Film Distribution in Art Houses, Japan… 4/4
Here are my final comments on my series of four posts about the Art House circuit of Japan. They might not please everyone, and I’m well aware of this. At the same time, if nothing is done, the whole thing could go down the drain, with no hope of surviving, in its actual form anyway. So I feel that I should give some material to explore rather than do nothing…
2) Change of approach: Again, and with just a few exceptions, the Art House approach and the image that it projects are mostly and sadly outdated. There was very little done to improve anything for the last thirty years or so, and the actual look can’t do much to pull new, younger audiences.
A) Screenings: Last year the Government gave subventions to cinema owners who desired to equip themselves with 3D projectors. Hardly useful for Art House Theaters, (I hate 3D!!!) but at least, it gave them access to Digital projections, which means a major step forward. Most of them needed a drastic improvement with their screening facilities. But it doesn’t and cannot stop there: the sound systems, the acoustics and the seats, among other things, all need to be brought to today’s standards.
In my opinion, the most important point if one wants to make a profitable operation is to have a larger number of screens. For many owners, the short term solution was to cut down the number of screenings for each movie and add more of them every day. This is simply asking too much to contemporary audiences, especially with the habits that they got at the commercial Multiplexes. Not everybody can afford to see a movie at a specific time of the morning, afternoon or evening, and sometimes on a specific day. Asking too much of an audience means losing that audience to the “CineCom” theaters that do make it easy, fun and comfortable for them. The idea is to create traffic, surround the audience with several interesting options, give them a stimulating mood. Some Art House Theaters have succeeded nicely along those lines and will probably survive… Quality and varied movies presented in an original context sounds like a good approach to me.
B) Art Center and Meeting Spot: Many owners already told me that they don’t want to know anything outside of showing movies. I’m afraid that if they persist in their ideology, they will soon find nobody to show their movie to.
I truly believe that we need to create fascinating spots where people want to meet and hang around, discussing movies or art in general, drinking a beer or buying a nice book, CD or DVD, or even meeting the person of their dreams who shares a passion for cinema. I think that there is a need for creating some sort of an “art center” where people can enjoy themselves in a cosy surrounding, as opposed to the Multiplexes where we are too often bombarded by the loud sounds and aggressive images of action movies. We need to create an appealing and original mood for the Art House, distinctive from the Hollywood formula, a place where people take the habit of coming, even if they don’t have a movie to see, simply to meet friends and have a beer with them… Again, creating traffic in a stimulating surrounding should bring results in the long run…
C) Animation: Outside of cinephiles, most of the people are often lost as to what movies could be of interest to them; what they could find in them. When you are not a specialist, there are little chances that you will go out and look hard for the information.
I’m a true believer in actually introducing the new Art House movies to the public through a TV partner, the Internet and the theaters, in a popular fashion, unpretentiously. We need to find a way to compete with the Hollywood blockbusters or the popular “star” vehicles, and gradually bring conventional audiences to discover something different and certainly not less interesting.
I dream of an animator like the wonderful film critic Yodogawa who used to introduced the movies like nobody I have ever seen. I dream of a short capsule presented by a passionate animator who would introduce all the independent movies to a large audience, let them know in a few minutes why this movie is special and worth seeing, what makes it interesting and different… This could be done for very cheap and be worth a fortune, with a special website where people could find the information for each film presented in Art Houses across Japan… And of course, the TV Station involved with the local cinemas could present a fascinating weekly program…
D) Make the money where you can: I can already hear the screams, but I will say it: “At least fifty percent of the profits in commercial cinemas come from the food counter”. Another good part of the money comes from the by-products. We are talking about a lot of money. When I see all those boring vending machines in many art houses, and the few customers with empty hands, I cannot but understand why we are talking about financial problems. I, too, used to be against popcorn in movie theaters. We all know the sophisticated arguments for rejecting it…
But the simple reality is that times have changed and I think that we all need to adapt. I go to all types of movie theaters and I observe, and I count… The food counters have become irresistible in Multiplexes and half of the people walk around with their hands full, despite the economical crisis. I’m sorry, but they do buy the food when it’s presented in an attractive way. And the same goes for catalogs, posters and other movie products…
The first guys who thought of Popcorn thought about it for a simple reason: it cost nothing to buy and the profit is fantastic… I’m certainly not a fan of CocaCola, but I do want the Cinemas to survive. It’s for us to find a way… Maybe it’s time that the art guys make a decent living for a change… It could be done in many original ways, with good quality food, bio stuff or what have you… But I do believe that food is part of the fun in watching a movie for 98% of the people who go to cinema. Should we really fight the majority of the people we want to show our movies to?
