Protect small theaters that nurture filmmakers’ talent

Japan has produced many internationally acclaimed filmmakers. It is hoped that diversity in films will be protected, and that a culture that nurtures young talent will be cherished.

Iwanami Hall, located in the Jimbocho district of Tokyo, will bring down the curtain on its 54-year history on July 29. The hall’s financial situation deteriorated due to a decline in visitors, and the novel coronavirus pandemic dealt an additional blow.

Iwanami Hall is known for its “Equipe de Cinema” initiative of discovering unknown masterpieces from around the world. The hall was a pioneer of the mini-theater boom, and its closure is regrettable.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi — the director of “Drive My Car,” which won this year’s Oscar for Best International Feature Film — and Hirokazu Koreeda — who attracted much attention for his made-in-South Korea film “Baby Broker” — both became better known after having the chance to show their work at such small theaters.

Places are needed to screen works that are artistic and socially conscious, or that represent an ambitious production by a young filmmaker, even if commercial success is unlikely. The upcoming closure of Iwanami Hall has fueled concerns over the dwindling number of such venues.

Currently, there are about 130 mini-theaters nationwide. Many of their operators are eager to present excellent works to the public, but their financial situations are increasingly grim.

In 2019, before the pandemic began, box office revenues for movies released in Japan hit an all-time high, driven largely by multi-screen cinema complexes.

Such cinema complexes now account for 60% of about 600 movie theaters in Japan, while making up nearly 90% of the total number of screens. Due to the pandemic, there has been a drastic change in the way people enjoy movies, particularly with online video streaming services rapidly growing as demand has increased from people staying home.

In 2020, Hamaguchi and other filmmakers launched a crowdfunding campaign to support mini-theaters struggling amid the pandemic. More than ¥300 million was raised during a short period of time, and the money was distributed to over 100 theaters.

There have also been calls to establish a specialized organization to permanently support film culture, as in other countries. In June this year, Koreeda and other filmmakers took the initiative in calling for the creation of a Japanese version of the National Center for Film and Moving Images (CNC) in France.

The CNC allocates part of ticket revenues and other earnings to support filmmakers and theater operators. This system of mutual assistance is intended to circulate movie profits within the film industry. South Korea also has promoted its movies in a similar way.

The Cultural Affairs Agency has launched projects to support Japanese culture, including movies, as part of measures implemented in response to the pandemic. To prevent Japan’s rich film culture from being lost, it is hoped that continued support measures, not temporary ones, will be considered.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 17, 2022)