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Filmmaking opportunities on the 25th Meridian East

The stand pole concept of Film O’Clock International Festival is the international collaboration between countries that share the same time zone. In 2021 the participating countries were Lithuania, Romania, Greece, Egypt and South Africa and through this Industry Talk the Festival wished to set up the table for creative collaboration between film industry professionals from the idea conception to distribution. What are the benefits, and which are the challenges when it comes to developing a film project in a country that you don’t know, that culturally is far away from everything you’ve experienced before?

The discussion was introduced by Mirona Radu, the festival director, and moderated by the Romanian film critic Cristi Mărculescu, who opened the conversation with a burden question regarding the cinematic perspectives in the next years, taking into considerations that we are finding ourselves in a sort of blockage – in the most countries cinemas are closed, the festivals moved in online, and the production of new films stopped or were postponed.

Gabriela Suciu (producer, distributor, lecturer and vice dean of the Film Faculty in Bucharest, Romania) shared her experience from both sides of the table (production and distribution. “I can say the situation is not good, it wasn’t good even before the pandemic, but, of course, things got worse. From the distribution standpoint it was awful. As Cristi said, there are not many people that dived into distributing new titles in this period, because it’s problematic in terms of box office. On the production side, I would say things are a bit better, people had more time to work and develop their projects. As an example, for my production company the festivals were very helpful in terms of having debates and workshops and continuing what they usually did, but now more people had access to these things. We were involved in lots of programmes, lots of workshops, but nothing more than this could happen. Then, somehow the French CNC and the French system managed to work and we were eligible to apply for their financing and let’s hope that this will mean new productions once everyone can travel again.”

Mărculescu mentioned that unfortunately, the Romanian CNC, which is sometimes the only producer for certain films, is stuck.

Gabriela Suciu added: “The problem in Romania was that most money came from selling tickets, and since the cinemas were closed, all the money came from the Government. There are rumours that the financing will start again, but with a lot of downsizing, and not all the sections will be involved. We wanted to get finances for a film, but because we couldn’t do it in Romania, we went to France and they decided to finance the film. The problem with that is that now the film is no longer Romanian, but French, and we had to adapt everything, the dialogues, the situations and many more to fit the French ideas, to be able to cover as much as possible. Then a Belgian co-producer was interested in the project, and we accepted his help. So at this point we are no longer sure how Romania is going to qualify in this project and in this whole scheme.”

Film O’Clock, then, was all about distance. This was a festival which fully considered the intricate relation between cinema and space, as well as the possibility to turn it into our advantage with the help of the Internet. In a way, moviegoers were never as close, even without leaving their home. From Lithuania to South Africa, this initiative proved that it was possible to come together around topics which apparently could not be more different from one another if they were fueled by the mutual passion for discovery. One should never think of cinema only as a means of learning about the world – but he or she should not neglect this possibility either. The Internet can make wonders, that’s a fact. But these wonders are here to remind us the way back to the movie theaters. I truly believe that this is the first step towards getting back to the way we were – that is, together, in the dark, accompanied by the same images projected on a big screen.

Mărculescu pointed out: “So basically you were forced to go to a different country and get very creative there. Now instead of a Romanian film you have an international feature. Romania has no part in it now.” Suciu immediately responded: “Of course, the director is still Romanian, but in terms of European co-productions you need to have at least 10% in a 3 parties co-productions to be valid.”

Mărculescu added: ”Do you think that this can work on a larger scale, with films co-produced with many other countries?”

Yorgos Angelopoulos (Director of Development & Production, Greek Film Centre) continued the discussion: ”Greece, in general, has handled all this pandemic situation quite well. The Ministry of Culture and the other representatives have worked very hard to let us be able to film safely during this period, so the pandemic didn’t really stop us that much. I think that because of how well the situation was handled, more co-productions were filmed here, even some that were not planned to be shooted here. The Greek productions have faced more difficulties, because expenses have increased and budgets have always been low here. The Greek Film Center operated with funding of 2 or 2.5 millions per year, so in times like this things are indeed harder.”

Mărculescu wanted to clarify: ”The Greek films that were supposed to be filmed here, they managed to be finished with only some extra cautions and extra budget, right?”

Angelopoulos agreed: ”Yes. Maybe some of them got stuck, but most of them only postponed production, and maybe the process of filming took a little bit longer than usual. The Ministry of Culture also gave some extra funding for the making of documentaries and short films in particular, that was a big help for the professionals in Greece.”

