A headline posted by a British media outlet in January to convey the state of Japanese television programming proclaimed: "Japan: the sleeping documentary giant."
Although Japan produces excellent documentaries, they generally are not seen overseas.
Now, for the first time, "business discussion meetings" with representatives from overseas markets were held in Japan to try to open the door to international exposure.
Asian Side of the Doc (ASD), an international forum for pitching documentaries, was held in Tokyo on March 19-21. Producers without a broadcasting affiliation tried to attract the interest of representatives from domestic and foreign channels through program planning presentations and discussions. It provided an opportunity to find joint projects to work on.
Forums like this are held throughout the calendar all over the world, but this fiscal year marked the first time one took place in Japan. Coming on the heels of the Tokyo TV Forum at the end of last year, 440 people from more than 30 countries were at ASD.
Although one Korean broadcaster said “Japan has a weak presence” at meetings held outside Japan, five of the 26 works introduced at this event were from Japan. Freelance director Kyoko Miyake's "Beyond the Wave" received special attention.
Set in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, the hometown of Miyake's mother, she depicts how her aunt's family was at the mercy of the nearby damaged nuclear power plant. After Miyake screened a shorter edited version and talked about her aspirations, she and her film received praise from American and European broadcasters, as well as one from Israel.
If a producer can reach a co-production agreement with a broadcaster interested in a project, then the company will pay for the production and provide airtime to show the film. An advantage of a project with high potential for international appeal is that it attracts the interest of many broadcasters, thus ensuring a large production budget while lessening the financial burden of each network involved.
German, British, Dutch and Swedish channels that decided to involve themselves in the "Beyond the Wave" project were also joined by the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).
"It was nuts because I didn't have any broadcasting connections, and I didn't understand how to attract financing," said Miyake, who collected most of the 365,000 euro (around 40 million yen) budget she needed by meeting with the companies.
Kenichi Imamura, a producer at NHK well versed in international co-productions, said he has high hopes for Japanese documentaries.
“The domestic market is big, so you don’t have to go overseas, but production budgets are getting shaved,” he said. “In the West it’s common practice to use movie-style production rather than an academic format with lots of maps and commentary. Japan is good at researching and filming, so we need to find a different form of expression.”
Vikram Channa, vice president of Production and Development at Discovery Asia, an American channel specializing in documentaries, attended two meetings at ASD. His advice: “First, you have to know what kinds of programs the world wants. If you can expose yourself to the global market, then you've got some potential for the future.”
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