Unhappy with Posterous…

Sorry for my last four posts about Art House Distribution in Japan. I was trying “Posterous”, but they make a mess of my layout so I quit. My next post will be back with “Ecto”…

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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Again, and with just a few exceptions, the Art House approach and the image that it projects are mostly and sadly outdated.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.

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Film Distribution in Art Houses, Japan… 3/4

I hate to sound negative about the work of people I truly appreciate and respect. I wish my trip had made me come to a different conclusion. Anyway, here are some of my thoughts. I don’t pretend to know nor have understood everything, but I present my perspective, honestly, hoping to bring my small contribution to a branch of cinema that has been so valuable to many filmmakers and find itself in great danger of disappearing.

As I saw it, a lot of the theater owners are badly isolated, often too busy to run their theaters and try to pay their bills. They have no time nor energy left to find any new solutions or to even identify the problems as to why the people don’t show up anymore. They are so overloaded with work and financial pressure that they can’t think of any solution to improve their faith. All of them are absolute film buffs, well educated and always passionate: unfortunately, they are not necessarily good businessmen, nor marketing specialists. 

But whichever way we look at it, things have changed over the years, and we need to adapt if we want to survive. I don’t pretend to detain the truth, but here are the things that I would do, or at least explore, if I were a theater owner. Of course, from an ideological point of view, this could all well sound like a total and definite heresy. I still dive, because I believe that Art Houses won’t survive in the actual state of things.

1) Find new investors: except for a few exceptions, most of the theaters need radical improvements, which obviously cost a lot of money. Among the potential investors that I would look up are:

A) TV stations and their partners. I know that it sounds scandalous, but TV stations have money, (at least some still do…) they need to diversify their activities, and more importantly, they have the capacity to do a promotional job like no other groups. Moreover, if it’s not with their own money, they have several possibilities to attract sponsors with money. Investing in culture looks good for any large corporation and can be profitable from a tax point of view. A basic investment of a few hundred thousand dollars would be a good start, but a solid commitment in promotion is a lot more important in the long run. TV stations have strong ties with other media, politicians and can be awfully helpful in all sort of ways, including the Internet, etc. Getting a TV station would be my first priority. Unthinkable a few years ago, but now possible even though not easy…

B) Sell the name: It must sound terrible for someone who fought for the last ten, twenty or thirty years for a classic movie theater, but changing a name is better than losing the whole thing. All over the world arenas, concert halls, etc. are selling their names for large amounts of money. Art Houses bring prestige to any corporation that always want to be a good citizen. A “Kirin Cinema” or a “Mitsubishi Cinema” is definitely  better than no cinema.

C) Arcade or city support: A lot of the Art Houses are located in the center of shopping arcades that are struggling in most of the cities. They usually get a lot of financial support from the Government institutions or the cities. Many Art House owners already get support from them. They should all do, and not only for money, but also for advertising campaigns, etc.

D) Private investorsAn Art House owner had been struggling for over twenty some years with his small movie theater in Montreal. One day he got fed up of barely surviving and made a list of the ten richest men in town. He contacted the first one on the list. To the struggling owner’s surprise, the first millionaire who heard his demand for a new multiplex Art House, said “yes” right away. The day they were supposed to sign the deal, the investor had a heart attack and died. The theater owner called the second one on his list, they met and the new guy said “yes” for a second time in a row. Eleven years later, one of the nicest Art House Theater in Canada is looking for extending the number of its theaters… 

There are a few rich people left in Japan. People simply need to prepare a nice business plan and knock on doors. The worst that can happen is to receive a polite refusal…

I hope all this doesn’t sound too pretentious on my part, but I do feel like bringing some ideas to the table. If it can bring something to anybody in this industry, I will be the happiest man in the world. I will come out with some more comments in my next post, which will call for a drastic change in approach…

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Film Distribution in Art Houses, Japan…2/4

After going through the hundreds of pictures to make this post, I feel that there is something totally unfair coming out of all this. Too many untold stories, too many wonderful people who fight for cinema and who might come out looking like, or even actually being losers in the end. 

