Eastern European industry gets leg up

Funds, festivals key to film production process

MOSCOW — There is a synergy growing across Eastern Europe that is beginning to provide a reliable system of publicly funded initiatives to support the production of the world-class features fighting it out for a foreign-language Oscar.

National film funds and the region’s film festivals are increasingly becoming key parts of the production process in a part of the world long accustomed to government funding of the arts. The new element is the degree to which different bodies and initiatives are beginning to fit together to help set budding talent on the right path.

Take Bosnia’s entry for a foreign-language Oscar nomination, “Snow,” by debut director Aida Begic.

The 32-year-old filmmaker wrote and directed the film by drawing on her own experience of the impact of a bitter civil war in a beautiful but tragic country.

Coming from Sarajevo, Begic was fortunate: The city’s famous film festival, established in 1995 when it was still under siege by Serbian forces, is host to a range of initiatives designed to help burgeoning filmmakers, the talent campus run in cooperation with the Berlin Film Festival and the CineLink co-production event key among them.

Although Begic, whose film opened August’s 14th edition of the Sarajevo fest did not formally come through Cinelink — her producer Elma Tataragic is also its program director and it was felt there was a conflict of interest — she was helped by the city’s many cinematic connections.

“Our Iranian co-producers came to Sarajevo in search of a project and heard about my film here,” says Begic, whose film came to international attention in May when it took top prize at Critics’ Week in Cannes.

At a Cannes co-production Atelier in 2005, Begic found French and German co-producers.

Co-producer Karsten Stoter, of Berlin-based Rohfilm, tapped e350,000 ($440,741) from Leipzig-based MDM (Mitteldeutsche Medienfoerderung).

Fund head Manfred Schmidt says what attracted him to the project was how it told a story of the Bosnian civil war “in a completely different way — it was a story about human relationships in a small village, with very strong female characters.”

Other foreign Oscar entrants have also enjoyed the backing of public money. Agniezska Odorowicz, head of Poland’s national film fund, the Polish Film Institute (PFI), which launched in 2005 with a revolving fund worth $40 million (projected to grow to $65 million by next year) — and which is credited with providing a major injection into Poland’s film industry, after years in the doldrums — notes the support given Poland’s “Tricks” directed by Andrzej Jakimowski.

“We provided just over ($487,334) — nearly 66% of the film’s budget and have supported its international promotion from the earliest days, spending more than ($16,370) on that,” Odorowicz says, adding that it had also footed 90% ($157,408) of the Oscar promotion bill.

With grants of up to $1 million available for Polish films or $2 million for co-productions, the PFI has become a model for those that aspire to better public support across Eastern Europe.

Rik Vermeulen, an international film festival consultant who works with Rotterdam, Warsaw and Romania’s Transylvania festival in Cluj, says accessing support remains a challenge for many in Eastern Europe.

Although much improved in recent years, Romania’s system of state support was at times opaque and communication with government bureaucrats difficult.

“Cristian Mungiu (2007 Cannes Palme d’Or winner with “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) is very hands-on and independent. In Romania he hired a mobile cinema and toured city halls” to drum up support for the film, Vermeulen says. To further increase the buzz around his film he sent a production manager to festivals in Rotterdam and Berlin with a DVD copy to tout around sales agents.

At a time of global financial crisis, demand for publicly funded training, networking and co-production support has never been stronger.

Lili Pilt, head of the Baltic Event co-production market that takes place during the Tallinn, Estonia Black Nights Film Festival in November and December, notes that “producers, sales managers, distributors have all found the co-production market of use, particularly because of its pre-arranged one-to-one meetings and the individual attention given to projects.”

The extent to which festivals and associated professional events have now become an integral part of the movie business in central and Eastern Europe is reflected in the success chalked up by Connecting Cottbus — the East West Co-production Market of the mid-November Cottbus, Germany Festival of Eastern European Film.

No fewer than nine of the films in competition and official selection at the festival were produced or directed by regular participants at CoCo, including the fest’s director prize winner, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s “Tulpan,” which serves as Kazakhstan’s foreign-language Oscar entry.

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