Japan’s festival circuit shrinks

Fest must find new coin to survive

TOKYO — While Japan was late jumping on the film festival bandwagon, it quickly established internationally renowned events including the Yubari Fantastic fest, the Yamagata Documentary fest and the Fukuoka Asian fest.

But now some are dying.

In 1993, Yubari charmed auds and helmers alike: guest Quentin Tarantino was so taken with the event that he named the Japanese schoolgirl assassin in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” Gogo Yubari.

But Yubari execs suspended the fest for a year after its 17th edition wrapped in February and it may not reappear.

Paired with the reorganization of Yamagata and the disappearance of the Tokyo Fantastic Film Festival (an event related to the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival) there is now doubt that smaller fests, particularly those outside major centers, will survive.

Both Yubari and Yamagata rely on public funding in areas with dwindling populations and economic troubles.

Yubari is a failing mining town, which is $53 million in debt.

“The festival itself didn’t have any money problems,” said Yubari program topper Toshitoki Shiota. “But since the city had such financial problems the festival suffered.”

The biannual Yamagata receives $854,000 from the city, and despite securing funding for the next two years, local economic woes have forced the fest to reorganize.

“We are now preparing to become an NPO, a citizens’ organization, to ensure Yamagata’s long-term funding,” said festival director Hiraku Miyazawa.

More troubling is the demise of the Tokyo Fantastic Film Festival, Fanta, which seemed in robust health five years ago.

“In 2000 we had $297,500 in sponsorship money and $255,000 in attendance revenue,” former festival director Yoichi Komatsuzawa said. “In fact, the main fest was rather perturbed because our attendance revenue was higher than theirs.”

But since that time Tokyo Fanta has found it harder to attract sponsors, and even fest producer Seiko Ito admits a restart is unlikely.

Still, most believe the current turmoil is a market re-adjustment.

“I think the movement of film festivals is cyclical,” said Morioka. “If a great fest like Yubari closes, another one, such as the Women’s Film Festival in Aichi, will start up and build momentum.”

The 11-year-old Women’s fest is in good financial health, perhaps buoyed by its specific focus and proximity to the major metropolitan center of Nagoya.

Komatsuzawa, who was fest director for Fanta and Yubari, believes a new business-minded approach to fests is needed in Japan, one that he is now implementing in the Okinawan Cinema and Music Festival.

“Three years ago Okinawa asked me to do a feasibility study to find out if a film festival could generate revenue, as opposed to being supported by the local government,” he said.

After his report illustrated that it could be done, the region launched a music and film fest, slated to unspool in June, and put Komatsuzawa at the head.

Komatsuzawa’s aim is a profitable fest bringing in organizers from all over Japan. He is aiming to enlist governmental cooperation, along with outreach to local communities, support of local and international artists, and, crucially, market savvy investors.

So while some regional fests in Japan have hit the skids, this new business-driven model may ensure that it is not the end for film get-togethers.

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