The Japanese film industry grappled with how to sell films to the international market and collaborate with its neighbours in East Asia on the opening day of the TIFFCOM market in Tokyo (Oct 20-22).

Historically a self-contained territory, Japan has recently been looking at ways to increase exports and co-productions, in an attempt to offset its declining DVD market and other domestic convulsions. Although box office is booming, the Japanese independents are being squeezed harder than ever as most of the market is taken up by local studio films.

At a seminar organised by UniJapan and J-Pitch, five leading international sales agents advised local producers on how to expand the market for their films. Gabor Greiner, acquisitions executive for Germany’s The Match Factory, explained how tough the international market has become for foreign-language product, despite the fact that Japanese films such as Departures and Tokyo Sonata have been winning accolades and distribution overseas.

“Distributors these days are taking less and less risks and it is easier to pick up films than it is to sell them,” Greiner said. “In the coming year we will be looking for films that are a bit more commercial or not so local.”

However he said he was in Tokyo specifically to look for Japanese films: “We are looking for novelty, freshness, new ways of filmmaking and storytelling and other points of international appeal.”

Youngjoo Suh of Korean sales agent Fine Cut, which is handling Kanikosen from Japan’s Sabu, outlined the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese cinema that she considers when deciding whether to pick up a project or invest. “The strength of the Japanese industry is that it has so many original contents, like manga and novels. But the arthouse films tend to be a little bit repetitive. Of course it’s nice to have a message, but I like films to have a bit of an edge.”

TIFFCOM also hosted seminars about collaboration between Japan and three Chinese-speaking territories – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. All three are keen to work with Japan – the world’s second biggest market – and China is now also emerging as box office behemoth.

The relationship between China and Japan is problematic due to unresolved tensions dating back to the Second World War, although filmmakers from the two territories are exploring ways to work together. In contrast Taiwan, which was colonised by Japan for 50 years until the 1940s, still has strong cultural links to the country, especially in the areas of youth and pop culture. One panel explored how this was exploited by the producers of Taiwanese mega-hit Cape No.7, which featured Japanese actors and music from J-pop star Kosuke Atari.

Hong Kong is also stepping up collaborations with Japan. At a panel organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), Irresistible Films’ Lorna Tee gave a presentation on the company which is backed by Japan’s Avex Entertainment and Hong Kong’s Bill Kong and Hugh Simon. The Hong Kong-based company, which aims to support new talent, is currently working on its fourth production, an untitled project co-directed by Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan.

Hong Kong-based Salon Films and Japan’s Casio Entertainment also talked about their co-production, Fly Baby Fly, an animated multi-platform project set for release in 2011. Japan’s Yoshimoto Kogyo is also co-producing the film, a fantasy about the annual migration of butterflies from Taiwan to Japan, which has an environmental message for kids.

Meanwhile, the TIFFCOM market had a busy opening day with 211 exhibitors from 18 countries setting up stalls. “There are buyers here from Japan, Korea, China and Singapore and we’ve had a lot of walk-ins,” said James Liu from Taiwan’s Joint Entertainment. 

Jean Noh contributed to this report