As competition programmer for the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), Yoshi Yatabe has pretty much seen it all. But finding an email from Robert De Niro in his inbox still felt like a big deal.
“It was very difficult to neglect that email,” he says with a laugh.
It was mid-April when De Niro and his producing partner, Jane Rosenthal — co-founders of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival — contacted Yatabe with an intriguing proposition: Would TIFF be interested in joining an online event they were organizing?
They didn’t mention any other names at that point, but the resulting We Are One: A Global Film Festival, which will take place on YouTube from May 29, would turn out to feature contributions from many of the biggest festivals: Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto.
“It’s kind of a historic event,” says Yatabe. “It’s the first time for all these festivals to gather in one place and do a festival together, so it’s very exciting.”
There are 21 festivals taking part, each providing its own program, from features and shorts to talks and musical performances. In addition to bringing comfort to cinephiles, the 10-day event aims to raise money for a variety of COVID-19 relief efforts.
Tokyo’s program includes director Masaaki Yuasa’s 2008 animated short, “Genius Party: Happy Machine,” and Akiko Ooku’s eccentric romantic comedy “Tremble All You Want,” which won the Audience Award at TIFF in 2017.
There will also be multiple shorts by festival regular Koji Fukada, including a new film, “The Yalta Conference Online,” which stages Oriza Hirata’s historical play “The Yalta Conference” over Zoom.
Yatabe says that putting the program together was a learning process.
“It was much more difficult than I’d expected to clear the film rights for an online festival, on YouTube,” he says. “When you do a festival, for example in Tokyo, you only have to clear the domestic rights — but here, I (had to do it) for the whole world.”
Festivals typically serve as a film’s coming-out party: a place to create positive buzz, secure distribution deals or build momentum ahead of awards season.
With COVID-19 forcing many festivals to take a year off or drastically reconfigure, Yatabe says, “The whole film industry is in a bit of a mess.”
Movies that were selected for this year’s Cannes, for instance, now face an uncertain fate: Do their producers take the films elsewhere, or sit tight until next year’s festival?
“They’re kind of like lost children,” Yatabe says. This may seem like an opportunity for TIFF to snag some prestige titles, and he reveals he’s already been contacted about potential submissions for films that have seen their original plans fall through.
“I don’t think I can say I hope that these kinds of films will come to us, because it’s kind of taking advantage of other festivals’ cancellations,” he says.
As for TIFF — due to start on Oct. 31 — Yatabe thinks there’s a “very high probability” that the festival will go ahead. He’s less confident about whether it will be able to invite its usual bevy of overseas filmmakers and industry folk, given that many travel restrictions could still be in place.
“The question is: Can we make an international program without having guests?” he says. “I think that’s a challenge.”
Toronto International Film Festival, which takes place a month earlier, has said it is considering a hybrid model this year, using a mixture of physical and online screenings. Yatabe says Tokyo may do something similar, and concedes that festivals should be doing more to embrace digital platforms.
After a couple of months of lockdown, he says, “Nobody can ignore the importance of online viewing. So I think that the physical festival and the online part of the festival should be compatible.”
Yatabe also sees a more long-term role for distribution models such as Temporary Cinema, where films are streamed online and proceeds are split equally between the distributor and exhibitor.
“I think that scheme could stay after theaters reopen,” he says, “so that people in remote areas can also have access to new films.”
Given that Yatabe professes to have spent most of his free time in cinemas before Japan’s state of emergency went into effect, you would think it was a struggle for him to go cold turkey over the past couple of months. Not so, apparently.
“In one month, I watched 25 Ingmar Bergman films,” he says. “I was not expecting to be able to do that until after retirement. I hope that theaters will open as soon as possible, but I’m not bored at all staying home.”