Japan's Art House Theaters Launch "Temporary Cinema" Streamer Amid Pandemic

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Kazuhiro Soda

Users will be asked to pay the usual $17 ticket price for each indie film they watch. Filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, who organized the effort, is emphasizing that there is "no replacement for the theatrical experience."

A collection of Japan's art house cinemas have banded together to launch a streaming service, dubbed the "Temporary Cinema," to keep the country's indie film community afloat during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The platform is launching with a lineup of 10 Japanese and international indie movies that previously were scheduled to open theatrically at independent cinemas in the country throughout the spring.

The price charged to stream each film will be roughly the same as what movie theaters would have charged for a single ticket (usually around 1,800 yen, or $17). The organizers of the initiative say that proceeds will be shared equally by two parties: participating cinemas and the films' distributors. That's the same 50-50 split that undergirds Japan's theatrical film business during normal circumstances.

The project was spearheaded by local independent film distributor Tofoo Films and documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, whose latest release Zero (Seishin 0) is among the titles that will premiere over the Temporary Cinema service next month. So far, the initiative has attracted the support of more than 40 cinemas and four indie distributors. It follows various other petitions and crowdfunding campaigns launched by Japanese filmmakers in recent weeks to help prevent the permanent closure of art house theaters. 

During the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic, Japan appeared to be a mysterious outlier, with relatively few confirmed infections and deaths caused by COVID-19. In recent weeks, however, the country's infection totals have steadily climbed. On Monday, Japan had more than 14,000 cases, overtaking regional neighbors like South Korea (10,700 cases) or Singapore (13,000), which acted much more aggressively to contain the virus.

Japanese law doesn't provide a mechanism for forcing business closures or preventing people from going out, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration ordered a national emergency mid-April, which included a strongly worded request for nonessential businesses to close their doors. Nearly all of the country's movie theaters have since gone dark; many were already offering reduced screenings.

On the website, announcing the Temporary Cinema platform, Soda offered a statement explaining his rationale for organizing the streaming alternative. In light of the ongoing public health risks, the director said he couldn't in good conscience push cinemas to remain open and undertake marketing efforts to lure in an audience to see his new film, Zero. Meanwhile, delaying the release until after the pandemic's resolution might protect his film, but there might not be any indie cinemas left in Japan to show it.

Japan's many small-scale independent cinemas — known locally as mini-shiatā (or mini-theaters) — "will go out of business if the coronavirus erosion continues," he said, noting that the Tokyo government hasn't implemented any policies that theater operators can tap to weather the downturn. "Therefore, we filmmakers and movie lovers have no choice but to wield our own wisdom to help each other, and to find ways to survive."

The director also emphasized the "temporary" nature of the endeavor and urged film lovers to return to art house theaters as soon as it's safe to do so.

"We make our movies so that they can be seen at the cinema," Soda said. "I would have liked you to see Zero in a packed movie theater."

Soda's Zero, which will launch on Temporary Cinema on May 2, is a characteristically intimate documentary about an uncommonly empathetic 82-year-old Japanese psychologist who is preparing to leave his patients and his practice. The film is a continuation of Soda's earlier film Seishin (2008), which followed the doctor's achievements in advocating for a more humane approach to psychiatry in Japan, where mental illness is often strongly stigmatized. Zero world premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it won the Ecumenical Prize.

Other films set to premiere via Temporary Cinema include Austrian documentary The Green Lie, a critique of "eco-friendly consumerism"; the Berlin Golden Bear winning psychosexual drama Touch Me Not; and Prison Circle, a documentary offering a rare glimpse inside Japan's penal system. For the full screening lineup, see the Temporary Cinema's website.