Japan’s ‘Production Committee’ Filmmaking Has Critics Grousing About Groupthink

Do films made with shared responsibility and financing focus too much on the domestic market?

The Boy and the Beast
Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.

Social media was abuzz in April after producer and distributor Adam Torel of Third Window Films told the Sankei Shimbun newspaper that the quality of movies made in Japan had fallen low.

One of his points was that the so-called “production committee” system, whereby multiple partners invest in a film project, results in a highly conservative product since a director is under the watch of multiple corporate interests.

In spite of its critics — and Torel is not alone — this long-held system is not fading; rather, it might be gaining steam as players in the market continue to benefit from the process.

The pooling of so many companies together (possibly up to 12) provides the system’s greatest rewards: easier access to finance and the spreading of risk. But, as Torel implied, it may also end in a bland production.

There is, however, no disputing the results at the Japanese box office. For 2015, revenues from domestic films exceeded those from foreign movies for the eighth year in a row. Three committee films made the top 10 among Japan’s box office grossers in 2015: “The Boy and the Beast,” “Hero,” and “Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno.” All surpassed 1 billion yen ($9.34 million) domestically, a key number for success, though none did strong business abroad.

Yet Japan’s trade ministry has increasingly sought in recent years to derive more overseas revenue from the country’s entertainment content, especially films. However, the complicated production committee system can pose a stumbling block regarding decision-making, especially in tapping ancillary markets.
Yoshiki Takahashi, a writer for film magazine Eiga Hiho, says that it is not a matter of Japan’s system being broken; instead, it is about the domestic market being top priority.

“One can say that there is this idea that Japanese movies have a unique form of expression, but that doesn’t mean they satisfy what is expected globally,” he says. “To make a successful movie overseas, I think it would be necessary to target this expectation. However, this idea is not shared within the Japanese film industry.”

The committee behind a film can arise from the progression of a property from one medium to another. The publisher and commercial broadcaster behind a franchise’s previous run as a comic and television series typically get seats on the committee. For example, in March, distributor Gaga announced it was venturing into production with multiple partners for the making of “Itazura na Kiss — The Movie,” a live-action film based on a popular 1990s manga series.

“We thought it could be successful from a business standpoint,” says Koji Hyakutake, the chief operating officer of Gaga. “The story is popular not only in Japan, but also across Asia, including in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. It started as a manga, then it became a TV drama and an animation, but it has never been a movie.”

One company working to ease this process is All Nippon Entertainment Works, which has partnered with Imagine Entertainment for a live-action adaptation of the animation “Tiger & Bunny.” “Japanese companies have too often just been ‘rights holders,’ where projects are optioned with no further involvement from the Japanese creators,” says CEO Sandy Climan. “ANEW finances the development of projects where there is a true partnership between the Japanese rights holders and the U.S. producing partners.”