Tokyo Film Festival Head Makes Plea to Hollywood, Talks Gender Parity, Netflix

Courtesy of TIFF
Tokyo International Film Festival executive director Takeo Hisamatsu

Takeo Hisamatsu discusses priorities, innovations and the challenges of attracting big-ticket premieres.

Takeo Hisamatsu, a four-decade veteran of the Japanese film industry, is a relative newcomer at the helm of the Tokyo International Film Festival, entering his second year as the event's director.

After putting his imprint on Japan's premier cinema event during its 30th anniversary edition last year, the former Shochiku and Warner Bros. executive describes 2018 as a year of strengthening the event's core programs rather than remaking the wheel.

This year's fest, running Thursday through Nov. 2, features 10 world premieres in its two main competition sections, among hundreds of other films screened at three major venues across the Japanese capital.

Ahead of Tokyo's red-carpet opening ceremony — which welcomed British actor Ralph Fiennes, Japanese screen legend Koji Yakusho and Bad Robot producer Bryan Burk (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Westworld) — The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the busy festival chief to discuss some of the issues dominating these uncertain times for the film industry, including Netflix, the studios' superhero fixation, the rise of the Chinese market and the glorious past and current course of Japanese cinema. The Q&A with Hisamatsu is below.

All film festivals have to balance various priorities — serving as a platform for the local filmgoing community and industry, versus creating an event that attracts the attention and participation of the world. Where do you think the Tokyo Film Festival is currently strongest and weakest, and what are you focusing on as festival director?

More and more, film festivals are becoming "glocal." International film festivals are a global thing by their nature, but having had the opportunity to attend festivals around the world, I feel that more and more the local elements are what distinguishes them. It's my job to create an event that can attract the attention of the world, but at the same time, many people come to Tokyo to experience the things that are special about Japan. So we are trying to take a balance. This year we have a traditional Japanese Taiko drumming group as our opening act. Our festival also emphasizes animation, because this is one of Japan's great strengths in the cultural arena. The Asian market — Japan's neighborhood — is also very prominent these days, so we are focusing more and more on Asian cinema. The region is growing rapidly and there are many great filmmakers coming from Asia today.

In years past, the fest was often able to score a world premiere of a big Hollywood movie as its opening film. But big-ticket premieres of this kind have eluded it in recent years. Why do you think that is?

Hollywood pictures can add market value and glam up any film festival, so we need Hollywood stars and Hollywood pictures wherever we can get them — that's without a doubt. But these days, because of changes to marketing strategies, it's getting hard to get them here. They used to want to do it, but these days the studios really don't want to screen a big picture here before they release it in the U.S.

But still, if you combine China, Japan and Korea into one market, it's really huge (the three territories are the second-, third- and sixth-biggest box offices in the world, respectively). So I'm not saying the studios should pay to send their stars only to Japan. I think they should consider using Tokyo as a platform, and combine us with a marketing tour to Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. I hope they will consider that. Come to Asia, we're too big to ignore!

Also, even though Japan is now the number three market, it's still really big. These days, local Japanese production is doing better — Hollywood pictures usually take about 50 percent of the market now. But 20 years ago, when I was still working in the industry, Hollywood had 70 percent market share. So it's not like there isn't room for Hollywood to expand here.

But at the same time, given the fact that it's getting difficult for us to get these Hollywood films, we have to think about what to do. Obviously, we may have to focus more on big Chinese and Korean films instead, right? They have many stars who are becoming more and more attractive to Japan, too. 

Growing ties with China has been one of the biggest trends in the Japanese film industry in the past two years.

Our relationship is definitely getting closer these years, which is very good for Japanese filmmakers. They have a chance now of working in the Chinese market, which is [several] times bigger than the Japanese market, which is very attractive. [The Tokyo Film Festival] announced last year that Japan and China would be signing a co-production treaty, and this is only another good sign. In co-productions, both sides have special commercial benefits in each other's markets, and this is a great privilege. But co-productions also give our people the chance to collaborate — to work closely together with Chinese filmmakers — which is very good for all of us.

Many of the leading film fests of the West — Cannes, Toronto and Venice — have signed the 50-50x2020 gender parity pledge, which calls on festivals to improve transparency in their selection process and move towards gender equality on their executive boards. But the leading film fests of Asia — Busan, Hong Kong and Tokyo — have not. Why?

We champion the movement, but their request came in too late. They approached us in the middle of preparation for our film festival, around August. The way they did was not right, you know. I champion this cause, but to sign on to a treaty like this, I can't just sign it by myself. I need to have approval from committees, but we didn't have time to do that.

So will you sign it next year, or do something else to show support for the #MeToo movement?

Actually, if you walk around our office, you will find that we have more than 50 percent female workers here.

The pledge was focused on gender parity among executives, though.

