US Distribution of Love Letter

stephen cremin asianfilmlibrary at
Fri Jan 1 02:29:07 EST 1999

This posting follows on from a message posted by Michael Singer to the 
list - perhaps mistakenly - which suggested reasons why Fine Line 
changed the title of Shunji Iwai's "Love Letter" to "When I Close My 
Eyes" for the US release.

I don't know if Fine Line ever gave a direct reason to Fuji TV, but if 
there was a problem, it was with the stage production of "Love 
Letter".  But I don't really think there is much of an excuse for the 
new Celine Dion-esque title.  (The week before its Hong Kong release, 
Jacky Cheung coincidentally released a song of the same title which 
Shu Kei, the film's distributor, believes helped him enormously.)

Although its never spoken about in front of Iwai, there is a general 
feeling in Japan that Fine Line dumped "Love Letter".  (I should 
stress that I haven't discussed this point with Fuji TV.  I don't know 
their opinion.)  The woman in Fine Line who passionately loved the 
film left the company before "Love Letter" was released in June/July 
1998 so nobody there was really backing it with any passion.  The 
contract Fine Line made with Fuji TV presumably stated that they must 
release the original version before the remake ... so they did the 
absolute minimum to fulfil the contract.  On the week of its release, 
the listings section of "Village Voice" and "New York Time Out" didn't 
know which cinema it was playing at.  (There was a very small advert 
in the former.)  One week later both suggested phoning the cinema to 
see if it was still on.  I've only seen the opening week's box office 
in New York, but it was pretty dire.

It had been difficult to get hold of the print of "Love Letter": Fine 
Line presumably didn't want to damage the one they had because they 
didn't want to have to strike another subtitled print for its US 
release.  Its the one film that Iwai doesn't really have any control 
over any more.  International rights are now handled by Fortissimo 
Film Sales in Amsterdam.  The question is whether Fortissimo can sell 
it now on the back of the good reviews it received, or whether the 
poor box office in America has effectively killed it internationally.  
It has sold to Korea, as have all Iwai's films in recent months, but 
that was a foregone conclusion as Iwai is arguably the most popular 
director there.

Actually, Fortissimo were keen to launch "Love Letter" as the "first" 
Japanese film in Korea.  But that proved impossible when the Korean 
government unexpectedly announced the restrictions on the films that 
could be shown.  (And, of course, other Korean distributors would have 
been on the ball with films they already had the rights too.)  I'm 
very interested to see how the poor box office of "HANA-BI" and 
"Kagemusha" have damaged the future distribution of Japanese film in 
Korea.  (Many films have already been bought for distribution but 
can't be released until restrictions are relaxed.)  I think it was a 
mistake that the "first" Japanese film in Korea was "HANA-BI", which 
doesn't hold much interest for Asian audiences.  (By contrast, in 
Britain it made around US$300,000, equivalent to "Shall we Dance?.  
And both films have featured prominently in the British media's "best 
ten films of the year" lists over the past week.)

I think the whole larger strategic issue of building an interest in 
national cinemas and individual directors is overlooked by the short-
termism prevalent in the industry and the general reliance on the film 
festival exhibition format to raise the perceived value of a director.  
The dismal performance of Tsai Ming-liang's "The River" (Kawa) in the 
UK in 1998 has effectively destroyed his career in the UK.  Tsukamoto 
Shinya is also pretty much dead here theatrically after "TOKYO FIST" 
bombed.  Mistakes have been made strategically with Wong Kar-Wai in 
the UK where every film has been handled by a different distributor, 
resulting in disappointing receipts for "Happy Together" (Buenos 
Aires).  I should state that Pony Canyon, who handle most of Iwai's 
films, stand out as an organisation who understand the need for 
strategic distribution internationally.  Much of the success of 
"Bounce-ko Gals" in Hong Kong is due to the amount of after-sales 
support given by Pony Canyon.  Compare that with the release of 
"Kitchen" in the UK which failed in part because of the lack of 
support given by Golden Harvest.

If the above has raised any interest from members of the list, you can 
find my report on the UK distribution of Iwai's most recent film 
"April Story" (Shigatsu Monogatari) in Pony Canyon's newsletter to 
coincide with its video release in Japan.  (The DVD release should 
have an English-subtitle track and the film-within-the-film is a 
longer version.)  I can e-mail the original version of my article (in 
English) to anybody who requests it.  And if anybody wants to be kept 
updated on Iwai's projects, please e-mail me your street address and 
fax number.  His Japanese language internet site is at "swallowtail-".

Stephen Cremin
The Asian 

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