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Europa conference unspools to cynicism

Directors remain skeptical of region's cinema

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — The Romanian new wave of directors including Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu and the late Cristian Nemescu may be the darlings of the European fest circuit but the severely depressed state of exhibition in their homeland means getting their groundbreaking work seen and appreciated by their countrymen is like swimming upstream.

That was the message coming loud and clear from the 12th edition of the Europa Cinema conference which gathered over 400 exhibs and distribs from 36 countries in the Romanian capital of Bucharest Nov.15-18 to both recognize the outstanding achievements of the local filmmaking talent and welcome Romania into the European Union (it officially joined Jan. 1) and the Europa Cinemas network.

The conference got off to a spicy start when a mischievous Puiu, director of 2005 Cannes Un Certain Regard winner “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” declared that “I don’t really care where people see my films … I prefer watching a film at home alone when everyone else has gone to sleep,” adding that he finds the noise of people eating popcorn and fiddling with cellphones at cinemas impossibly distracting.

“The football match experience seems to have been grafted onto the cinema experience,” said Puiu, who feels “watching a film at home on DVD is not sacrilege … I work for the audience not the cinema.”

Puiu’s statements raised the hackles of assembled exhibs who are battling hard to keep cinema attendance buoyant in Europe and would prefer respected Euro auteurs like Puiu to support their cause.

But Puiu’s ambivalence to the cinema is perhaps unsurprising given the desperately weak state of Romanian exhibition.

Between 2002 and 2006 the number of active screens in Romania fell from 230 to just 73 as annual admissions nosedived from 5.3 million to 2.7 million. The 22 million inhabitants of Romania go to the theater a measly 0.13 times a year despite the recent surge in quality homegrown productions.

The problem stems from a variety of factors: unlike in other former communist countries, Romanian cinemas have not experienced widespread privatization; ticket prices are high compared to wages; DVD piracy is rife; and decades of being force-fed communist film propaganda by  the brutal Nicolae Ceausescu party machine have left locals disinterested. 

The exhibition crisis led exasperated helmer Mungiu to take his harrowing 2007 Cannes Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” out on the road.

Mungiu self-distributed “4,3,2” via traditional theatrical routes and via a novel short cut: a caravan tour around 15 Romanian cities which saw cinema equipment unpacked and rigged up in regional cultural houses (numerous in ex-Soviet countries) for public screenings. And the ploy paid dividends, contributing an impressive 18,000 admissions towards the 87,000 running total.

“I felt that someone should find out the answer to this question: do people no longer go to the cinema in Romania because they do not feel like watching the movie there but rather on TV, or do they not go simply because they have no cinema to go to? And for me this is only one answer: it is because people do not have cinema halls anymore,” said Mungiu.

Mungiu’s innovative approach to reaching lapsed cinemagoers delighted attendees at the JW Marriott Bucharest Grand hotel.

How to lure audiences, especially youngsters, back to the cinema is part of the Europa Cinemas mandate and was a stable on the menu of presentations over the three days. And the importance of using interactive Internet marketing including social networking techniques to reach and interact with youths drew much discussion.

“The quality of the coffee and the wine is more important than the quality of the film,” declared Dutch exhib Ted Chiaradia, who operates the Lux cinema in the university town of Nijmegen. His initial statement about how to enrich the cinemagoing experience drew laughs. But as Chiaradia demonstrated how his 9-screen art cinema venue feeds of the popularity of its restaurant and cafe other exhibs including Mark Cosgrove from the U.K.’s Watershed chipped in to concur with the sentiment. “The environment in which you see films is key. We are selling a night-out package,” stressed Cosgrove whose landmark Bristol venue offers a web cafe and trendy bar but no popcorn or sweets.

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