E) Educate the young audience: Generally speaking, Japanese people younger than 28 years old have been in theaters to see three types of movies: the “Harry Potter” stuff, the “Toy Story” stuff and the Japanese “Manga” stuff. The Majors have practically killed the future of cinema by limiting the choices offered to the audiences. Nobody has done anything to educate the younger generation, to introduce them to something different. All they can now think of is to present them the same old, limited stuff in 3D… The young generation has not been exposed to enough genres to develop a taste for cinema. Why would anybody search on the Internet for something that they have never been exposed to? You look and search for things that you know and have learned to like over the years…
The Art Theater owners should propose an educational program to the government, possibly sponsored by some convenient store companies (Lawson, Family Mart, etc…) or the like. It could be something like one screening per week for all the Senior High School students of the first or second grade for instance. The movie could be introduced briefly by an animator and discussed for thirty minutes after. This solution could bring additional, secured and regular revenues, while preparing the ground for future audiences. They wouldn’t all come back, but they would know a little better…
F) Price of tickets: In the actual, fairly poor conditions of many Art House Theaters, and if they cannot be improved rapidly, it doesn’t really make sense to charge the same amount of money (roughly $20.00) than the “CineCom” Theaters. I know that this is a rule coming from the association of theater owners, but it is a sure way to kill the Art House Cinemas.
On the first week that “Inception” came out, I went to see it with Yuri and Takako: we were five in the nice, old cinema that unfortunately cannot compete with the Cinecom. One week earlier, we were three (two of us, plus one guy) to see “Nine”. At the same price, everybody goes to the “CineCom”.
My suggestion would be to offer something from the food bar for free with every entrance ticket. The admission fee rule would be respected, but with a little chance, the customer would even buy an extra drink or something. The customers have to feel that they are getting something worth the money, and it’s only fair. As it stands right now, it isn’t… And of course, it won’t happen, but instead of having a discount “Lady Day”, “Man’s Day” or what have you, the logical think would be to bring all the prices down and forget about those discount days… But who cares of what I have to say?:-)
G) Promotion: The films from the Japanese Majors are launched at a minimum of $300,000.00, with the average well over five hundred thousand. There is no way the independent can compete with this and all the Art House Theaters have to make a special effort here. I saw a lot of nice, original theater that were totally empty: nobody simply thought of letting the people know that they had made or renovated a nice theater.
We saw with out film, “Looking For Anne”, that the little extra work did make a difference. If it could be done for all the independent movies, the crowds would gradually come back. It does need a particular and major effort in all the media and it won’t happen by itself.
During our trip, we found out that all the media people were particularly sensitive to the importance of preserving the Art House Theaters in their cities. They were more than willing to contribute and I’m sure that they would all jump right in if they were solicited to participate in a major campaign to bring the audience back to the theaters. A promotional strategy needs to be put in place and needs to be renewed constantly.
3) My conclusion: My first conclusion is that I sound way too preachy and that I could very well be lost in the field, missing the point entirely. I, for sure, come up with solutions that are not really in line with the philosophies that have been in place for many years. I could therefore be way off the track.
But there is one thing sure: independent filmmakers all over the world are becoming fed-up by the manipulations of the big distribution operations that never return any money to the people who take all the financial risks in the first place. More and more, independent filmmakers are working to control their own financial destiny: Video On Demand (VOD) as well as direct DVD sales are becoming a serious option that many have decided to take, bypassing entirely the too costly theatrical operation.
For one, I have decided to still take the theatrical option for the feature film that I plan to shoot next year in Japan. I hope that there will be enough independent theaters left by the time I release my film in 2012… This is my dearest hope.