Suncent sales dictum: Go fest

'Desert Moon,' 'H-Story,' 'Unloved' screening at Cannes

TOKYO — With a business plan that focuses on delivering film fest-friendly arthouse pics on tight budgets financed by a coterie of well-heeled backers, Takenori Sento’s Suncent Cinemaworks has become Japan’s most talked-about production company.

In business since late 1998, Sento rules Suncent like a benevolent monarchy, producing an average of 10 films a year, with some 40 in differing stages of development and preproduction. Japan Satellite Broadcasting (Wowow), advertising giant Dentsu and Imagica are among those that back the company.

Sento presents his mission as one “to prove that it is possible to make good independent films in Japan.”

Cannes Intl. Film Festival artistic director Thierry Femauux is one who appears to have been won over.

Suncent will be taking three films to Cannes: “Desert Moon” by Shinji Aoyama of “Eureka”-fame is competing; Nobuhiro Suwa’s “H-Story” is set to unspool within the Un Certain Regard-section; and “Unloved” by Kunitoshi Manda made it into Cannes’ Critics’ Week.

Although Sento does not like to divulge financials, his plan works on the basis of low production budgets (outside guesstimates range from $200,000 to $400,000 per film) with maximum exposure at international film fests.

Wowow guarantees satellite TV distribution of all films in Japan, even if they flop at the box office — which they mostly do.

Very few Suncent films get released in Asia outside Japan, and so far the U.S. is uncharted territory for Suncent, although the almost four-hour long “Eureka” will be released by Shooting Gallery in the U.S. in early May.

“For now the main market for our films remains Europe,” admits Sento.

Suncent signed an international distrib agreement with Canal Plus subsid Wild Bunch last year for six films by up-and-coming Japanese directors — Cannes-entry “H-Story” is part of that — and Sento is in discussions with other French companies on co-production plans.

“He’s definitely the only kind of producer working like this in Asia,” says veteran Hong Kong director and distributor Shu Kei of the 39-year-old Sento. “All admire his courage and belief in film, but the reaction to his (mostly dark and introspective) films vary.”

Other Asian producers have not yet joined Suncent for co-productions.

“We are now preparing some comedies,” Sento says, citing “Mask De 41,” a social comedy directed by Muramoto Taishi, which is in production. “We need all sorts of films, and Suncent is going to deliver.”

How long it will have the opportunity to do that is under speculation.

“For now, Sento has convinced his backers that he can make low-cost films and market them internationally via festivals. But if box office results remain as low as they are, he will loose his support,” says one Japanese filmmaker.

But Sento insists his company is in no danger. “We are a mini-studio, and we will change the way Japanese films are received worldwide,” he says. “It will take a couple of years to happen, but it will happen.”