Accessing Japan

Japan abandoned its policy of insularity 150 years ago, but it still hasn't completely shaken off its closed-door image. In the realm of documentary film and TV, the majority of content for broadcast in Japan is, in fact, produced domestically -...
December 1, 2000

Japan abandoned its policy of insularity 150 years ago, but it still hasn’t completely shaken off its closed-door image. In the realm of documentary film and TV, the majority of content for broadcast in Japan is, in fact, produced domestically – even state broadcaster NHK, which has a mandate to expose audiences to a variety of topics, produces 80% to 90% of its programs in-house. However, this insularity has as much to do with how foreign producers approach broadcasters in Japan as the type of content Japanese programmers are seeking.

Alex Korenori, director of program licensing for Tokyo-based distributor TM International, explains that outside doc-makers who acknowledge differences in style and language when pitching in Japan, and demonstrate a willingness to adapt, stand a much better chance with broadcasters. ‘If a producer was to sell a story to Discovery [for example], he would pitch the project and design it to fit their schedule, their style. No one has really done that for the Japanese market.’

Korenori notes that Japanese audiences prefer on-screen presenters or celebrities. ‘Educational-style series – on history, geography, or other cultures, for example – do not tend to be in that one-hour, blue-chip, off-screen narrator style. [They are] more quiz-style programs, with celebrities in the studio – maybe even clips with a Japanese reporter on location.’

In terms of population and the size of the TV market, Korenori points out that Japan is more like the U.S. than any of the major European territories. And while it was once true that Japan had to rely on foreign-produced film and TV, the growth of the domestic production industry has changed that and contributed to the development of a unique Japanese style. This isn’t to say that outside producers need not apply. Says Korenori, ‘There are lots of people doing business in Japan but it has to be the right product, [one] which actually benefits the programmers.’

The sale of foreign non-fiction programming in Japan constitutes a significant portion of TM’s business – around 70%. ‘I’m primarily looking to fill slots on the digital/satellite platform,’ says Korenori. ‘Until this year, the main demand was from Sky PerfecTV! [Rupert Murdoch's Sky merged with local channel PerfecTV!]… Now we’ve got eight channels launching at the end of the year in high definition. Not all of them are looking for foreign programs, because apart from NHK these will be supported by advertising. Foreign programs don’t really rate, to be honest. But, there are some slots available for good international fare and that’s what I’m trying to fill.’

Despite the expanding digital frontier, NHK is still the best bet for outside producers keen to crack the Japanese market. Kagari Tajima, the pubcaster’s associate director of coproductions, explains that NHK does not pre-buy or commission from foreign filmmakers, though its interest in coproductions is significant. Since 1981, NHK has been involved in approximately 1,600 international coproductions (one-offs and series). And with the launch of NHK’s 24-hour HD channel, Hi-Vision, on December 1, proposals for HD programs are of particular interest.

To facilitate access, NHK has two affiliate offices – NHK Enterprise Europe in London, and NHK Enterprise America in New York. Tajima outlines the general criteria NHK follows when considering a coproduction arrangement: how well Japanese viewers will relate to the content; the likelihood that NHK could produce the program independently; whether the scale of the project necessitates copro funding (i.e. high budget HD programs); and the availability of re-versioning rights. ‘As it may be assumed from this criteria, most of our foreign partners are from Europe or the U.S., and not Asia, since we can cover Asia on our own,’ he adds. If the proposal originates with NHK, the pubcaster contributes 50%-plus of the budget; 10% to 30% if it comes from an outside source.

For acquisitions from foreign distribs and prodcos, NHK uses the Media International Corporation (MICO), which was established in 1990. Akiko Nakano, an acquisitions executive for MICO, emphasizes that the company is interested in acquiring completed projects only; all other areas are handled directly by NHK.

Nakano looks for programming to fill NHK’s ‘World Documentaries’ slot, one of several slots set aside for foreign acquisition programs this year. ‘The name of the slots and the number of times they air vary from year to year,’ Nakano explains. ‘This year NHK has three satellite slots for half-hour series: ‘Enjoy Life,’ ‘Living with the Planet,’ and ‘Sports and Leisure.’ In the one-hour slots this year are ‘Overseas Documentaries’ [terrestrial feed] and ‘World Documentaries’ [satellite feed].’

In 1999, docs accounted for about five percent of total spending by MICO for NHK, and about 15% of titles (140) acquired. ‘As little as five percent sounds, there’s even less, if any, on the commercial channels,’ Nakano says. ‘With new digital channels coming up in December, I think the commercial channels will start looking into acquiring documentaries, but they’re very tied up in getting ratings and sponsors for broadcasting, which is not as much of an issue with NHK, since it’s a public broadcaster.’

On average, NHK pays about US$7,000 per hour for satellite broadcast; double that for terrestrial. NHK’s ability to offer higher license fees is limited by the fact that it must also pick up the cost of re-versioning, which ultimately limits how much outside content flows in. Japanese filmmakers who try to move beyond the domestic market face a similar expense hurdle. ‘Translation and subtitling is quite a big cost here

in Japan,’ says Asako Fujioka, coordinator of the New Asian Currents section of the Yamagata International Documentary Festival in Yamagata City, Japan. (The Yamagata Festival hosts doc-makers every other year in Japan – the next one takes place October 3 to 9, 2001.) ‘For a feature-length film on 35mm, like Unchain [which had its world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival], it would be about ´500,000 (US$5,000).’ The documentary’s overall budget was in the US$135,000 ballpark.

The expense of providing an English-language version must be weighed against the possibility of international sales, which Fujioka concedes is slim for Japanese feature documentaries. Still, she remains hopeful: ‘Japanese feature film sales to the international market are growing gradually year by year, and I’m personally hoping that documentaries can also jump onto this greater awareness in Europe and America about something happening in Japan, a different kind of filmmaking, different style and different themes. The uniqueness of Asian filmmaking is starting to be recognized outside of Asia.’

At this stage, Fujioka considers attendance at international markets and festivals more important for raising awareness than for making sales. After attending the Toronto Festival to help promote Unchain (directed by Toyoda Toshiaki), however, she advises doc producers to choose events carefully. ‘For those filmmakers or sales agents in Japan who don’t have films every year, and don’t travel to festivals every year, it’s hard to know which ones are growing and which ones are going badly. Talk of the town doesn’t really reach Japan, because the community here is so small and closed.’

Acceptance to the Toronto International Film Festival was an honor, Fujioka says, but it didn’t turn out exactly the way she expected. ‘Although I was happy that people saw the film and I was able to get first-hand accounts of what people thought about it critically, I think the festival is much too large for marketing documentaries.’

Within Japan, the Yamagata Festival has been gaining steadily in appeal since it began in 1989. Says Fujioka, ‘The idea of documentary being educational and boring, something that you have to sit up straight in your chair to watch, is gradually changing in Japan. The festival has helped change the perception of the audience.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.