The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Once upon a time, filmmaking meant Hollywood. The area’s first studio was established in 1911, and within a few years that number had risen to 20 as the small neighborhood in Los Angeles, Calif., became the industry’s most famous production center.

Things are different today. Hollywood remains the base of operations, but filming has gone global for both movies and television.

One of the most notable examples is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. By no means the first to be filmed abroad, the massive production put New Zealand’s diverse landscapes on the global stage and brought significant economic impact to the country. The three films made use of more than 150 locations and were shot between October 1999 and 2000. A decade after the release, Tourism New Zealand reported a 50-percent increase in arrivals and a $27 million boost from those who said that seeing Lord of the Rings brought them there.

Since then, more and more productions have been enticed to locations around the world. On the television front, the wildly popular Game of Thrones—another fantasy story—makes extensive use of international locations, shooting in Canada, Croatia, Iceland, Malta, Morocco, Spain, and the UK.

Bollywood, based in Mumbai, remains a hotbed of film activity for mostly Indians and Cape Town is growing rapidly. The South African port city has attracted productions by 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Brothers thanks to low costs, English-speaking help, and beautiful scenery. This despite a very high crime rate (ninth globally) and long travel time from the United States.

With annual profits of $2 billion, Japan is the world’s fourth-largest film market after the United States/Canada, China, and the UK, and the country is eying a bigger piece of the pie.

Many films are set in full or in part in Japan, but are often shot in other countries—much in the way Toronto frequently stands in for New York City—or on sound stages back in Hollywood or elsewhere. Japan would like to attract more filmmakers to shoot “the real thing,” giving their stories a more authentic feel and boosting local economies at the same time.

One of the best-known made-in-Japan films is Sofia Coppola’s 2003 romantic dramedy Lost in Translation, which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 76th Academy Awards. This story was famously shot at the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku and other locations around the city, and includes scenes filmed at Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto.

But that level of depth is less common than you might think. In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, O-Ren traverses the real Rainbow Bridge and rides the streets of Shinjuku, but the interior of the Gonpachi restaurant in Nishi-azabu was shot on a sound stage in Beijing.

And 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which would seem to be filmed in Japan, was mostly shot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., at a recreation of Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district (although portions of it were shot in Kyoto Prefecture at the Fushimi Inari Shrine).

How can Japan garner a larger share of the global film industry? What the most successful countries have in common is strong centralized promotion of their offerings and incentives. The British Film Commission, Film France, and the Mexican Film Commission represent three of the four most-common destinations for US productions. For the top locale, Canada, regional commissions are more prominent.

Canada’s arrangement resembles that of Japan, where the 47 prefectures and territories are represented by more than 100 regional film commissions and governments. But this fragmentation can make it more difficult to position the country prominently on the world stage.

In 2009, the Japan Film Commission (JFC) was formed to help remedy this. Supported and endorsed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and the Japan Tourism Agency, the JFC pools the voices of its 120-plus regional commission members and can represent them in the global market.

The JFC also holds seminars and location fairs each year. Lee Ka Yi, international development coordinator at the Sapporo Film Commission finds these sessions helpful. “It is important because these seminar classes help us increase our skills,” she said. “And we can also exchange opinions and information with other film commissions.”

Kyoto Media Support Center (KMSC) Assistant Manager Yuko Kanzaki sees a central voice as important when liaising with the government. “We recognize the JFC as a very impor­­tant organization which is capable of consolidating opinions from all film commissions, discussing these with us, and making requests to related government ministries and agencies.”

And, as Satoshi Ohno of the Osaka Film Commission told The ACCJ Journal, “The authority given to cities and prefec­tures in Japan is less compared with the United States. Local authorities cannot change the taxes or laws, and deregulation is limited. Financial and administrative independence is also limited, so a centralized commission such as the JFC is required to create the necessary policies to allow for international competitiveness.”

Despite the move to create a central voice, nearly a decade later regional commissions remain the key contact points. It is through them that incentives are offered and the arrange­ments for shooting are made.

One of the benefits is local knowledge. Although Japan is a small country, there is much geographic and cultural diversity to be found. From the modern glitz of the capital to the tradition of Kyoto, the snowy backcountry of Hokkaido Prefecture to the tropical paradise of Okinawa, the options for filmmakers are many.

Chota Yara, a specialist at the Okinawa Film Office (OFO), cited the island’s history as a draw. “Since Okinawa was originally the Ryukyu Kingdom, it has a unique culture that formed from the dynamic mix of characteristics from various countries during that era.” The kingdom was founded in 1429 and formally became part of Japan in 1879.

A Singapore–Okinawa co-production, Jimami Tofu by BananaMana Films, was financed with the support of the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau and selected by the 37th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival last year.

