Turkey gets commercial breaks

Local biz ups quality and quantity of films

LONDON — As Turkey makes more moves toward joining the European Union, trying to reconcile its position as the bridge between East and West, its filmmakers also have crossed an artistic bridge and captured worldwide attention — plus the attention of local auds.

Auteur helmers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won the 2003 Palme d’Or for “Uzak,” have increasingly become darlings of the international fest circuit. This year’s Berlinale sees acclaimed drama “Takva” unspool in the Panorama section.

As important, however, has been the rise of mainstream, commercial Turkish cinema.

Last year saw the first time that more Turkish pics were distributed in domestic theaters than Hollywood and foreign features. What’s more, Turkish auds are flocking to see local movies like never before, and production is up in the country from 17 films in 2005 to nearly 50 projects in production this year.

“There are better stories now, better directors and better distribution,” says Anil Sahin of distrib Maxximum Films, which repped 2006’s “Valley of the Wolves.” Turkey’s most costly feature ever, at $10 million, was also its biggest-grossing, with more than 4.5 million admissions and $22 million at the box office.

A number of factors have played roles in this resurgence. A watershed moment was the success of 1996 feature “Bandit,” an action romp about the legendary exploits of Turkish folk hero Baran the Bandit.

” ‘Bandit’ showed Turkish producers that with good, modern stories, they could have huge commercial success in their country. It was also the first Turkish film to be commercially released in Europe,” Sahin says.

Since then, pics such as “Vizonteli,” “Vizonteli Tuuba” and “G.O.R.A.” have traded places as Turkey’s all-time B.O. champ.

Key to success of those pics has been the emergence of a private TV sector in the country, thanks largely to the deregulation of the previously state-controlled TV biz in the mid-1990s. There are now some 40 free-to-air channels in Turkey.

Popular TV personalities such as Yilmaz Erdogan, who helmed and starred in both “Vizonteli” pics, and “G.O.R.A.’s” Cem Yilmaz first came to fame and fortune on the back of successful skeins, and have been able to translate their small-screen success into big B.O. “Valley of the Wolves” initially began life as a TV series.

Casting TV stars in films also has been key to convincing TV execs to invest coin in features. “Many of the producers also fund successful primetime TV series. They are able to invest their profits into filmmaking. The popularity of the actors on these shows helps guarantee there will be good box office,” says Esra Even, international relations director at Antalya Film Fest, the most prestigious in the country along with Istanbul’s international annual showcase.

Increased government support for the film biz as well as greater links with Europe, especially Germany, which has a large Turkish immigrant population, also have helped the boom in production.

European film funding body Eurimages has become a major player on the Turkish film scene, providing coin for several Turkish productions, including Ceylon’s “Climates,” which won the Fipresci prize at last year’s Cannes.

“This is very important for us. Five years ago, without this support we wouldn’t have been able to finish the film,” says pic’s producer Zeynep Ozbatur. “Germany is a very important and interesting territory for us.”

The close ties between Turkey and Germany can be seen most clearly with Fatih Akin. The German helmer of Turkish origin won the Golden Bear for his 2004 pic “Head-On,” a blood-stained love story that looked at German-Turkish relations.

Akin’s shingle, Corazon, subsequently co-produced “Takva.”

Others in the Turkish film biz also have been keen to push industry links between the two countries, such as Maxximum Films, which has been distribbing Turkish fare in Germany for the past five years.

“We have been able to put E30 million ($39 million) back into the Turkish film industry thanks to the box office in Germany and, since 2004, other European countries such as Austria, Belgium and Switzerland,” Sahin says.

“The success of ‘Head-On’ was a huge stepping-stone. It sold over a million tickets in Germany. Now if Turkish films play in Berlin, like ‘Takva,’ it multiplies its market salability by 10, maybe even 100 times. Its importance is immeasurable.”

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