TIFF turns to pics with stronger, broader appeal

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Now in its 23rd edition, the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival is one of Asia’s leading fests. For the past decade, however, it has been in the shadow of the younger Pusan fest, which unspools just before Tokyo and has acquired a rep as edgier, cooler and just all-around more important.

Under the leadership of Tom Yoda, a successful entrepreneur in the music and pic industries now in his third year as fest chairman, TIFF has tried to improve the quality of its selections, beginning with its 15-pic competition, and strengthen its Tiffcom market, now in its seventh year.

TIFF also has a new green theme (slogan: Action for Earth), exemplified by its Natural TIFF docu section and the Green Carpet, made of recycled materials, which it rolls out for its opening ceremony.

In prepping this year’s edition, which unspools Oct. 23-31, Yoda and his team have signed up producer Jeremy Thomas and ace international buyer Ken Umehara as program advisers while giving its lineup a more populist slant.

“We’re going for not only high-quality art films but also commercial releases with glamour,” says Yoda. “We are opening the door wider to the general audience.”

Two examples of this policy are fest opener “The Social Network” and closer “The Town,” the former set for Japan release on Jan. 15, the latter sometime in 2011.

“The box office returns of our opening and closing films last year — “Oceans,” “Avatar” and “Up” — were really strong,” Yoda says. “We’re hoping for similar results this year as well.”

While reaching out to ordinary fans with Hollywood and local commercial pics in its Special Screening section, including a special advance screening this year of footage from “Tron: Legacy 3D,” TIFF has programmed more controversial fare, notably “The Cove,” the 2009 Oscar-winning docu that featured graphic footage of the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. A late addition to last year’s program, “The Cove” drew the wrath not only of Taiji fishermen and their reps but also of eco-activists, who criticized the fest for its seemingly reluctant embrace of the pic.

“We believe in freedom of expression — that’s very important,” Yoda says in defending the selection.

“We are a nonprofit festival, so we have to be fair to everybody. We have to give opportunities to various kinds of films. … I’m proud of the decision we made (to screen ‘The Cove’). Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of film this year yet.”

The Tiffcom market, Oct. 25-28, represents another kind of fairness — free competition among the 219 exhibitors from 21 countries and territories who have signed up for booths in the Roppongi Hills business/shopping/entertainment complex. The number of exhibitors is up 3% from last year, including 40 first-timers.

“Tiffcom and TIFF are like the wheels of an automobile,” comments Yoda. “They both have to do well to keep the car rolling. Tiffcom is becoming one of the leading markets of the world. Also, the quality of films in TIFF is improving, so the car is moving well.”

But it is fast enough to catch up with Pusan — and stay ahead of its other regional rivals? Yoda says TIFF is not competing with other Asian fests: “We have a cooperative relationship with festivals in Hong Kong, Korea and China.”

This, he adds, is not only a TIFF policy, but represents a general trend toward more co-production and co-development in the Asian biz.

“If (the film industries) in all Asian countries improve, we will have more business chances,” he explains. “The ‘winner takes all’ concept is no longer valid. Growth of film industries in the entire region and growth of (the Japanese film) business go together.”

An example he cites is “Camellia,” a 2010 omnibus feature with Thai, Japanese and Korean helmers produced by Pusan fest director Kim Dong-ho as a fest-sponsored project.

“This is one way we can collaborate,” Yoda said.

One reason for the Pusan fest’s success is that Kim has been guiding it since its 1996 inception. By contrast, Tokyo has had a succession of directors in the same period — though the turnover hasn’t been as rapid as that of Japanese prime ministers. Yoda has not said when he plans to step down, but he does intend to set TIFF on a steady, long-term course. “Continuity is important,” he says. “In Japan we say, ‘Continuity is power.’ Or as you say in English, ‘Persistence pays off.’ “

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