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Bulgaria’s film business is finding its feet again, while insiders warn the industry will wither unless it weans itself from state money.by Boryana Dzhambazova 17 August 2010
SOFIA | “I liked the movie. It was funny and fresh, like a Guy Ritchie film,” said Ivailo Pantev, a 19-year-old Sofia student about Mission London, a film that has enjoyed unprecedented success for a domestic production.
“The more movies like Mission London are made, the more people would go to the movies to watch Bulgarian films in particular,” he said, adding that he also liked last year’s Eastern Plays.
By mid-July, Mission London, a comedy about the ordeal of inviting the British queen to attend a party at the Bulgarian embassy in London, had sold 370,000 admissions since its April release to become the biggest-ever domestic production.
The movie drew more than 46,000 viewers in its first three days, just 2,000 short of the premiere weekend total for the worldwide blockbuster Avatar. Its earning power is no less impressive. With total earnings to date of more than 2.5 million lev (1.25 million euros), Mission London is crushing the second-most popular domestic film of the past decade, Zift, which has sold just 35,000 admissions and earned around 130,000 euros.
Mission London, for all its success, is not unique.
Recent films such as Zift – a combination of neo-noir and soft-art, as the producers describe it – The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, a drama about a boy and his grandfather, and Eastern Plays, another drama about a violent incident that reunites two brothers, have been praised by the public and the critics, walking off with a number of prestigious awards from international film festivals.
The industry has undergone a painful, 15-year transition on both the private and public sides. Private production companies appeared when the state could no longer keep up its monopoly on film production. After an initial steep drop, state support for the industry through the National Film Center (NFC) gradually increased. In 2009 the center’s budget was around 12 million lev, almost double the amount allocated two years previously. In recent years these investments have finally started to translate into successful movies.
Bulgarian films have won more than 200 film festival prizes in the past five years. The World is Big, for example, won more than 30 international awards and was among the nine films shortlisted for the Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.
“The Bulgarian film industry has definitely been experiencing a revival since 2007. Since then both the legal framework and cooperation between producers and distributors have been improved and money for the sector has risen,” said Aleksandar Donev, director of the NFC.
The NFC was established in 2004. It covers between 30 percent and 80 percent of film production costs; filmmakers must raise the remainder themselves.
Diana Andreeva from the Observatory of Cultural Economics, a Sofia nongovernmental organization, agrees that a solid legal basis for state support of the industry has provide stability, and success, in recent years.
But it may be too early to celebrate. Support for cinema is taking a battering as the state’s financial hardships mount. This year’s state allocation to the film funding agency, originally set at 10.7 million lev, has been cut to 9.5 million. Moreover, the agency owes around 15 million lev to a number of features, documentaries, and animated films already in production.
The center was forced to halt the open competitions through which film projects are selected for NFC financing, ensuring that no new projects will be sponsored this year. Meanwhile, shooting on seven productions has been postponed until 2011.
“The suspension of competition sessions for this year will have an extremely negative effect on the whole film industry. This could bring the sector to its knees. Besides us, there have been some other successful movies, and now their producers and directors have new projects to work on, but they probably won’t be able to continue production,” Mission London producer Ivan Doikov said.
“Things have been going in the right direction, but the funding cuts will shrink opportunities to do quality movies. You can’t produce just a couple of movies per year and expect both of them to be masterpieces,” he added.
Mila Voinikova of Miramar Film, the company that produced Zift, says that this state of financial instability “creates pressure in the sector, as it’s never clear if there’s enough money and when producers will get their next paycheck. This uncertainty blocks the filmmaking process.”
Stefan Komandarev, director of The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, thinks that the state funding cuts and the freeze on this year’s productions means the domestic film industry could be thrown back to the times, in the 1990s, when only a couple of features came out every year. “This could put many directors and producers out of business. You lose your partners’ trust. As a result the Bulgarian film industry would become completely marginalized,” he said.
Komandarev is working on a new film, The Judgment, a German co-production, which has already won some international awards for a work in progress. He says the NFC failed to deliver its promised funding, forcing him to find 13,500 lev from his own pocket. So far his German partners have been understanding, he says, but he’s not sure how long he can test their patience.
Luckily, Komandarev’s project is in an early stage. But others are already far advanced.
Donev pledges that such films will have priority and could receive up to half of the money pledged to them by the NFC this year, with the remainder coming later. He has also promised to start a bank credit plan, perhaps as early as this autumn, that would help avoid such problems in the future. The program would offer filmmakers the chance to take out a bank loan of up to 25 percent of the film project’s value, which the government would later repay.
Donev acknowledges filmmakers’ jitteriness and asks that they wait until next year’s NFC budget is set.
“There are two options: the realistic one is to receive about 10 million lev, like this year. And the optimistic one is to get up to 18 million lev,” he said.
If the state allocation stays the same as this year, though, the agency would be able to pay for the films that are already in progress but won’t be able to finance new projects for a second consecutive year.
In fact, the state’s negligence of the film industry dates back years, according to a large-scale study by the Observatory of Cultural Economics. The group found serious discrepancies between the minimum amount the state is legally obliged to give the NFC – calculated according to the average budget of the previous year’s features, documentaries, and short films – and the actual sums received.
The study reported that since 2005 the state has allocated 26 million lev (13 million euros) less than the legally mandated amount. Andreeva says this shortfall is crippling the industry, possibly stopping 26 films from being made, since the average cost of a film in Bulgaria is 1 million lev.
“We just want the government to obey the law and allocate the necessary budget,” she said.
Donev acknowledges that this is a serious problem but says his hands are tied, because the funding comes from the state budget.
Georgi Stoyanov, chairman of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, says that the lack of funding and constant abuse of the law has pushed the local film industry to the “edge of survival and could lead to a catastrophe.”
Unlike in many other sectors, people working in film strongly agree on what needs to be done to further the development of the industry: find alternative non-state sources of financing and introduce tax breaks to attract investors.
Mission London producer Doikov warns that Bulgarian cinema could lose its competitiveness if the government fails to introduce tax relief for film investors soon – a notion that has been talked about for years. Donev also agrees that tax breaks are much needed. Although he says the idea is being discussed at the moment, he doesn’t see it happening before the economic crisis is over.
Many in the business consider the establishment of a cinema fund, a common and well-accepted practice in many European countries, as a must. Such funds raise money independently of the state budget, typically from a small percentage of television advertising of films, admission ticket sales, or fees for the distribution rights to films and videos.
The Observatory of Cultural Economics calculated that such a fund could raise some 30 million lev annually.
World is Big director Komandarev complains that until now the idea of a cinema fund has been unable to break through the resistance of cinema owners, television companies, film distributors, and ad agencies.
“We’re probably the last country in Europe where the money to make films comes exclusively from the state. All the other countries have a cinema fund and this has been shown to work well,” he said.