The Brilla Short Shorts Theater
Illustration: The Brillia Short Shorts Theater in Yokohama and inset: Tetsuya Bessho

The business of short films

Interview with Tetsuya Bessho, founder of the Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia

J@pan Inc: The film business is losing money each year due to the downloading of films via the Internet. DVD sales have been particularly affected but ticket sales have dropped as well. On the one hand, blockbuster movies are still able to make a lot of money at the cinema. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" still made $87 million in its first weekend despite the highly-publicized leak of an incomplete version of the movie. Also, small independent filmmakers are able to take advantage of the Internet to distribute and publicize their movies, enabling them to bypass the studio system. On the other hand, however, less and less money is being made, forcing companies into bankruptcy. What is your take on the state of the industry and where do you see its future headed?

Tetsuya Bessho: Films were a major part of the visual culture and industry that flourished during the 20th century. Since the invention of moving pictures by Edison and the Lumière brothers, the medium has only had about 100 years to develop. Its history has been shorter when compared to novels and music in terms of their innovation and diversification. Books can contain anything from a collection of short stories to full-length novels. Musical compositions can be created for anything from a single piano to a full symphonic orchestra. But films have been collected into a single business scheme which, in 100 years, has had only one distribution system. This distribution scheme, which caters to films of about two hours in length, can run efficiently as a form of entertainment.

I believe that film formats have just begun to diversify freely. In the midst of this diversification, I feel that a major bipolarization is occurring. Major films like X-Men are becoming larger and much more dynamic in scale, and in the global market such movies have become a universally accepted form of recreation. We are in an era where block marketing schemes, which use market research to devise casting and writing strategies, are used to achieve financial success in different regions.

I believe that movie theaters will grow into a much more of a theme park-like concept, through 3D movies which can only be enjoyed in theaters, and fantastic sound systems. It’s very different from the ‘cine-con’ movie theaters you see in shopping malls. I tend to compare movie theaters to `sento’ public baths. Back when it wasn’t common to have a bath in a house, the sento was the center of the community. But after technology developed and times changed, having a bath at home became the norm and enjoying bathing has largely shifted. Today, sento are used when a marathon runner wants to freshen up after running. The sento culture has evolved into hot springs and spas, and developed into a kind of theme park.

Although the way to watch movies, the OUTPUT aspect, and production, the INPUT aspect, is a relationship that cannot be broken, a separate discussion and analysis is required within each aspect. However, I believe what is certain is that large money-making films have more outlets (theater, TV, DVD, internet, etc.) even more so than theme parks and will accelerate cost recovery and profit pursuit modeling within these media windows. The short films category I’m dealing with is a genre that has been reconsidered due to the recent friendly wind from the cyber world. In the Internet world, where rights groups and distribution systems cannot have control, short films that go by the idea that NO RULE IS THE RULE have made the most out of this. There’s a freedom to choose the amount of time you want to use to express what you want to express in the film. Obviously, there will be a lot more Junk films, but if the key players of the global market who only calculated the film business through the Hollywood equation go out into the cyber world to create their piece freely and gain recognition, they will transform into a famous “content players” in a single moment. This has already started to be seen in the music industry. Music used to grow under the protection of the dominant religion and the privileged class. After freeing itself from these constraints, many people were then able to use instruments and compose and perform, and because record industries accelerated this, genres diversified. I strongly feel that the same will happen with movies; ordinary people will develop their skills of editing and distributing their pieces into the cyber world, and through this they will be able to create an equation for the movie business. I believe what accompanies such things as the collapse of a business or bankruptcy, is the need for the company itself to change its structure. The reason for management failure and bankruptcy happening all over the world is because that particular industry itself is going through restructuring. For the same reason, I think it is necessary for the film industry to accept and correspond with changes while devising universal schemes and rules for the next generation. However, human desires haven’t changed since the dawn of time. What I mean here is that the intellectual cravings; to be awed by theatrical performances and stories that stir up your imagination. The thing that time will change is a shift toward movies which will have a sense of shared experience between a large simultaneous joint experience with others as well as a changed, fragmented private experience that can be relived. I believe that these two needs depict the future of movies.

Films will continue to evolve in the 21st century. Television will also change or may perhaps deteriorate instead. What the world is waiting for, is for both a large, unified experience, as well as a divided kind of private experience where the stories depicted in films can be relived. These two needs, I believe, will map out the future of films.