Angeliki-Lina Milonaki (Head of Film Office-Central Macedonia) joined the discussion: ”I would like to continue with my thoughts on this subject. We are a regional film office, so our job is to best facilitate projects, both film and TV that are shot in our area. The thing is that despite the difficulties and the very severe waves of the pandemic, there were shootings, of course with major delays, but under very strict safety measures, shootings were being developed and this helped, it gave us hope. It was a good opportunity for us to help people with location scouting, because it was easier to find places without many people around. I am saying it because we were able to support two TV projects. Things went well, and during this difficult period we had our first feature film. It is a Greek-German co-production. It is a very interesting project, it wrapped up last week. We tried to see this pandemic as an opportunity to help young people and local producers to overcome its effects. We composed our own industry guide, maybe that will help us attract more people.”

Mărculescu continued to ask questions, enlarging the topic: ”How do you think this pandemic will affect film festivals?”

Milonaki replied: ”I am convinced that the pandemic will only make festivals better and more sustainable. You can gain more audience now. There are many people that had never had the money, or the means to get to a festival, but now they have many opportunities. When things go back to normal, I think they will be better. The Thessaloniki Festival is planning another edition in the summer that will be both online and in person. We are going to participate as a film office. The Thessaloniki Festival’s motto is Cinema no matter what, so in the future I think it will remain the same. Cinema for everyone, everywhere.”

Bianca Oana (producer, Romania) was invited to join the discussion: ”It’s hard for me to comment, because during last year I didn’t have any film in production, so I can say that I have no clue how to do it in a pandemic. Some friends and colleagues have managed to film and get things going, so that’s good. I am in the course of developing a new film with Adina Pintilie, we’re trying to get finances now. From a developing point of view, it’s very hard, because we didn’t have a CNC competition in 2020 and this year there will be much less funds than usual, so I don’t know how that’s going to unfold. It makes it very difficult for Romania to stay in an international co-production. Also all the other countries have invested so much in culture and in the cinema industry. Things seem to be floating, and they will continue to do so in 2021, I can’t say how they will be for the next two or three years. It’s difficult for me to stay optimistic right now, although it is needed, but what I understand from optimism is to stay creative during these weird times.
With Collective, for instance, we only had two weeks of theatrical run in Romania until the pandemic hit, but luckily it was a HBO co-production so Romanians could see it there, but it suffered internationally. It’s a shame for films that aim for theatrical releases to be forced to go straight to the online streamings, because we are completely missing out on the grandeur of cinema and the spirit of community from seeing a film with other people. I think we should just reach out to authorities and put as much pressure as we can to get support. I don’t know for sure how the Ministry of culture or the leaders got involved in other countries, but in Romania we didn’t receive anything in 2020, and it looks like they will not compensate this year. We’re lacking the government support.”

Mărculescu added: ”Not to seem cynical, but there is this idea that great disasters lead to new ideas and changing of things. I do think that more people are seeing and experimenting new films in this period, than they would have done if things were normal. It’s strange, I agree that they are different experiences, going to the theater or seeing a film at home, but also I agree that VOD is a solution for right now, and it’s a good thing.”

Oana continued: ”There is one solution so that people can see the films online in a better environment, and that’s premiering the film on a platform where people can buy the tickets to that film and only see that film at the same time as others, but as we don’t have any support, it’s difficult.”

Radu, the festival director, invited Danai Anagnostou to take the floor: ”We can also hear from Danai, who is from Greece, but working in Finland.”

Danai Anagnostou (film producer & curator, Finland): ”In terms of financing there are no obstacles here at the moment. There is a special support for tests and hygienic procedures. In Finland there are also a few other funds that one can request support for artistic projects. I work mainly with small scale films, short films with crews of 20-30 people, which is easier to keep track of. I think that the situation is quite unfortunate, but I’m optimistic that, since we don’t know when things will be better, we will not discontinue our practice, and we`ll find the most creative ways of doing what we love. Maybe this moment in which it is easier for the best professionals to get in touch, they will come up with some revolutionary ideas that will be very helpful in the long run.”

Radu thanked Anagnostou for the word and invited Vasilis Vafeas to take the floor: ”Mr. Vafeas, would you like to share your thoughts?”