Well, as of now, two out of six of the executives leading our top teams are women. The basic idea is just to be open and not to care about whether someone is male or female. My mind is always open and I'm doing that. I spent around nine years working for Warner Bros. Japan, and most of my bosses overseas were female. And they were very great, talented women. So I really do champion the movement — mentally, I am totally open — but I don't want to be imposed on by quotas and those kinds of things.

The inclusion of films produced by Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms has become a subject of controversy at Cannes and Venice over the past few years. What is your stance on the streamers as a film festival head?

Basically, our policy is to judge whether we should screen a film or not based on the picture itself only. We are going to screen Alfonso Cuaron's Roma [which was produced by Netflix], because the picture was wonderful — that's it. If it's from Netflix or Amazon, it doesn't matter to us.

Netflix and Amazon are giving creators more chances to tackle interesting creative challenges. Meanwhile, the studios are getting more conservative, mostly making movies like Transformers 7 and Spider-Man Version 10.

I see our job as supporting filmmakers, and companies like Netflix and Amazon are really benefiting the actual creative producers — there is no doubt about that. At the same time, we can't fully dismiss the arguments [that film lovers and exhibitors in Europe are making]. I see a movie like Roma, and I can only wish that more people get a chance to see it theatrically on the big screen. It's a wonderful picture and that's where it belongs. But Netflix has their strategy; and I understand that. I don't think anyone has the answer to these questions yet. 

The Japanese film industry has had something of an exciting year. Kore-eda Hirokazu's Shoplifters won the Cannes Palme d'Or, and the indie zombie film One Cut of the Dead became a runaway box-office smash, earning more than $25 million from a budget of just $25,000. What's your assessment of the current state of the Japanese film industry?

Well, One Cut of the Dead is a phenomenon, but I am not sure it represents a trend. It could just be a fluke, you know. It's too early to say Japanese independent filmmaking is thriving. But it opens up opportunities for indie filmmakers, and the success of the picture gives our young directors a dream. Personally, I found the picture hilarious and very well-made, so I'm very happy for the director and his creative partners — it's an encouraging thing.

As for Kore-eda san, the award for Shoplifters at Cannes is a great achievement, but again, I don't know that we can identify any trend yet. When I joined Shochiku 40 years ago, it was still the time of Ozu, Kurosawa, Naruse and Oshima. Japan produced so many great, innovative filmmakers. So even though we have Kore-eda winning the Palme d'Or, it is still probably too soon to draw conclusions about the health of Japanese filmmaking as a whole. When I go around the world, I am amazed by the filmmaking coming out of places like Mexico and Korea.

Yeah, Japanese history is notable for its sudden periods of rapid change and creativity — post-war Japan was undoubtedly one of those culturally rich moments, despite its horrible hardships. We live in uncertain times today, with the United States potentially redefining its role in East Asia, Japan's population facing steep decline and high national debt, an historic number of foreign tourists pouring into the previously still-insulated country and China steadily on the rise. Would you be willing to speculate about how — or whether — any of this might begin to reverberate more through Japanese popular culture?

Difficult, or fast-changing, eras do have advantages, in terms of the quality of creativity, don't they? After the war, we had so many great filmmakers. Our creators had been censored and oppressed and lived through great hardship. Once they got their liberation back, their creativity exploded, and they had great passion to do innovative things and express themselves boldly. Also, during the war, everyone in Japan had the experience of losing someone dear to them. After the war, there was strong emotion and great drama everywhere. There were obstacles to overcome everywhere. This all went into our storytelling. But gradually, we grew economically and society became stable and quiet. That's very good — it is a great blessing — but with that, maybe we have lost some energy, too.

Maybe something exciting and different will [stimulate] Japan with the digital era. I think this could be. Japanese people are very technologically advanced. So when something new does come, I think it will be interesting. I'm expecting something to come eventually — it always does.

What's new at the Tokyo International Film Festival this year?

This is my second year at the festival and I am mostly focusing on strengthening the programs that we already have. But we've added several new things. We've added gala screenings between the opening and closing films, to create some excitement in the middle period of the festival. To encourage young Japanese creators, we have added a new award for the best new Japanese director in the Japanese Cinema Splash section.

We also have a new venue in Hibiya, where we will hold some open-air screenings and events. Hibiya used to be the most popular place for moviegoers in Japan, because [Godzilla studio] Toho is headquartered there, so it has some historical significance.

We are also holding new special events for our die-hard movie fans before and after the festival. Before the festival, we held an event where our festival programmer could explain their selections. Beer was served and anyone who was passionate about films could come and discuss the lineup. Many of these people are like film industry influencers — people who love the festival and love film. We will also hold a similar event after the festival, where fans can discuss the films they saw and loved. They can also give us their feedback. We can have a beer together and they can come tell me directly what they thought of the festival this year.