Closing down the market

Sayonara market, sayonara.

In 1992, the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival made a big move to put itself on the world festival map by doing two new things: turning the fest into an annual event and introducing a world-class market. Well, the festival’s still going strong, but the market has gone the way of the dinosaur.

When the market was formed, an assistant to the market director explained the goal of the new mart in conjunction with the festival: “We want to be as big as Cannes” (Daily Variety, Sept. 21,1992). But apparently, due largely to troubled economic times that coincided with the mart’s infancy, it turned out to be no-Cannes-do.

In that first year, organizers of the market tried to jumpstart the proceedings by financing at least some market participants. Financial incentives for those lucky few included compensation for transportation, hotel accommodations and office space. Due to the city’s expensiveness, one company president reported that such packages saved him over $10,000. Once these packages were revealed, some smaller companies resented not receiving subsidies.

The compensations definitely did help lure in some bigger companies. Capella Intl. president and CEO Ortwin Freyermuth told Variety in 1992 that “Tokyo isn’t the most inexpensive place, so we’d have to look at what the net cost would be without incentive. We’ve always conducted business (in Japan) and will continue to be there. Whether we need a four-walled office with posters is something we would have to consider. It may turn out to be something that doesn’t justify the expense.”

In the end, it turned out the festival couldn’t justify the expense of helping out market participants to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, or of running the market in general. And of course, without subsidies, too many companies did, in fact, decide the market was not worth the great expenses incurred in doing business in Tokyo.

This was especially true because the more established Mifed follows closely on the heels of the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival, which is held yearly in late September-early October. It’s just about universally agreed that Japan is an incredibly important territory, being one of the top overseas markets for both Hollywood and European films every year. But the Japanese companies themselves attend Mifed, Cannes, AFM and virtually all of the major markets worldwide.

In addition, the largest Japanese distribs and some smaller ones have offices or representatives in foreign countries. So in the end, there was no great need to meet with the Japanese in Japan itself.

For example, Pascal Borno, then senior VP of international distribution for Dino De Laurentiis Communications, told Variety in 1992 that attending the event was “a token of good will, and to show we’re committed to the industry over there. More than anything, we’re going to discuss marketing for ‘3 Ninjas Knuckle Up,’ a film whose sale had been concluded even before the festival began.”

Even by the second year, it was clear that if the market were to survive, it would be only through the strong will and financial support of the Japanese organizers. The timing could not have been worse for them – trying to set up an expensive new market right after the economic bubble burst, coinciding exactly with the worst Japanese recession in postwar times.

Gone was the bravado of the first year, as well as half of the first year’s $900,000 budget. According to then-market director Hiro Ijima, the fact that key sponsors – Asahi Beer, Sony and Matsushita – pulled out from the market was a big blow. This was reflected in the lack of perks, which in turn impacted final numbers. While the first six-day market pulled 483 non-Japanese participants from 23 countries, with 60 sellers actually setting up booths, 1993’s reduced five-day market pulled about 348 non-Japanese participants from 12 countries, with 40 sellers in booths. In 1994, the number of participants further dropped to 292.

And so, instead of being another Cannes, organizers decided to concentrate more on making the event as the “Cannes of Asia” – with the focus on Asian product and Asian buyers. The hope was that there were enough Asian buyers and sellers, particularly from developing countries, who could not afford to go to the more distant international markets.

Last year, the market again chopped a day in a bid to save money, and there were dire predictions – now proven true – of the four-day market being the last. The budget was again reduced from 1993’s approximately $450,000 to about $250,000 in 1994. This was exacerbated by the fact that, by that point, the yen just kept getting stronger and stronger. So it cost even more when measured in their own currencies for foreign companies to participate. Therefore, the market had to lower the cost of offices, screening facilities, even per-person registration fees, in order to keep participation levels up to the previous year’s. However, bringing back even small subsidies quickly ate up much of the small budgets.

At the onset of last year’s market, Ijima told Variety (Sept. 19-25,1994), “I have to wait until this year’s market is over to see if we should reconsider whether we continue the market or not. If we can make it as a showcase for Asian product, then we can survive.”

Ultimately, the festival itself proved to be more of a showcase for Asian film, and film in general, than did the market. Many buyers and sellers confirmed early predictions that the market was not really a necessity in terms of business. Most of the deals with Japanese and other Asian film production houses and distribs were actually completed, or at least mostly negotiated, in other markets, or simply during the course of the year.

Another major complication that probably hurt the market was the fact that last year’s festival moved to Kyoto to celebrate that city’s 1,200th anniversary and, unofficially, also due to the difficulty of finding yet more major Tokyo sponsors during the recession.

The market, on the other hand, stayed in Tokyo. This meant that some industry representatives who wanted to put in appearances at both, or companies who had films represented in competition, had to undertake costly, time-consuming commutes back and forth. Since the more glamorous festival’s absence from Tokyo meant less exposure and attendance for the market, many simply chose to forgo the market for the fest.

The companies that did attend the market often did so more for good will with the Japanese film industry than out of business necessity, but good will just wasn’t enough for organizers to keep it alive. The head of the festival, Japanese media mogul Yasuyoshi Tokuma, was losing passion for his pet project as the recession took its toll on both the market and his own businesses. In the end, the initial enthusiasm of the organizers and the hard work of market head Ijima were no match for the powerful recession that buffeted Japan.

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