Back in Sapporo, Ka Yi cited not just local knowledge by multicultural understanding as important. A film school graduate from Hong Kong, Ka Yi embodies the diverse skills and multicultural understanding that Japan needs to work with filmmakers from abroad. She speaks four languages—Japanese, English, Mandarin, and Cantonese—and has knowledge of film and location shooting. This, she said, is very helpful in attracting filmmakers from overseas. “I can communicate with them smoothly and help them solve problems during pre-production and production.”

Kyoto, with its traditional architecture and culture, is a favorite among storytellers looking to show the tranquil side of Japan. KMSC’s Kanzaki told The ACCJ Journal: “In Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital for more than 1,200 years, there are both such tangible assets as historical buildings and beautiful scenery, as well as such intangible assets as traditional Japanese culture that are still alive today. Filmmakers can use the real things, not a set.

“Kyoto is known as the birthplace of the Japanese film and has more than 100 years of history making films, so the know-how, skills, and environment—especially in jidaigeki (historical films)—is very strong.”

One of the biggest reasons a city or region wants to attract film projects is economic benefit. This can be both tangible—money spent with local businesses—and intangible in the form of heightened awareness abroad.

Yara sees attracting productions as critical for the Okinawan economy. “I think it’s very important to invite film projects to Okinawa because it offers great additional potential to create employment, not only for the film industry but also the tourism sector. As you may know, Okinawa has very little industry. The unemployment rate is the highest and the average salary the lowest in Japan, so promoting tourism is very important.”

Far away in Osaka, Ohno agrees. “Not only can films have an effect in terms of industry, culture, sightseeing, and regional promotion, the works have the potential to create profound and far-reaching effects on a large scale.”

And in Kyoto, Kanzaki sees educational significance. Bringing movies and television shows to the city is a key part of fostering a new generation of filmmakers. “There are many students who study in the film departments of universities. It is important that films are being produced in Kyoto in order to foster these students as future talents who will enhance Kyoto’s film industry.”

How does Japan entice filmmakers when there are so many options around the globe? A worldwide community of filmmakers, video producers, and independent creatives known as No Film School ranked the best places to shoot in each region of the world. Japan did not make the cut.

Among the best overall are Canada and Singapore, which topped the list for North America and Asia, respectively.

The tax breaks offered by Canada depend on the province and combine local and federal incentives. Producers can get credits of 32–70 percent on eligible labor and 20–30 percent on local spending. The most generous provinces are Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Competing with Japan in Asia, Singapore offers subsidies that cover 50 percent of qualifying expenses, including local talent as well as production staff and services. Various other grants are available that support up to 40 percent of qualifying expenses. Second-place Malaysia offers a 30-percent cash rebate on a minimum $1.2 million spend.

Globally, incentives tend to fall into four categories: cash rebates; tax incentives; national or regional film funds; and assis­tance with production tasks.

Japan’s offerings vary greatly by region, but are generally subsidies and help with things such as loca­tion scouting, securing filming permission, and finding extras.

The Chiba Prefecture Film Commission can cover 50 percent of expenses up to ¥10 million ($94,000). Sapporo also offers up to ¥10 million for film and television drama production fees through the Sapporo Electronics and Industries Cultivation Foundation and the Sapporo Film Commission.

Subsidies from the Saga Prefecture Film Commission cover half of production expenses up to ¥5 million, and the Wakayama City Film Commission also offers up to that amount.

The Kobe Film Office subsidizes up to ¥1 million for overseas productions and ¥200,000 for domestic ones. It also helps with the cost of location scouting through a fund that pays the round-trip airfare and accommodations for three people for three nights for overseas projects and five people for one night for domestic projects.

And from 2010 to 2017, Okinawa offered a rebate program to support filmmakers, promote the prefecture through film projects, and attract tourist as a result. Up to ¥30 million was available to support the cost of shooting in Okinawa. For the first five years, the program was available only to foreign productions. For the final two years, domestic projects were also included. But the program has been cut for 2018.

“Many films funded by this program are highly valued—especially Korean films,” said Yara. “It is said that it is a key reason Korean tourists come to Okinawa.”

While financial incentives do exist, they are not on par with many of those offered by other countries.

Still, interest is strong on both sides. Japanese culture is loved the world over, and Japan is working hard to raise its visibility and appeal. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the 2019 Rugby World Cup are turning a spotlight on the nation, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t shine on the film industry, too.

By unifying their voices, the many regional film commissions can better identify opportunities, present themselves to the world, and provide the incentives to make Japan a prime location for the next box-office success.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
The 47 prefectures and territories are represented by more than 100 regional film commissions and governments.