On April 7, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Theaters, big and small, closed their doors—and would remain closed until the following month, when the exhibition industry was allowed to restart in a gradual, region-based pattern that echoes the staggered reopening process seen in other parts of the world.
But not every theater, worried directors Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II) and Koji Fukada (Harmonium, A Girl Missing), would be able to open. Specifically, the independent movie theaters that helped build their own careers faced a serious threat. And so, mere days after the state of emergency was declared, Hamaguchi and Fukada were among the co-founders of the “Mini-Theater AID” crowdfunding campaign. A month later, the campaign had earned 331,025,487 Japanese Yen—roughly translating to over $3 million—from just shy of 30,000 people to support Japanese mini-theaters.
Exactly what a “mini-theater” is, admits Mini-Theater AID co-founder (and producer of Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour) Satoshi Takata, can be hard to define. Put basically, they are independent cinemas without a direct business connection to one of Japan’s major studios. They are an essential component, Takata notes, to Japan’s filmgoing landscape, screening arthouse titles, documentaries, and non-Hollywood foreign films that do not often screen in a multiplex setting. Per research conducted by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, of the 1,278 films released in Japan in 2019, half of them screened only in mini-theaters.
“Without mini-theaters, these kinds of films will have no place to screen, and it would be a huge loss to the diversity of cinema screenings in Japan,” argues Takata. “It is easy to imagine that, without the diversity in the kinds of films that are screened, there will also be a loss of diversity in the films that are produced. Currently, many filmmakers—including those who are well-known internationally—have indicated that their film-going experiences at mini-theaters were the beginnings of their creative expression.”
So crucial culturally, mini-theaters reached a crisis point with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. While all theaters in Japan have suffered a financial setback over the past months, Takata says, for mini-theaters the blow has been especially hard, since they ” operate with small financial margins. So they quickly faced a crisis in their ability to remain in business.” Also affecting the continued survival of Japanese independent cinemas, Takata notes, is a lack of government dollars funneled towards the cultural sector: “When you compare the percentage allocated to culture within the national budget, Japan spends only an eighth of what France does and only a ninth of Korea. Furthermore, grants by the Agency for Cultural Affairs primarily support film productions, and barely any support goes to distribution and theaters.”
Anticipating that mini-theaters across the country might be forced to close their doors, Hamaguchi and Fukada launched the Mini-Theater AID campaign on Monday, April 13. Within 57 hours, the campaign reached the 100 million yen mark, or roughly a million American dollars. Server issues from high traffic forced the campaign to extend its original deadline by one day; in the end, by its official end date of May 15 it earned over 331 million yen. Most of the money came from individual donors, Takata says—largely “film fans, directors, actors, and other industry people”—though a “small handful” of companies also donated.
A first wave of funding was distributed at the end of May, and the second at the end of June—reflective of the ongoing need of mini-theaters across the country. 118 theaters applied for and received aid from that first wave of funding, making up the majority of the 127 mini-theaters the Japan Community Cinema Center estimates were in operation in 2019. (Takata puts the number of mini-theaters in Japan at less than 200.) The Mini-Theater AID” campaign estimates that each theater will receive approximately 3,000,000 yen (slightly under $30,000) total.
As in other markets around the globe, the resumption of operations doesn’t mean that theaters are out of the woods. However, one of the biggest problems—a lack of new tentpole content to put on screens—doesn’t particularly affect mini-theaters. In part due to digital filmmaking technology, the number of films intended for mini-theaters has increased substantially in the past few years, Takata says. The result is an “oversupply” that now have films competing against each other for a spot on the big screen. By contrast, Takata notes, commercial chains and multiplexes are forced to screen repertory titles until new films are released.
At the same time, challenges remain for the mini-theater. Cinema attendance is capped at 50 percent to allow for social distancing, cutting down on the amount of tickets that can be sold. And for those who do make the trip to a mini-theater, their moviegoing experience may be lacking what many see as an essential component. “One immediate challenge that mini-theaters are facing is that it is now difficult to do in-person Q&As, which in recent years have become a standard way for theaters to bring in an audience,” says Takata. “As a result, mini-theaters are trying to come up with a new normal of doing Q&As and talk events through live-video chats and projecting the image onto the screens. Audiences can still ask questions and both the talent and audiences can communicate this way.”
And then, of course, there’s the virus, cases of which are back on the rise in Japan following a dip in April and May. Theaters may once again find themselves in the same position they were in March, characterized by Takata as “stuck between financial insecurity and worries about safety.”
Still, in the midst of chaos, there is hope to be found in the public’s willingness to support the independent theaters of Japan. “We are full of gratitude to receive far more support than we ever initially imagined,” wrote Mini-Theater AID co-founders Koji Fukada, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Hideyuki Okamoto, Takeshi Otaka, and Satoshi Takata in a group statement. “Despite this, in a country like Japan where public funding and support towards culture and the arts is extremely limited, the amount of support we are offering through this fund is only a fraction of what mini-theaters should be receiving. One important role that mini-theaters in Japan have accomplished over the years is that they have been introducing countless arthouse films from all over the world to audiences in Japan. Our movement has been about supporting diversity in our film culture, and we hope that we can find solidarity with film fans around the world.”