Let Them Hear Your Voice: What it’s Like Making Films in Ukraine, Russia and Baltic, CIS and MENA States

Try to imagine for a second your life without films. Quite hard, isn’t it? Since the invention of the cinematograph in 1892 the cinema has been growing steadily and eventually became indispensable part of our life. It is rightly called the art form of the 20th century. Being combination of art, literature and science, it invariably represents man and his life in society.

Still, it has its own peculiarities in every region of the world. Film industries depend on cultural background, audience claims, financial capacity, creativity of directors and a proper management. In this article we tried to analyze the film industries of Ukraine, Russia and Baltic, CIS, and MENA states: stages of development, position on the international market, most successful movies, key trends and further projects.

Ukraine

Disregarding all the political and military events, Ukrainian film industry slowly approaches the point of breaking even. This is mostly caused by the demand of the audience for the national content.

tribeStill, local market looks more like a confined space as the majority of Ukrainian films are produced only for the national market. However, in the past and present year there were released few movies that received recognition and positive feedback from public and critics abroad. Amid them are “Haitarma” (2014), “The Guide” (2014), “Battle for Sevastopol” (2015), “The Tribe” (2014). The most popular genres are dramas, comedies and war movies. After the Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity patriotic films about national heroes also gained popularity.

The state financing in Ukraine is anything but stable and is highly dependent on the general political and economic processes in the country. The most thriving years for film industry were 2011-2013 when the state funding increased significantly (from $3,8 mln in 2010 to $16,4 mln in 2013). But in 2014 it was crucially cut down to only $2 mln. This year’s state funding is even poorer and equals $1,3 mln due to the country’s economic difficulties. Ukrainian film production now is a surviving sphere, but it indeed can produce good movies, with unexpected, not trivial plot, strong and mysterious characters and dramatic end.

In general, the overall share of domestic film distribution in Ukraine amounted to 5.8% in 2014. The box office of national films was 2.5% of the total local box office. This year’s biopic about sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko “Battle for Sevastopol” became the highest grossing domestic premiere in the history of Ukrainian film distribution and earned $70 000 in the first four days of exhibition, finishing second in the list of the biggest box-office for the weekend. This movie has overtaken the previous record holder, last year’s historical drama “The Guide”.

Excessive percentage of Ukrainian films is co-production, although the mechanism is not modernized legislatively. A lot of successful films are co-produced with Russia. Also, Ukraine has the agreements on co-production with Poland, France and Turkey. As for the last, it resulted in recently produced romantic drama “Love Me” (2015).

There were several releases made with Ukrainian co-finance which paid off and generated some profit. Among them are “Love in a big city 3” (2014), co-produced with Russia and a feature-length documentary “Maidan” (2015), co-produced with the Netherlands. The first one gained 5 times its budget in box offices, not taking into account the TV and online sales.

The absolute breakthrough became the release of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe” in selected theaters all over the USA starting from June 17th. The movie was picked by US distribution company Drafthouse Films. Luckily for producers, after premiere in New York the number of requests from cinemas for its exhibition has increased from 30 to 50.

Ukraine is eager to improve its cinematography and sees it as one of the best ways to promote the country on an international level. Now they are shooting a high-budget (as for the Ukrainian market) film “Tale of Оld Miller” – a first Ukrainian film in fantasy genre, fully budgeted by “Derzhkino” state organization. The movie will be released by the end of the year and is expected to compete with Walt Disney Pictures’ 2015 film “Cinderella”.

Russia

Russian cinema is characterized by an abundance of films made mainly for the mass audience in criminal, comedy and historical genres. Nowadays, the number of domestic movies has increased comparatively to the last decade and its quality has also improved considerably. The most acclaimed film in 2014 was Oscar-nominated “Leviathan”; this year must-see list includes drama “Under the electric clouds”, co-produced with Ukraine and Poland, science fiction “Hardcore”, war drama “The Dawns Here Are Quiet”, drama “Motherland” and historical drama “Two Women”.

Russian Ministry of Culture and Cinema Fund are key institutions responsible for providing state financial support for production, distribution and promotion of the national cinema. Moreover, it traditionally allocates money for debuts, auteur and experimental films. The share of government funding in Russian film industry is growing year by year and there are already 30 movies out on the screens this year supported by the state.

leviathan

In Russia local movies are quite popular among viewers. In 2014 Russian films held 27% of market share in the domestic marketplace. Russia’s highest grossing film of all time “Stalingrad” by Fyodor Bondarchuk is a domestic movie that for the first time in decades dislodged Hollywood heavyweights on the Russian market. “Stalingrad” became the third Russian film collected to the foreign box office for more than $16 mln, and one of the domestic films which box office has exceeded $1 mln abroad.

stalingrad2Despite its membership in several international film organizations, Russia cannot be considered a full-fledged participant of the international co-production market. Although the number of projects with Russian participation has increased, so far no more than 10 films in co-production are produced annualy. According to the experts, it’s due to language barriers, legislative differences and lack of transparency in production process. Still, there are some successful examples of recent co-production, such as “Machete Kills” (Russia-USA, 2013), “Devil’s Pass” (Russia-USA, 2013), “Love in the Big City 3” (Russia-Ukraine, 2014).