Japan Inc: As video becomes a bigger part of the Internet experience and the advent of YouTube seems to be making people's attention spans shorter, what role do you see short films playing in Internet-based entertainment?

Tetsuya Bessho: Films are a form of entertainment, an art form, and so much more. I also believe in film as a “visual vehicle;” as in it carries information. In that sense, the short film is ‘fuel efficient’ yet beautiful in its distinct form and brevity -- like Haiku and Tanka.

I believe that short films will create their own path as a new form of entertainment, and soon, will become the 21st century’s form of visual content. The Internet already has the power to distribute long films. But we are in need of a shorter, and much more efficient visual content.

At the same time, from an artist’s point of view, these short films are like a rough draft that an artist uses to perfect his or her style. Like freeware that is developed online by the hands of many people, short films published online are pioneers of a newfound approach to an art form.

J@pan Inc: What do you see as the future of short films in terms of business? Historically short films have been more about providing a stepping-stone for up-and-coming filmmakers to feature films rather than a real product. Do you see this changing? For example The Short Shorts Festival and Asia recently launched its own short film cinema in Yokohama - The Brillia Short Shorts Theater.

Tetsuya Bessho: We are entering a time where short films are becoming a major marketing product; their circulation is growing and one day very soon, a short film industry will become a true reality. The cinema in Yokohama accommodates audiences with the kind of system, screen, and seats that are difficult to have at ordinary homes; it’s an amusement park where one can enjoy sharing an experience and in that sense, connect with perfect strangers.

They manage this in a boutique style. The short films themselves are drawing attention from not only the Internet Webcast services like iTunes and iPhones, but also from the mobile Webcast industry. The demand for short films will definitely increase among various media windows. But even so, cinematic displays will never cease to exist, simply because the cinema offers a completely different kind of pleasure, surprise, and awe that cannot be experienced otherwise.

J@pan Inc: Eleven years ago you founded the Short Shorts Film Festival. What was the reasoning at that time? Has the format and focus changed over the last decade or so?

Tetsuya Bessho: The United States had already started making business models and developing revolutionary techniques to transform sound delivery online to include image delivery 11 years ago. I, however, had a much more primitive goal during that period of simply wanting to spread the awareness of short films throughout Japan

But I indeed felt a huge possibility of short films as successful business back then. Why, I wondered, hasn’t any of these wonderful films been promoted in the industry? That’s why first and foremost, I focused on the film festival, where films are ranked accordingly and their values are weighed and judged. In the last decade, film entertainment including both the film-making side (input) and distribution side (output) has changed dramatically. From this day forward, we are entering the “sengoku” period of film business, meaning we are entering a great period of upheaval. And within that, short films are rising to become the key content of the near future.

J@pan Inc: Can you tell us a bit about what will be happening at this year's festival?

Tetsuya Bessho: We’ve got more than 36,000 films from over 50 countries gathering in the official competition this year. This is the 11th year since the film festival was established. The two main features in this year’s festival will be the India special and the Sweden special. Both of these country’s film industries have been flourishing of late. Northern Europe has a distinct culture and set of business values with certain worldly perspectives that are yearned for by other countries. Hopefully the audiences will learn to appreciate both countries’ very distinct values through the films. There will also be the annual Academy Award special, which is popular every year. This year, a Japanese director won an Oscar and the short film section has quietly attracted a surprising amount of attention. We will show some excellent choices of films in the Academy Award nomination section. The “Environmental” category that started from the previous year, the “STOP Global Warming” category, and new from this year is the “Music Short” category which focuses on the relationship of movies and music. We’ve also prepared a special awarding ceremony with the Jewelry brand FRED, named the FRED Actors and Actress Awards. As an actor myself, I’m very proud to present these awards to actors and actresses who give life and warmth to stories created by directors and screen writers. Don’t miss out on it!

J@pan Inc: You're about to publish a book. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Tetsuya Bessho: It’s a project management book written as part of a pivotal turning point after 10 years. It’s about how I realized my dream of planning and managing a film festival-- about how to realize your dreams, about how your dream fattens up on its own, and about the amazing capacity it has. Though dreams may be different, I would love to have business people working on various projects through team work to read my book, and at the same time, it’s a book that will give you an understanding of the future the film industry.

The Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia will run from June 4 to June 14 at the LaForet Museum in Harajuku, Omotesando Hills Space O in Omotesando TOHO Cinemas, Roppongi Hills and the Brilla Short Shorts Theater in Yokohama.

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