When I was on my way to attend a round table conversation at the 66th Locarno Film Festival between two Japanese directors, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Real) and Shinji Aoyama (Tomogui/The Backwater), my intention was to hear the makers talk about their creations. I saw Aoyama’s The Backwater on the 14th and was a huge fan. It’s a twisted drama that reveals itself to be a revenge thriller at just the right moment, and is extremely entertaining.
What I did not expect, however, was for the discussion to turn into a heated debate about the plot of the Tom Cruise-starrer Oblivion. And I certainly did not expect that debate to unearth some uncomfortable but pertinent truths about Hollywood.
It’s the worst-kept secret in Hollywood that one of the biggest problems plaguing the industry right now is the lack of middle ground. Today, the release slate over the year primarily comprises either $200 million blockbusters sanctioned by studios (mostly to start a franchise) or small productions that enter theaters on the back of festival accolades and/or a passionate arthouse distributor.
A film of the former kind has to cater to the widest possible demographic nf order to recoup its investment, and a title belonging to the latter category has to hope it’s generated enough interest in its niche target audience. This has led to an extremely high stakes game, where the studio either gets a mammoth hit that breaks into the billion-dollar club (The Avengers, Alice in Wonderland) or a crash-and-burn failure (John Carter, Battleship).
A marketplace dominated by such entities has led to the near extinction of anything in between: a film that doesn’t have the budget of a small country’s GDP but didn’t have to muscle its way on to the big screen. I’m talking about the $40 million film, stereotypically a drama aimed at adults. This terrain is where films like The English Patient, Brokeback Mountain and The Social Network reside; we can surely agree that cinema would be richer if more of these films were to exist. At Locarno itself, I have seen several films, like the Chilean character study Gloria or the heartwarming Mexican drama The Amazing Catfish, that wouldn’t be so rare in a more just universe.
However, a film that costs $40 million dollars to make would cost nearly $40 million to promote, and the result is an unwieldy financial investment that studios are scared of being unable to recover. Thus, they shy away from such films, opting to either spend that money on three small films or save it to back one tentpole after a few more such sacrifices. This all-or-nothing game has led to battle-weary players, with a studio like Walt Disney suffering write-down after write-down on films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger. The industry behemoth has shifted its attention to making money on Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars.
These realizations came to me right after the first answer in the round-table conversation. The moderator asked the two directors, Kurosawa and Aoyama, to describe their films and the positioning they possessed in the Japanese marketplace (“whether they were commercial or independent films”). The sheer oversimplification of the labels reared its head instantly when Kurosawa (Real) said, “Studio films and indie films are not that separate in Japan. Both of us produce both kinds of film.” At this point, Aoyama solidified the argument by adding, “I don’t really understand the difference between independent and commercial cinema. I make the film that I can. This is not bound by the kind of film that it is: commercial or independent. This is very different in the Japanese film world. Maybe in Hollywood it’s like that. Not in Japan.”
The final statement from Aoyama prompted me to ask the two directors what they thought was the difference between Hollywood and the Japanese film industry. Kurosawa replied, “I don’t know the Hollywood situation very well but what I can say is that in Japan the producer doesn’t have much power. The director has more power and can do his work without interference as the producer doesn’t tell him what kind of film to make.” After reading reports of how Paramount delayed the release of G.I. Joe: Retribution mainly to give added screentime to Channing Tatum’s character (after his recent stardom) and with news of Marvel calling for reshoots on Thor: The Dark World to give Tom Hiddleston’s Loki more screentime, such statements seem like depicting a utopia.
Aoyama’s answer to the question was even more incisive. He said, “I think the very big difference between Hollywood and Japanese film industry is the question of budget. The budget of a commercial film in Japan is the budget of an independent film in Hollywood. Moreover, in Japan the commercial films face a burden of having only Japanese-speaking audiences. Hollywood films, being in English and with the options of subtitles, have a much larger audience and can get their money back. Thus, in Japan, it’s impossible to make films with as large a budget as Hollywood. The difference between independent and commercial is in content and not in budget.”
During a lull in the conversation, Aoyama piped up to say, “For me, it’s very difficult to understand exactly where the arthouse film plays and what its definition is. For example, in Locarno, I saw Oblivion. The content was not at all “blockbuster” and it was very difficult to follow. In a way, you could call this film “arthouse”. On the other hand, “Real” has a simple story and is very entertaining. Maybe difficult to understand movies should be called arthouse and simple stories can be termed blockbusters.”
The naïveté in that answer may be amusing, but it’s definitely charming. Compared to the current marketplace, I would definitely prefer a version wherein a film like Tomogui, that is about a son who finally confronts his abusive father, is more widespread and Oblivion, about a drone repairman extracting resources from an apocalyptic Earth, wouldn’t be the landscape-invading blockbuster.