Russian comedies, horror and war movies are favoured among the international audience. For example, low-budget horror film “Unfriended” (2015) produced by Timur Bekmambetov and directed by Leo Gabriadze gathered $16 mln in the opening weekend, and became third in the rank of US box office, according to the statistics of Box Office Mojo.

Russia plans to develop further its film industry and move towards an international level. The proof of that are three co-production films that scheduled to release in 2016, and 80 local ones including animation. Among them are popular continuing franchises, such as “Yolky”, “8 best dates”, and “Women against men 2”.

Baltic countries

All Baltic countries have a lot in common and, first of all, it’s the soviet past which had great impact on filmmaking industry and thus is highly reflected in movies. Starting from 2010 the countries began to evolve in a European way and it strongly influenced their film industries. The breakthrough in Lithuanian one came with the movie “Fireheart: The Legend of Tadas Blinda” (2011). It was the first movie that has grabbed both spectators’ and authorities’ attention. Latvia and Estonia also started to produce high quality feature films that became popular among local and partly international audience. There were 7 domestic feature films produced in Latvia, 6 in Estonia and 8 in Lithuania in 2014.

sangaile2All the Baltic countries have solid state financing that covers almost 50% of the movies each year. The state funding has been increasing during the last 5 years and in 2015 it’s 7,3 mln EUR for Estonia, 5,3 mln EUR for Latvia and 3 mln EUR for Lithuania.

In 2014 the share of the national box office in Baltic countries was approximately 4-5%. The top box-office earners among domestic films were “Valentinas Behind the Doors” (402,241 EUR) in Lithuania, “Zero Point” (196,352 EUR) in Estonia and “Mother, I Love You” (110,465 EUR) in Latvia. Moreover, all these films were in the Top-10 highest-grossing films in the Baltic region along with foreign movies. But still, American production holds the largest share of the region’s market with 75-77%, followed by the European one with 10-12%.

In order to support their film industries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have recently signed an agreement launching a dynamic cooperation platform named “Baltic Films”. It is an umbrella organisation aimed to promote their films worldwide and represent them at major film festivals and markets. The organization is supporting co-production projects as well. Baltic countries have already shown success in co-production – the examples are Lithuanian-Latvian “The Gambler” (2014) and Latvian-Estonian “The Man in the Orange Jacket” (2014). Moreover, this year is the first ever case when filmmakers of all the Baltic States took on a joint project – they are shooting Kristijonas Vildžiūnas’ drama “Seneka‘s Day”.

gamblerBesides this, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are good at finding co-production partners in Finland, Russia, France, Germany, Romania and Georgia. In 2015 there were released two co-production movies – Lithuania-France-Netherlands romantic drama “The Summer of Sangaile” and US-Estonian romantic horror “Spring”. The last one has achieved success worldwide and was №1 in iTunes horror films category in May. Another project, the tragicomedy “Magic Kimono” – the first-ever co-production between Latvia, Estonia and Japan – will be shot in August.
The feature films from Baltic countries are often presented at international festivals, and from time to time some of them are nominated to Oscar and Golden Globe Awards. Thanks to this films are getting noticed by foreign distributors. 2014 drama “The Gambler” has been sold to Italy, France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Animated US-Latvian co-production “Rocks in my pocket” has been sold to Poland.

From the beginning of 2015 Latvia has raised cash rebate levels and added 7.5 mln EUR in film funding. The National Film Centre of Latvia is supporting the following four international co-productions: “Out” (Latvia-Russia), “Fishboy” (Latvia-Russia), “Traitor” (Latvia-UK), and “Tactic Wisdom” (Latvia-Finland). Lithuania recently started shooting feature film “Emilia” – a story about young actress who is trying to pursue her career in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. Estonia is about to release shortly “Ghost Mountaineer”, a youth film with elements of horror, and a futuristic sci-fi “Roukli”.

CIS countries

The film industry of almost all CIS states including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is in very deep crisis. All have similar challenges – poor state financing, difficulties both with production and the following distribution, lack of producers, screenwriters and directors. Among all of them Kazakhstan may be considered as a top filmmaker. However, the country is focused solely on national content production.

State support of film industry in CIS countries is carried out through the Ministries of Culture, as well as organizations within specialized offices of the Ministries or directly regulated by the governments. Governmental support includes the partial or full budgeting of the projects or giving tax credits for film-making organizations. Still, the support is bad. In particular, the state funding of Moldovan film industry is nowadays at its lowest point. Yet there is a gleam of hope – in 2014 France and Germany made agreement with the Moldovan government to help the cinematography revival with financial support and joint projects.

