'Grand Cahier' Win Spurs Hungarian Renaissance

'Liza, The Fox Fairy' among eclectic 27 film slate

“Hungarian cinema is back,” declares Agnes Havas, chief exec of the Hungarian National Film Fund, after Janos Szasz’s “Le Grand Cahier” (The Notebook), the first film funded by her young org to premiere, won the top prize, the Crystal Globe, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

The fund was launched by Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna, who is Hungary’s film commissioner, less than two years ago, but it already has given coin to 27 feature film projects.

When Vajna took over at the start of 2011, Hungary’s film biz was in crisis. The existing national funding body, the Hungarian Motion Picture Public Foundation, was bankrupt, with $25.5 million in debts. This caused a hiatus in production, and the cancellation of the Hungarian Film Week, the showcase for local movies, because there were so few new films to show.

The fund’s budget for this year is HUF 5.1 billion ($22.1 million), which is drawn from a secure source, the national lottery, and benefits from the fact that Vajna’s role puts him at the heart of government. Films also have access to a production incentive worth up to 25% of the budget in certain circumstances.

“The Notebook” stands as a model for the type of Hungarian movie the fund intends to promote: It is based on a strong piece of intellectual property; it is smart, distinctive and provocative; and has the potential to be a creative and commercial hit at home and abroad.

The screenplay is adapted from Agota Kristof’s bestselling novel “Le Grand Cahier.” Although superficially a coming-of-age tale set in World War II Hungary, it is also a dark fairytale, the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” brought into the modern era, in which innocent twins must learn to survive unceasing cruelty when they are sent to live with their evil grandmother, called a “witch” by her neighbors, in a village full of twisted, morally corrupt individuals.

It brings together co-production partners from Hungary, Germany, Austria and France, and sales company Beta Cinema has already started racking up deals, with territories closed including France (Pretty Pictures), Italy (Academy Two), Spain (Golem), Japan (New Select) and Israel (Lev Cinemas).

The fund has backed a diverse slate of projects with a balance of experienced filmmakers and those starting out in their feature film career, such as Karoly Ujj Meszaros, whose first feature, the fantasy comedy “Liza, The Fox Fairy” (pictured) will be released in November. Several femme helmers are also present, such as Virag Zomboracz, who is making her feature debut with dark comedy “Afterlife,” about a deceased father haunting his son, which will bow in February.

“We try to concentrate on diversity: both in terms of the subject-matter of the films, and the age and experience of the directors. We feel that we have a healthy mix,” Havas says.

There is also a strong emphasis on script development, she says.

The fund’s staff support the pics through all stages of production and beyond, including marketing them to the international biz when they are completed. To this end, Havas has set up a foreign sales department, which takes on sales duties for pics that receive more than HUF 150 million ($650,000) in funding.

The fund’s aim, of course, is to get their pics selected by the major festivals, and with that in mind it handles the marketing campaign in the run up to their world premieres.

“We are experienced people in the film fund, and we’d like to give (the producers) advice, and share our knowledge, so they have great premieres, and bring Hungarian viewers back into the cinemas,” Havas says.

As to the future, Havas would like to make small adjustments, drawing on the feedback from the biz.

“What we want to concentrate on in the near future is fine tuning our system. Like how the film fund works and how it applies the rules and regulations,” she says.

“We listen to the industry and fine tune our operations because we’d like to be partners with them, in the sense of a supportive partner: A supportive body that gives the subsidy but they can also count on if they need our help.”

But there is one caveat: there must be a return on investment for those films that receive more than HUF 150 million ($650,000), which is the basic support for production.

“If the film fund gives additional support, we want to see our money back. Not because we’d like to go out and buy nice clothes or chocolates; no, because we’d like them to have more money for their next film,” she says.

“I envy the Czech Republic, which has the same population as Hungary, 10 million, and if they release a Czech film they get up 500,000, 600,000, even one million viewers, and that’s what we’d like to achieve.”

“We’d like to have big successes in the cinema, be it an arthouse film or a so-called commercial film, which is an artificial difference because, you know, there’s only a good film or a bad film.”

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