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TIFFCOM: Japan Interest in Co-productions With Europe, and China is Growing

Long low on the priority list for Japan’s notoriously insular film industry, co-productions between the second-largest film market in Asia and its overseas partners are now in the spotlight. That was the view of a industry executives, speaking at a seminar at  TIFFCOM, on the margins of the Tokyo International Film Festival.

A bilateral film co-production agreement between Japan and China was signed in May. That marked a thawing of political relations and may open the door to a new film-making era. Not surprisingly, co-productions between Japan, Europe and Asia was the subject of a seminar held at TIFFCOM on Wednesday.

Sedic International producer Toshiaki Nakazawa, whose credits include the Oscar-winning drama “Departures” and the Takashi Miike samurai swashbuckler “13 Assassins,” which he made with veteran British counterpart Jeremy Thomas, noted that Japan needs to “expand the pie” of its film market. Given that Japan’s population of 130 million is in decline and the world’s population now stands at nearly 7 billion people, he said, “We should be going after the larger global market. And that means going for more co-productions. We need to be more aggressive.”

The old model of exporting Japanese art films, while keeping the more commercial product for domestic audiences “is not good enough anymore,” he said. “We need to make a new type of culture, new types of films.”

Alexandra Lebret of European Producers Club, an association of 103 film and TV producers active in Europe, listed Japanese-European co-ventures in recent years. These rose to 14 in 2016, but fell to just five in 2017, the latter total involving four European countries. One reason why these numbers aren’t higher, she said, is that “Japan has no co-production agreements with European countries,” which given such agreements smooth the way through dense European regulatory and bureaucratic thicket, makes the country’s industry less attractive as a production partner.

On Wednesday in Tokyo, Roberto Stabile, head of Italy’s film promotion organization ANICA, revealed that a bilateral treaty between Japan and Italy is being discussed.

Japanese visual content is popular in Europe, Lebret said. She cited the example of “Your Name,” the Makoto Shinkai animation that recorded a strong 220,000 admissions in Europe, as well as films by Japanese auteurs such as Hirokazu Koreeda, Naomi Kawase and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who are all regulars, by no coincidence, at Cannes).

Jeffrey Chan, EVP of Bona Film Group, a leading producer and distributor in China, noted that the gap between theatrical markets in North America and China is shrinking, with first quarter 2018 grosses in China, at $3.7 billion, beating the North American figure. “But overseas, including Japan, the market for Chinese films is still very tough,” he said.

Whether or not the recently signed co-production agreement will change that situation remains to be seen, but given that international co-productions are recognized as domestic films by the Chinese government, he said, “They give distributors more flexibility.”

One recent fruit of this closer relationship between Japan and China is “The Monkey Prince,” an English-language animated feature that, as announced at TIFFCOM on Wednesday, Bona is partnering to produce it with Japanese major Toei Animation, and other companies, on a budget of $30 million.

Censorship in China remains a concern for the Japanese industry, as evidenced by questions on the subject addressed to Chan, but he replied that, for his company at least, “It’s really not so difficult.” The biggest hurdle for foreign co-productions, he explained, is at the script stage, when the scrutiny of censors is at its sharpest. “The (censorship) process is getting longer,” he added. “It now takes about two or three months on average. In the old days it was about two weeks.” “Monkey Prince” has already received censorship approval.

Noting that Japanese content, from manga and anime to novels, is popular in China, Chan remains optimistic: “There is a lot of potential in future co-productions between China and Japan.”

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