Excessive percentage of films shown in movie theatres are those made either in Hollywood or in Russia. Domestic films are ignored by most of the viewers and it can be explained by the lack of promotion and poor production quality. Kazakhstan is the only exception. The most popular film with the biggest box-office there in 2014 was homemade “Kelinka Sabina” ($2 mln), which caused wide media debates and became a hot topic among Kazakh viewers and filmmakers.

This year Kazakhstan has already released 7 domestic feature films. Belarus released 3 domestic feature films, one of which named “Belye Rosy” is a sequel of the soviet one from the 1970s bearing the same title. Moldova is now producing only 1 film in 2 years.

iwontbebackBelarus is making some steps in order to develop its cinema market. Film studio “BelarusFilm” and the French film company Cinema Soleil in autumn 2014 signed a memorandum on co-production of full-length feature film “If not now, when?” by Serbian director Emir Kusturica. However, release date is not known yet.

Among the top recent co-production films in CIS are Russia-Finland-Estonia-Belarus-Kazakhstan drama “I Won’t Come Back” (2014) by Ilmar Raag and Kazakhstan-France-Germany drama “The Wounded Angel” (2014) by Emir Baigazin.

A co-production between Romania, Moldova and Germany, the film “All Gods’ Children” (2012) was nominated for Oscar from Moldova and also for a Golden Globe in the category of “Foreign Language Film”, but the country could not cover all the costs involved.

CIS countries need to face those crucial issues that are turning back the whole film industry and start to make positive changes. The foreign models of production, promotion and distribution could be a good example. State financing is important also, but it’s not the main problem of CIS film-making industries development. Because even the low-budgeted films could gain huge success and there are a lot of examples for that.

MENA countries

Although MENA region has been active in its film production development, so far none of the local film industries has truly met global standards. While the region has some obvious strengths, like its diverse and unique locations, domestic film industry is still made by Arabs and shown for Arabs only. The specific of the Arab movies is that they are often nationalized, not aimed for the global mass audience. But, recently, more local cinema productions started to appear in the Arab world’s film industry, which has resulted in media and public interest in movies from the region throughout the world.

Egypt established itself as the leading regional film-making state, and is positioned as “Hollywood of the Middle East”. Lebanon is known for its deep talent pool, recently expanding into international formats and film. Morocco is preferred for Hollywood film production owing to its site offerings. Jordan has also benefited from its history-rich locations and the creation of a strong film commission to ease the filming process.

In such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the UAE governments only recently began to take a more pro-active role in financing movie industry. Dubai Film Connection (DFC) and Doha Film Institute (DFI) are the flourishing film funds for local Arabic production. However, they are still limited in scale and scope. For the local producers it’s often difficult to find funding for their projects as investors are much more interested in investing their money in foreign projects, especially Hollywood ones, than in developing their own, frequently quite limited film industry.

In the main tourist cities, such as Dubai, Doha and the others, prevailing content in cinemas are popular world premieres, the major part of which are Hollywood movies. The share of domestic films playing in movie theaters usually does not exceed 10%. Box-office of Arab films is low because of a poor take-up by distributors and a lack of promotion.

Another problem is that in some Arab countries foreign distributors are often excluded from the distribution sector either because the monopoly exists (Morocco) or because the sector is nationalized (Kuwait). Those countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria – have dictatorship governments and due to this the censorship is expanded over all sectors, media and film ones especially. Constant and prolonged revolutions also do not allow its growth. A distribution sector is currently in an acute state of crisis. Movie theatres are outdated and decaying. However, a few firms are launching now a wave of multiplexing theatres, such as Empire in Lebanon and Iraq, and Gulf Film/Grand Cinemas in the Gulf countries.

Atlantic

Just a few years ago the majority of films made in co-production were films produced within the region itself due to the MENA countries’ national specifics such as strict legislative regulations, script limits and censorship. However, in recent years we can see a tendency of these countries opening their markets to co-production with foreign states. Good example is drama “Atlantic” (2014), a joint production of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Morocco. In pre-production now there is a comedy-drama “Catch the Moon”, co-production of UK, France, Germany and Egypt which will be released in 2016.

Factory-girlRecent years the interest in Arab films has increased considerably. That’s easy to explain – the world has become more globalized, and the cultural differences, that used to be quite incomprehensible, now cause great interest to the viewers.

The most noticeable sales of the region production in 2015 are Egyptian romantic drama “Factory Girl” (2013) and UAE-produced road movie “From “A to B”(2014). “Factory Girl”, bought by the French distribution company Ocean Films Distribution, will be released in French cinemas in the last quarter of 2015. It’s also been recently marked with successful release in Sweden. From “A to B” has been picked up by Studio Canal for UK distribution following its successful January run in Middle Eastern cinemas.

MENA region has the extraordinary culture heritage. Despite the various stages of development and financial situation in the region countries are trying to develop the film industry. But while the censorship remains and the producers still go only after national audience, the industry will keep at the same level of development.

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