(Almost) Everything must go

Tiffcom turns longtime film buyer into one-stop supermart

TOKYO — Japan is the second-biggest film market on the planet, with 2005 box office totaling $1.68 billion on 160.5 million admissions and 731 pics released, so naturally everyone in the global biz wants to sell to the Japanese.

But now, with production booming and local pics grabbing a bigger B.O. share, the Japanese want to sell to the rest of the world as well — beginning with their Asian backyard.

Three years ago, the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival launched Tiffcom, a market primarily intended to promote Japanese contents. For its current edition, to be held Oct. 23-25, Tiffcom is repositioning itself as a truly international market, with the booths of Japanese and foreign companies mixed throughout its site on the 49th floor of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower.

“Last year the Japanese companies were in one section, which was busy, and the foreign companies were in another, which was quiet. This year we want everyone to be busy,” says Tiffcom director Keiji Hamano.

Tiffcom also aims to be a market for not only pics and TV shows — its two main product lines — but “all contents, including animation, manga and games,” Hamano adds. Not this year perhaps — there are only a handful of publishers and game companies present — but certainly next.

Another goal, more promptly realized, is to attract more foreign buyers, from the West as well as Asia. This year, the Tiffcom team has been working the suites in Hollywood, urging distribs to send reps to Tokyo.

“We got a good response,” Hamano says. “This year we’ll have about 60 buyers from North America — last year we had about 10.”

For all its ambitions to be the ultimate Asian contents mart, Tiffcom knows its principal raison d’etre is still introducing Japanese product to Asian buyers. It is also confident it can deliver more of that product than any of its rivals.

“We’re in Japan, with the best selection of what’s available from Japan,” Hamano says. “Why go anywhere else?”

More Asian buyers — and the Japanese companies that cater to them — are getting the message. Hamano tells the story of one Japanese sales outfit that spent a small fortune for its first booth at Cannes — “but the only ones who came were the same Asian buyers they were seeing here (at Tiffcom).” Needless to say, the company has already reserved its booth for Tiffcom 2006.

What of the future? Japanese pics are hot in Asia and elsewhere now, but the real growth area for Tiffcom, Hamano believes, is less sales of finished pics than rights deals for manga and novels as well as the more familiar remakes of Japanese pics.

“Japan still has a lot of great stories that haven’t found their way to the international market,” Hamano asserts.

One recent example of such a deal is “A Battle of Wits” (original Japanese title: “Bokkou”), a Chinese period pic based on a comic by Hideki Mori that was in turn based on a novel by Kenichi Sakemi. The above-the-line talent is pan-Asian to a fault: helmer Jacob Cheung (Hong Kong), producer Satoru Iseki (Japan) and stars Andy Lau (Hong Kong) and Ahn Sung-ki (Korea). Release in Japan is skedded for early 2007.

“This is the sort of Asian co-production we’re going to see more of,” Hamano comments.

In addition to its main market, Tiffcom is holding a variety of sidebar markets and events. One is the Location Market (Oct. 25), which will provide info on filming in Japan from Japanese film commissions and other sources. Another is the Tokyo Project Gathering, which will present a total of 28 projects: 17 from Japan and 11 from abroad (23 live-action pics, five toons).

Some of talent attached are relatively anonymous while others are well known, including Japanese helmer Takashi Miike (whose TPG project is the shocker “Bishonen”), French helmer Marc Caro (“The Astroboy Age”) and Hong Kong helmer Wang Ching Po and star Lau (“Five Lives by Velvet Rain”).

“We’re offering a mix of projects in various stages of development and of various sizes, but one important factor they have in common is marketability,” says TPG director Hiroaki Uchiyama.

Presenters will pitch their projects on Oct. 22, then meet with potential investors and producers for one-on-ones. TPG offers no seed money of its own, but it supports makers of arthouse pics who have a tough time raising coin in Japan’s increasingly B.O.-oriented biz.

“We’re hoping that European (producers) especially will see the merit in these projects,” Uchiyama comments. “They have a good eye for art films, though we have more commercial projects for them as well.”

Ultimately, Uchiyama hopes TPG will generate a virtual production circle. “We’d like to see films made from TPG projects do well both in Japan and abroad, so that filmmakers can say they were glad they came here — and bring us more good projects.”

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