In a brutal Japanese market for world cinema, the Tokyo International Film Festival is doing everything in its power to encourage buyers to take on foreign films.

Visiting The Tokyo International Film Festival this week has highlighted for me the crisis foreign cinema is undergoing in Japan. 

It’s hard enough to get formerly voracious Japanese buyers to stump up minimum guarantees for high profile English language films with big names, but the arthouse market is in ruins.

It’s heartening to see the Tokyo festival taking a direct role in addressing this situation, illustrating how festivals can work to build audiences not just for their own event but try to create optimum conditions for the commercial life of the titles it programmes. In its World Cinema section, for example, TIFF only programmes films which don’t have local distributors attached by Aug 31 each year.

Two years ago, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights With Anna was in competition at the festival, prompting Kinokuniya Company Ltd/Mermaid Films to pick up local rights. Last year, Skolimowksi sat on the TIFF jury and his trip to Japan was timed to coincide with the release of Four Nights With Anna at the Tokyo arthouse cinema Image Forum shortly thereafter, enabling him to conduct on the ground publicity for the release. This year, his new film Essential Killing is in competition.

Furthermore TIFF undergoes to provide Japanese subtitles for the World Cinema films, giving them another shot at exposure to buyers, especially those who struggle with the English subtitles which played with them at European and North American festivals earlier in the year. It’s a boon opportunity for sellers who often cannot afford this service themselves to reach buyers.

Time was, of course, that the major Japanese independents used to send armies of buyers to Cannes, AFM, Toronto and Berlin, but that is not the case in 2010. Many local buyers, now cautious about acquisition decisions, don’t travel anymore and studios and independents often have to undertake to subtitle their films and bring them to Tokyo to show the buyers their product.

TIFF also undertakes to furnish the cost of English subtitles for the Japanese films in the Japanese Eyes section, helping local films in their bids to find international audiences.

The turnaround in audience appetites in Japan is another sea change in the global sales market that has been rocked by a perfect storm of tumult in the last couple of years.

Personable and well-liked TIFF chairman Tom Yoda is convinced that Japanese teenagers – as might be expected from one of the most technologically savvy and trend-conscious youth market in the world – are distracted by other forms of entertainment from social networking to anime to gaming. For them, the desire is to go to the movies for to local and Hollywood event pictures only and their other leisure time is spent on competing forms of entertainment.

That said, the Toho cinemas at Roppongi Hills, where TIFF takes place, are packed with adult audiences seeing the local, Asian and international films in the selection. It was particularly interesting for me to watch Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock with its distinctly UK vernacular and period stylings with a Japanese audience who sat rapt at the drama. As everywhere, that adult audience for international cinema exists in metropolitan areas in Japan, but the cost and effort of reaching it has become prohibitive. This being Japan, no doubt new technology to deliver these films to those specialized audiences will be the next stage in arthouse distribution. The country’s arthouse sector needs  a boost.