Cannes wins put spotlight on Romania

Awards bring optimism to film business

The double whammy at Cannes of Cristian Mungiu taking home the Palme d’Or for his “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and the late Cristian Nemescu’s “California Dreamin’ (Endless)” winning Un Certain Regard placed Romanian cinema firmly on the filmmaking map.

Coupled with Corneliu Porumboiu winning the Camera d’Or for “12.08 East of Bucharest” in 2006 and Cristi Puiu winning Un Certain Regard in 2005 for “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” comes the emergence of a new powerhouse in world cinema.

And while the talented, new generation of Romanian filmmakers emerging from the shadows of communism has given those in the country plenty to cheer about, huge challenges remain for execs keen to build a sustainable film industry — notably, the lack of cinemas as well as limited coin.

“In the beginning of the 1990s, Chinese cinema was very successful, then it was Iranian cinema, followed by cinema from Hong Kong and Korea. Now 2007 is the year for Romanian cinema,” says Puiu. “I hope that’s it not just for one year, though.”

The majority of features produced in Romania come through the country’s state-funded National Center for Cinema (CNC), which functions in a similar way to Gaul’s Centre National de la Cinematographie. Every year, Romania’s CNC holds two screenwriting competitions. The winning entries — roughly 20-25 features, shorts and docus per year — end up receiving coin up to 49% of their budget. The remaining 51% of the budget is then usually sourced from private investment, co-production, bartering for film services or from an additional rebate from the CNC generated from taxing media companies on advertising space.

“The financing system works better than some years ago and gives the chance for more first-time directors to make their debut,” says Mungiu. “Also, all Romanian directors are their own producers, and this gives them the freedom to make the films they want.”

That’s if they get selected by the CNC in the first place. Puiu initially found his script for “Lazarescu”– about the country’s ailing health system — rejected on the grounds it wasn’t good enough. Incensed by their decision, Puiu appealed directly to the government’s culture minister, who subsequently insisted the CNC fund the film. CNC ended up fronting E300,000 ($400,000) of the total $660,000 budget. “I have to give that money back to the CNC, though,” says Puiu. “They work like a bank. I have 10 years to pay them back or they end up owning the film.”

The single, biggest issue facing Romanian film execs is the lack of theaters, and theatergoing audiences, in the country. At its height during the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu in the late 1980s, Romania boasted upwards of 450 cinemas. That figure has dropped to a measly 62 today, largely because many of the unprofitable cinemas were sold off and turned into nightclubs or torn down as capitalism replaced the old state-subsidized system.

“The most important problem to solve is to once more have a decent number of theaters,” says Mungiu. “Until we have a significant audience, great films will be exceptional events due to gifted individuals rather than the logical results of a healthy film industry.”

Many execs and helmers are keenly awaiting to see how Mungiu’s pic, set to bow this September, is received by Romanian auds. So far, the Cannes winners have fared comme ci, comme ca, with “Lazarescu” garnering 25,200 admissions and “Bucharest” 12,300 admissions. Signs are positive for “California Dreamin’ (Endless)” with 10,000 admissions already from its first 10 days of release.

While the “build it and they will come” approach may work, another major hurdle to overcome will be the lack of a cinemagoing audience in the country. Partly caused by comparatively high ticket prices — an average Romanian salary is $260 a month and a cinema ticket costs $15 — another factor is the lingering effects of so many years of being force-fed Communist-era propaganda films. The result was that people stopped going to the movies, preferring instead to watch black market videos on neighbors’ VCRs.

“I remember we would pay to watch films on a neighbor’s video. We would pay $3 each and watch six films in one evening, everything from ‘Rambo’ to ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Taxi Driver,'” says Puiu.

Helmers such as Mungiu, Puiu and Porombuiu have won acclaim for their stripped-down, often gritty aesthetics and powerful emotional content — movies that are hardly popcorn-munching audience-pleasers.

“I was criticized by some people who said my film wasn’t cinema and that cinema was supposed to mean you move the camera around and have beautiful lighting,” Porombuiu quips.

Notably, many of the country’s auteurs have worked in Romania’s thriving film-service industry. Recent years have seen many international companies, including some from Hollywood, head to Romania to lense there, attracted by the picturesque locations and affordability. “Borat,” “Cold Mountain” and “Joyeux Noel” lensed at the nation’s biggest studios, Castel and Media Pro.

“Some of the young directors, including Mungiu, worked in international productions shot in Romania as assistant directors,” says Castel’s Bogdan Moncea. “Many heads of departments, from DPs to production designers and art directors were also involved in foreign productions and benefited from this experience.”

The likes of Castel and Media Pro have increasingly tried to push a private model for film production, away from the CNC’s state funded awards, many of which still go to helmers from the 1980s and 1990s. Castel, for example, lent Porombuiu cameras for free while lensing the $260,000 privately funded “Bucharest.” Similarly, Media Pro produced “California Dreamin’ (Endless).”

Not that success doesn’t come without a price. “Considering the great amount of advertising and TV production shot in Bucharest, there are periods when you can hardly find any freelancers to get together a crew,” Mungiu says.

Time soon will tell whether Romania is able to build itself a sustainable film industry. More multiplexes are being built, more films will be produced and a more experienced talent base of technicians will improve its chances of succeeding.

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