They are definitely not losers!…  But the economical system might give us that impression. Even my texts on Art Houses might give this inaccurate impression that they haven’t done what they should have done. It’s never that easy in actual life, on the field, when you have to struggle to make things happen. It’s always easier to make an appreciation from a distance, once the work has been done and things have grown in an unexpected direction or another.

I therefore apologize to all of you, Japanese theater owners, managers and workers, who struggle for the survival of the Art House circuit. 

However, I feel that I need to express my view as honestly as I can, knowing perfectly well that what I propose might not please everyone or even be feasible for the great majority of the players. I need to specify that I don’t write all this because I don’t appreciate what has been done so far and what can hopefully be done for many more years to come.

If ever you are interested, I posted previously a few videos on some of the Art House theaters. If I stopped shooting on the way, it’s because I didn’t have enough time to make videos that looked good enough to my taste. Going through those pictures made me feel like coming back to tell a few stories in details later on. We will see.

As for now, I post the pictures of the places we visited, including some “CineCom”, and people who organize screenings for us. Many are missing: sorry about that.

In all those Art House Theaters, we met only passionate, movie loving people, dedicated to show quality films despite a system that doesn’t necessarily make things easy for them. There is no question about the absolute implication of those theater owners or managers: they all share the same combat in the defense of independent cinema. They eat and breathe cinema, working long hours, many of them six when it’s not seven days a week. Totally sincere and dedicated people!… I loved meeting them and discussing films, listening to their vision and understanding of the situation in the Japanese movie world. 

Their knowledge of everything concerning cinema was quite impressive: many of them had even seen and/or shown my films over the years. :-) )) I felt flattered and excited. And I must admit that it gives a meaning to all those years when you wonder if you made the right cinematographic choices…  

There was definitely something magical about all those Art Houses and the way the people all lived for cinema…

But is it enough? Is love and passion for cinema enough to make this movie distribution circuit survive in those economically depressive days?… 

Of course, I am an “outsider” and my comments might not be of any interest for the people concerned. I will still go ahead and give it a try, humbly expressing myself, just in case that it could bring a different light on the situation… After all, only few people ever had the chance to visit so many theaters and have a global vision of the state of things. And besides being an independent filmmaker, I did own a successful distribution company for twenty years in another life, so I do know a little about distributing quality films…

Unfortunately, my impression is that we are talking about a seriously “endangered species”. Unless something very drastic is done urgently, I really don’t see how most of the Art House Cinemas can survive for the next two or three years. Already some of them have closed their doors during the few months since our visit or are about to do so, unable to pay their bills… Is there a solution? Do they still fulfill a need? Can there be anything done?

I will be back with some suggestions in my next posts, hoping to bring a small contribution if I can…

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Film Distribution in Art House Theater, Japan, 1/4

Any independent filmmaker around the world is, or should be, concerned with the future of the Art House circuit as we have known it until now. Is there any future? Can we still count on this system to release our films?

This past April, and for exactly 111 days on the roads, I visited the Art Houses of Japan with Yuri, my wife and co-producer of the film for which I was executive producer, “Looking For Anne”, and with our Okinawa director, Takako Miyahira. We were on the road to make a promotional campaign for the film, and took the time to visit practically all the Art Houses left today in the 47 Prefectures of the country. We also visited several regular Multiplex Theaters where we also played our movie, and some “Community Halls” which often play movies in Japan… If you are really curious and awfully courageous, you can go to our Japanese blog : http://blog.goo.ne.jp/anne_partners/c/ac04a012b8e5b53e58b02f4ef9c2fbeb  But I tell you right away, you will find it quite confusing if you don’t read Japanese. If you used the calendar, start on April 21. Either way, you will see some pictures of Japan…

Yuri, Takako and me, in front of a radio station in Sendai…

I will write my comments and put some pictures in the next three of four posts on the subject.

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