrical releases = quick results needed. The opening weekend numbers are often more than enough to know if it’s a hit or a flop. They determine the future of the film.
THE RIGHT BALANCE?
What do you mean by “it“? Well, Asian films.
In recent years, many asian film distributors have closed down all over Europe. Most of the time, it’s due to bad decisions – among other things, over-flooding the market with shitty horror titles, failing to diversify or renew the demand.
Some labels have survived through that time, but they had to change their editorial policy. For example, in France, Wild Side released many Shaw Brothers films. At first, there was the “Kill Bill” effect to keep people interested. But few years later, it was gone, and their last Shaw Brothers DVDs didn’t sell well at all. It was a huge disappointment, according to the head of the label – you love films, you want people to watch them, but they don’t. It was the same situation that happened with some Japanese classics, Gosha’s Hitokiri sold only 2,000 DVDs.
From an external point of view, what was missing there? Good films? Definitely not. Selling titles? Yes. And since then, the label has just diversified its activities, releasing more popular titles – the Crows Zero series, some Asian blockbusters – so that it becomes possible to release niche & rare films (FYI, Wild Side is 10 years old this year).
TO STAND ALONE
And we’re back at the beginning; besides Takashi Miike and few other films/directors, recent Japanese cinema seems to be limited quality-wise. Based on regular reports, the Japanese Film Industry isn’t in good shape, “failing” to produce films with broader appeal/big potential to reach audiences beyond, the fan-boys/fan-base (live-action versions), some cultural cliché (bloodthirsty samurai), or a niche cult following (indies/auteurs).
On the other hand, it also means, in some cases, foreign films can attract an audience, as little as it is. On the long term, there’s something to develop here!
As a fan, it’s already pretty hard to find films like that. Knowing most Japanese films aren’t released/screened outside Japan, and (mainstream) distributors aren’t particularly interested in sending screeners overseas, especially if there’s no commercial value – some of you can try professional sites like Cinando or Festival Scope…
But in the end, is there any real risks? At worst, it means watching a bad film or posting a review on the internet with no real way to discuss with other people about it. Frustrating, sure, but nothing much, really.
But as a distributor, it means making choices, investing money… And supporting these films no matter what. Even when there’s no commercial potential, when these films aren’t (always) clearly identified by the people – who, most likely, have never heard anything about these films before. One could wonder why focusing only on (Japanese) films like that?
Especially, when the current situation isn’t helping. Theatrically speaking, the UK is a difficult market for Japanese films – no major titles released in years, even recent Ghibli films aren’t that successful – for ex. Arrietty, 1st week: 61 theaters = $124,193.
RAISING (MAINSTREAM) AWARENESS
«…without the press and promotion raised from theatrical releases (critics rarely review straight to video titles) then I can’t acquire larger films anymore so I’m really disappointed.» — Adam Torel, TWF.
How to attract audiences nowadays? Positive reviews on both print & online media, lots of ads, good word-of-mouth, decent theatrical exposure around the country…
But what about the distributor itself? Its role is slowly evolving, it’s not just about buying/releasing films. It’s also about raising awareness for the films. And becoming its own media.
In the case of TWF, why the letter hasn’t been published on the TWF website? And, do we have to wait for bad news to read such insightful comments? It’s hard to market foreign films, it’s easier to write/talk about them, to connect with other movie-goers & to become a reliable source/brand. Why be so dependent on others?
There’s an audience out there, willing to pay to watch good (Japanese) films in theaters, but there’s no real community to gather these people – specialized magazines used to do the job. What now? Who to fill this void?