Vasilis Vafeas (president of the Association of Greek Film Producers and Directors): ”I agree with all of you, but I want to add something: Don’t forget that the cinema has two faces, one is the industrial and the other one is the art and love for film. So, if you have laws that are helping the industrial side, like tax refund, this is good, because you have more money. But this is not the cinema. The cinema is the artistic side. In Cannes most of the money comes from the marketing, but all the glamorous parts are coming from the films, the artistic films from all over the world. We should work in two directions. In Greece we have The Greek Film Center and now is another party that gives money from the tax refund. The Film Greek Center should work only on artistic films. We should be smugglers, work for four-five scripts at any time. A good producer can work with no money or with a lot of money. Romania has weaker relationships with the European Film Commission, but let’s hope we’ll reach a day when all the countries will be united. But for now, let’s write more scripts, like Cassavetes, the father of independent American films. He was shooting in his home with his friends, we should be ready to do that, work with friends or people like Woody Allan, it shouldn’t matter. Look what you did in a pandemic, a whole festival! When Cassavetes died, he left maybe 150 scripts. I am an old man, but I feel like a child here because of happiness!”

Mărculescu added: ”Thank you for this perspective! It felt like a call to action! We should not just wait for things to get better. I liked that you mentioned things and ways that people managed to make films in the past, like Cassavetes.”

Vafeas underlined: ”If you have a depressed artist, you don’t have an artist! If you lose your energy, you lose your art!”

After this moment of inspiration shared by the Greek film director Vasilis Vafeas, Radu invited the guests to speak more about the topic of collaboration: ”This meeting also had the purpose to show the potential of all the countries. I wanted to discuss the co-productions side, how we can do it, and if it’s a good solution.”

Suciu intervened in the discussion: ”Co-productions are quite mandatory for the Balkan countries. You can do it with the CNC money, but that’s not always the best solution. An important asset of the co-production is that it enlarges the distribution potential, at least with one territory, so it’s already something to be interested in. The downside is that you can wait a lot of time from one session to one country to another, to confirm everything. It can take a toll on the director’s morale, because they are ready to start, and might not understand why it takes so long to get things going. As I said in the beginning, it’s very hard to get money from the CNC, so now we start by going straight to the co-production possibilities before even considering the national funds. What we should really take into consideration is: are we interested in the nationality of the film or on making the film. Of course, this might bring some changes, you might be obliged to take an actor or use a specific set, there’s also a language problem, you might need to direct in a different language, and that might make you struggle a bit. But at the end of the day what matters is that you get to make the film and tell a story.”

Radu invited Mark Lotfy, producer from Egypt, to take the floor: ”Mark has just joined us, maybe he can share his opinion, from an Eyptian point of view.”

Lotfy said: ”Here (in Egypt) we have no clear restrictions, everyone takes care of themselves. Everything is functioning, which is good but also bad. You have a lot of freedom, but you need to take risks. It’s easier to work on development and post-production, but producing is very difficult. Working on documentaries is a bit easier, you usually work with one character and with old footage. About the funding process, I don’t think it is hard, even though the budget has been cut, now there are a lot less people applying.
Co-productions have been a solution even before the pandemic, but now I think that the only problem with it would be that we`re in different countries and we need to travel, which is harder. I had a shooting in France, and I wasn’t able to go so I had to attend the shooting through my computer, the set-up was very different.”

Mărculescu concluded: ”We need to be active and action oriented. This is a great moment for very small, almost no budget independent films. I don`t think there are many, or any, blockbusters being made right now.”

At the end, Radu invited Natalie Papapetrou to present briefly the platform Unified Filmmakers.

Papapetrou: ”I am speaking on behalf of Unified Filmmakers, a network of 19 independent filmmakers. We have an international short film festival. Also, we have different pillars, the first is the festival and the second is the networking, so that all filmmakers can contact and get in touch with others with the help of Unified Filmmakers. We have a market where the directors/producers can pitch their projects. We would be happy to have more people from Eastern Europe, so if you have a short film about Corona time, we would be more than happy to hear from you.”

Mărculescu ended the discussion, underlining the positive aspect and the hope for better times for the film industry: ”It seems like you all are planting some more roots for the co-production. I am glad to hear that things are moving and they are getting closer to the individual experience and the personal love for film.”

Although no one knows what the new business reality might be in the next months or the years to come, it’s always advised to keep all options open – from searching remote filming locations that could host small crews to being informed regarding special funding opportunities that each participant country might offer, and more about film industry with its ever-changing landscape where globalization and the search for new distribution markets are constantly finding new forms of existence, especially now when the current global situation is so unpredictable.

This Industry Talk was organized on March 1st, 2021, during the first edition of Film O’Clock International Festival.