As arthouse cinemas struggle across the globe, Screen examines the particular decline of the independent cinema business in the major market of Japan.

Japan’s once-booming arthouse and independent cinema business is in serious decline due to rapidly changing moviegoing habits. It’s a danger that exists despite the territory’s highest-ever box office revenues.

The past three years in particular have seen a string of art house closures in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, with the latest shock being the shuttering of Cine Saison announced on Jan 6. Opening in 1985 with the release of Fellini’s And The Ship Sails On, the 219-seat cinema was a pioneer in showcasing adventurous films from around the world.

Leading up to its closure on Feb 27, Cine Saison will stage farewell screenings, but tellingly ends its 26-year run with Hollywood hit Due Date. Operator Tokyo Theatres has pledged to integrate Cine Saison’s alternative programming into its more mainstream-leaning Human Trust Shibuya location. 

Similarly, popular 1990s arthouse landmark Ebisu Garden Cinema is running tribute screenings ahead of its recently announced Jan 28 closure, reacquainting audiences with the likes of Motorcycle Diaries, Ghost World, Tokyo Sonata and several Woody Allen titles including Whatever Works – the cinema’s final offering.

Ebisu Garden Cinema’s lease with operator Kadokawa Cineplex is up and while another exhibitor may take the reins, showing hand-picked films to a loyal but dwindling audience is a financially challenging proposition nowadays.

“Choosing which film to see at a multiplex is the common thing to do now. One cinema offering one film isn’t a popular format anymore,” said Kadokawa Cineplex CEO Tetsushi Kubota.

Other venues that have vanished from the art house landscape since 2008 include Cine La Sept, Cinema Shimokitazawa, Theatre Tsutaya (Sept 2010) and Cinema Angelica (Nov 2010). Still others have transformed, with Cinema Rise downsizing from three screens to one in last July and Toho’s CineTower soon converting to a 3D-equipped multiplex. Specialty houses in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Fukuoka have also gradually diminished.

Commonly referred to as “mini theatres,” in Japan, arthouse cinemas came into their own in the 1980s with the popularity of French New Wave retrospectives and modern classics such as Cinema Paradiso and Wings Of Desire. With Shibuya as its centre, the scene culminated in a synergy of movie imagery, fashion and music in the peak 1990s.

The opening of spacious, modern multiplexes in neighbouring Shinjuku district since 2007 has contributed to audiences now lured away from the boutique experience.

The situation mirrors the struggles plaguing small distributors that acquire non-English language imports and art films, with at least seven companies going bankrupt since late 2008. January 2010 brought the financial demise of distributor-producer Cine Qua Non, which also ran cinemas that have now closed or been taken over by Tokyo Theatres.

Kinema Junpo film institute executive director Yoshio Kake elaborated on the worrying trend in exhibition: “Audiences have changed. Young people have become apathetic toward art films and independent cinemas in general. Knowing about obscure directors or making the effort to see films from lesser known countries was a badge of honour. That ‘snobbism’ has disappeared.”

The under-30 demographic are increasingly buying the world’s most priciest movie tickets (often at a 3D premium) to easy-to-grasp highly familiar fare. European or other specialty offerings can’t compete with the massive promotion of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, local sequels to Bayside Shakedown and Umizaru or Studio Ghibli’s The Borrowers.

However, even powerful distributor-exhibitor Toho is concerned that as younger people become less cinema-literate, they’ll skip going to the movies altogether in favour of other forms of entertainment

In a bid to reverse that, 50 classic Hollywood and foreign films were screened at 25 locations across the country last year as part of a special program designed by Toho executive Takashi Nakagawa in cooperation with Association of Film Culture. There are plans to expand the lineup this year and include more art films.

Nakagawa spoke of the impetus behind the program: “People who go the movies just to follow popular trends will eventually stop going, but true fans of cinema never will. That’s the type of audience member we want to foster.”

The indie exhibition struggle is also affecting the production side of independent films, particularly those working in a rapidly disappearing middle-ground between no-budget and mega-budgeted releases.

Producer Yukie Kito has helped make both foreign and domestic films by auteurs including Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s award-winning Tokyo Sonata,Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control.

“It is a tough market out there for independent films. I assume it’s a worldwide situation but it feels worse here in Japan. I don’t have a solution but personally I’d like to look for opportunities beyond Japan in Asia to make the most of the Japanese talent that’s acclaimed internationally.”

Meanwhile, longtime indie survivors such as Uplink and Image Forum, also both located in Shibuya, bolster revenues with filmmaking workshops as well as DVD and publishing interests.

Koyo Yamashita, chief film programmer at Image Forum, outlined the harsh reality of the art film business. “There’s a core audience of 10,000 people in Tokyo, and maybe double that for all of Japan. Perhaps less. A small film is able to earn a maximum of about 15 million yen but distributors are typically spending 10 million yen on P&A. The margins are tiny and there’s a risk of not being able to recoup. Screening digitally may help cut costs.”