EXCLUSIVE: In a world where the space for specialist and non English-language cinema is shrinking in cinemas, it’s encouraging to see that Tokyo-based Gaga Corporation is committed to bringing a diverse range of theatrical releases to Japanese audiences.
Launched in 1986, the company is one of Japan’s longest established buyers, releasing between 20-25 films a year, with its president and CEO Tom Yoda a familiar face on the international festival and markets circuit. The company is also an active producer of Japanese films, with recent titles including Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster, which is screening as a Special Presentation in Toronto, following its Best Screenplay award in Cannes.
As Japan was moving out of the pandemic, the company says it was pleased with the box office results for acquisitions such as Todd Field’s Tar, French filmmaker Claude Zidi Jr’s opera-themed Tenor and multiple Oscar winner Everything Everywhere All At Once, with the latter title grossing around $6M (JPY850M).
Upcoming releases include a clutch of Cannes acquisitions, including Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner Anatomy Of A Fall, along with Tran Anh Hung’s The Pot-au-Feu and Victor Erice’s Close Your Eyes; Francois Ozon crime caper The Crime Is Mine; Danny and Michael Philippou’s global horror sensation Talk To Me; and Korean titles Point Men and Confidential Assignment 2: International.
Gaga’s General Manager of acquisitions, Chizu Ogiya, tells Deadline that Talk To Me, scheduled for Japanese release in December, taps into the growing popularity of upscale horror in Japan. This trend has also encouraged the company to pre-buy Nightborn, the second feature from Finnish director Hanna Bergholm following Hatching. Repped internationally by Goodfellas, the dark horror fantasy is currently in pre-production.
“We had some success with Hatching, so we trust the director and wanted to continue working with her,” Ogiya says. “Well-made horror movies, in particular A24 horrors like Hereditary and Midsommar, have been well received in our market.”
While Talk To Me is English-language, she adds that foreign-language horror is also accepted by Japanese audiences – Hatching is a Finnish film and still performed well.
Outside of easily defined genres like horror, Gaga Senior Operating Officer Satomi Odake explains that the company also targets festival titles, as Japan’s relatively sophisticated and internationally clued in audiences are aware of films that premiere and win awards at top festivals, including Berlin, Venice and Cannes. “They may not understand which festival or award is the biggest or most significant, but festival recognition convinces them to leave the house and visit a theatre,” says Odake, who oversees Gaga’s Content Business Division.
Oscars recognition is another major factor in getting audiences off the sofa. Gaga has had an extraordinary hit rate for acquiring Academy Awards titles – distributing a total of 102 Oscar-winning or nominated films over the company’s nearly four-decade history, including eight Best Picture winners.
“We don’t set out to pick Oscar winners – we just do our research and buy films we fall in love with,” Odake says, citing Everything Everywhere All At Once as an example of a film that didn’t initially look like obvious awards material. “It wasn’t a traditional Oscar winner, but it was so different, the message and visual impact of the film were so strong, so we thought it could turn out to be something really special.”
Over the years, the company has also released Coda, Green Book, 12 Years A Slave, The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and Chicago – and this summer screened a season of 15 award-winning films, including all these Best Picture winners, at Toho Cinemas and other theatres across Japan. The audience was also given the opportunity to select one Gaga acquisition for screening – and opted for Gary Oldman-starring spy thriller Tinker Tailor Solider Spy.
Gaga is also increasingly becoming a provider of Oscar and Cannes-awarded titles. It was also involved in Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (Cannes Jury Prize) and Shoplifters (Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar nomination for Best International feature). Despite its Cannes win, Monster missed out on being Japan’s Oscar submission this year, but is enjoying a strong theatrical run in Japan ($14.3M and counting) and also performed well on its release in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
Upcoming local productions for Gaga include Takahisa Zeze’s One Last Bloom; animated feature Komada – A Whisky Family, directed by Masayuki Yoshihara; Hayato Kawai’s remake of Taiwanese film Secret; and Hiroki Kazama’s adaptation of hit manga Buzzy Noise.
Ogiya says the diversity of the company’s acquisitions slate, along with its growing roster of local productions, should insulate it well against the impact of the on-going WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood.
“The strikes don’t affect our release schedule immediately, because our line-up for next year is already full. So it really depends how long they last – at some point we may have to focus more on domestic product,” Ogiya says.
Odake adds that there are other ways to keep the pipeline full: “We may have to produce more local films, but at the same time we mostly release European and Asian films, which are less affected by the strikes, and sometimes get involved in co-production, so we have various ways to fill our line-up.”
Ogiya explains that Korean films go through waves of popularity in Japan, but “there’s a hard core Korean movie fanbase and some Korean actors and actresses are really popular here because of Korean dramas.” That made Confidential Assignment 2 an obvious choice as the film’s star, Hyun Bin, also appeared in Crash Landing On You, one of the most popular K-dramas in Japan during the pandemic.
She sees the next wave coming from Thailand and also recently acquired Poj Arnon’s ‘Boys Love’ drama Tell The World I Love You. “Thailand’s industry is becoming more mature and interesting – we released [Baz Poonpiriya’s Sundance winner] One For The Road last year and it was very well received.”
As everywhere else in the post-pandemic world, it’s an uphill battle marketing and distributing specialist films in Japan – many of Tokyo’s arthouse cinemas have recently closed – but it also remains one of the few markets in the world that still has a physical DVD distribution business and TV networks that acquire films. Ogiya explains that Gaga acquired Coda at script stage and held on to the rights, even after Apple’s splashy global acquisition, releasing the film in theatres and then controlling the ancillary distribution.
“We’re an unusual case in Japan,” Odake adds. “Streamers are also acquiring films, but the TV networks are still very powerful. We often see series that are broadcast on the traditional networks first, then move to streaming afterwards. Every window is still important here.”