Indie film biz strong on femme pic buyers

One-woman-shows call the shots, liaise with exhibs

TOKYO — In a country not known for its female business execs, there aren’t many stronger exceptions than in the world of independent film buying by local distributors. It’s mostly young Japanese women who roam festivals and markets worldwide to acquire independent films for an audience that’s predominantly female, especially in the arthouse field.

And in Asia, there is only one sizable arthouse market: Japan. With the Cannes Film Festival and market approaching, Japan’s buyers are readying themselves for another round of hectic days without much sleep.

“Passion for interesting and original movies is the only possible motivation for this line of work,” explains Kana Koido of Klockworx, one of Japan’s most original small distributors, which shot to fame with its release of “The Blair Witch Project” some four years ago.

Agrees Yuki Sakurai from SPO Entertainment (formerly K2 Entertainment): “In many ways, each of us is a one-woman-show. We have to make the decisions, we hammer out the contracts, we have to liaise with the exhibitors.”

It’s a job not made any easier by Japanese idiosyncrasies. Arthouse exhibitors also attend key festivals and markets. To be able to get a small film into the right cinema, the buyers have to come to an initial agreement with an exhib on the spot, usually on a handshake basis, to be firmed up by a contract back in Japan.

“The risk factor is very high,” says Kim Hea Ok of Twin, an Osaka-based distrib specializing in Asian movies.

“Usually we have to be sure that a film (we buy) can make its money back on video and DVD alone. Theatrical is icing on the cake,” she says.

With P&A costs astronomical even for small films in narrow releases, overspending can easily kill an independent distributor. Fortunately for Kim’s company, she acquired last year’s Korean box office hit “The Way Home” before anybody else could snap it up. Its present Japan release promises healthy returns for Twin.

The increasing competition from bigger players with more money to spend doesn’t make the biz any easier. Larger distribs, such as Gaga, Amuse (recently bought by Toshiba) and Asmik Ace (member of the powerful Kadokawa Holdings), have discovered the attraction of smaller films, which they can release in more cinemas thanks to their stronger leverage with exhibitors.

“We have to cooperate with them,” admits Cinequanon’s Naoko Kunioka. Together with Cinequanon’s CEO Lee Bong-Ou, she acquired films such as Korea’s “JSA” that were jointly distributed with Amuse Pictures, among others.

Despite English-language capabilities many CEOs of top Japanese corporations can only dream of, the femme execs endure modest salaries as well as innumerable hours of unpaid overtime. For now, their love for independent cinema will have to be enough.

“What we do doesn’t guarantee any longtime career,” says Koido, who believes the more secure positions are reserved for men. “Either we start a family and have kids, or we have to start our own company in the future.”

At least local television, always keen on topics centered around Japan’s assertive young women, pays tribute to the buyers. Fuji TV’s newest drama series, “Tokyo Loves Cinema,” tells the story of young women in the film acquisition business fighting off bigger competitors at festivals and at home, and learning that love and business don’t always mix. “I wish it were as easy as portrayed in television,” Sakurai sighs.