TIFF lift

Tokyo fest provides crucial support for troubled indies

The 22nd edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival unspools Oct. 17-25 with high expectations from the organizers, despite a challenging environment for business in general and arthouse cinema in particular.

In keeping with the continuing ecological theme of the fest, it will open with the long-delayed "Oceans" documentary from Jacques Perrin via Disneynature. "Up," the Pixar production, will bring proceedings to a close.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") leads the jury that will choose, among other awards, the Grand Prix that the Mexican helmer won with his debut, "Amores Perros," in 2000. He will be joined by another former TIFF winner, Jerzy Skolimowski, whose "4 Nights With Anna" won the Special Jury prize last year. Four of the director's early works from the 1960s will also be screened in a special selection.

The Japanese independent sector has faced tough times in recent years, with the economic slowdown pushing several companies over the edge. In response, the Japanese Eyes and World Cinema selections are focused on films that don't yet have distribution deals, including Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric."

"It's very difficult for the Japanese market because there's a big gap between the domestic movie industry and the international industry," said Yoshi Yatabe, director of programming for TIFF. "You have big-budget productions made by TV companies that earn a lot; almost all the big hits come from TV productions. And the quality films appreciated abroad at the festivals, it's hard for them to find a buyer in Japan. Even Palme d'Or winners are struggling to get distributors in Japan these days."

For the same reasons, the organizers of the TIFFCOM market (Oct. 20-22) think it now forms an indispensable link between the Japanese and international industries.

"Last year, with TIFFCOM coming just after the Lehman shock a lot of companies chose to come here, rather than go to AFM, which is more expensive," market director Mika Morishita said. "With exhibitor numbers down at a lot of markets this year, we're very pleased to be on course to match last year."

TIFFCOM has grown steadily in recent years, with exhibitors up from 131 in 2005 to 201 in 2008, while visitors are up 75% through the same period, to more than 4,000 last year.

China has a predictably strong contingent this year, while companies from the Philippines and Poland will exhibit for the first time.

"The Polish Film Institute is exhibiting this year after the success of Skolimowski's film in competition last year -- that's the kind of linkage between TIFF and TIFFCOM that we're happy to see," Morishita said.

The festival aims to step up the environmental activities it established last year when it launched its Green Carpet, made from recycled plastic bottles, for the opening ceremony at the Roppongi Hills complex. The Green Carpet Area will be the center of this year's ecology initiatives at TIFF, providing a chance to donate to related charities, as well as info about all the films screening at the fest.

"We've been aggressive about ecology and green issues, recycling, green carpets and 'Action! For Earth' since last year," TIFF head Tom Yoda said. "This year our slogan is 'Films: The power to change our world.' "

Asia and Europe are represented strongly in the 15 films selected for competition, with only two from North America and a large number of co-productions. The world premiere of "Snowfall in Taipei" illustrates the changing nature of the regional business: a Taiwan-China-Hong Kong-Japan collaboration that would have been almost unthinkable only a decade ago.

"Avatar" and "Up" will be flying the 3D flag at TIFF, allowing festivalgoers to sneak a look at some footage from James Cameron's sci-fi epic before it opens in Japan in mid-December, and before the curtain on the fest comes down with "Up."