CLUJ, Romania — Soggy skies couldn’t dampen the mood in this medieval city as the 15th Transylvania Intl. Film Festival wrapped June 4, just weeks after another strong showing by Romanian helmers in Cannes.
With Cristian Mungiu sharing best director honors on the Croisette for “Graduation,” and newcomer Bogdan Mirica winning the Fipresci award in the Un Certain Regard section for his debut feature, “Dogs,” Romania’s New Wave arrived in Transylvania on a high note.
But despite the laurels that have wreathed local auteurs abroad, and another strong slate of Romanian films playing to sold-out screenings in Cluj, the week underscored a growing urgency to transform a domestic industry that has struggled to capitalize on its international success.
“We do have creators. We have great cinema,” says newly appointed culture minister Corina Suteu, who a month into her mandate has been charged with cleaning up the legal and bureaucratic muddle surrounding film policy. “What we don’t have are good instruments, good legislation, good administration to favor these creatives.”
In recent weeks Suteu has worked with local stakeholders to draft a bill she hopes to see signed into law later this year. Among its goals are strengthening the long-floundering National Film Center (known by its Romanian acronym, CNC); bolstering the national film fund; creating a framework to support minority co-productions; and introducing long-planned incentives that would allow Romania to compete with regional powerhouses like Hungary and the Czech Republic in luring foreign shoots to the country.
Already this year there have been encouraging signs. January saw a shake-up of the board of the CNC, bringing fresh faces to an institution that for years has been accused of cronyism. The selection process for the national film fund is also being overhauled to address long-standing concerns about its lack of transparency, while Transylvania fest founder Tudor Giurgiu says that new revenue streams for the national fund could see it double to around €20 million ($22 million) in the coming years.
Reviving the flagging exhibition sector is also a top priority. With roughly 360 screens in a nation of 20 million, Romania has one of the lowest rates of screen penetration in Europe. Government investment is expected to make up for some of the shortfall. Elsewhere in the country, exhibitor Cinema City is aggressively expanding: The two new plexes it plans to open this year will bring its total to 26, with nine going up in the last two years alone. Thanks to the growing number of screens, box office has been on the rise, with total takings last year approaching 207 million lei (about $52 million), up almost 12% from 2014.
While more screens should offer a boost to the local biz, they don’t necessarily translate into B.O. success: last year’s top-grossing Romanian film, Berlinale Silver Bear-winner “Aferim!”, earned just $227,000 at the cinema—not even enough to crack the country’s top 50 list. Despite the critical acclaim lavished on their countrymen, most Romanian auds are still turning out for Hollywood blockbusters instead.
“For us it’s almost impossible to reach the [local] audience,” says Cristi Puiu, whose latest effort, “Sieranevada” – a critics’ favorite in Cannes – played to a packed house for its domestic premiere in Cluj.
Eleven years after Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” took the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes, heralding the start of the New Wave, Romanian film appears to be at a crossroads. The country has enjoyed a remarkable run of success – including a Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013 for Calin Peter Netzer’s “Child’s Pose,” and a Palme d’Or in 2007 for Mungiu’s searing abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” – yet like any movement it must contend with the fickle tastes of audiences eager for new voices.
Minimalist, methodical, with a flair for the black comedy that made “Lazarescu” an arthouse hit, the dominant aesthetic of Romanian film has become as recognizable – perhaps even predictable – as the critical acclaim that inevitably heralds each new release. Yet Puiu seems sanguine about the movement he started, noting that a number of his countrymen are “bringing a fresh touch to what Romanian cinema can be.”
Among them is Mirica, who followed up his success in Cannes with best picture honors in Transylvania. While the helmer insists he didn’t set out to “make a statement” with “Dogs,” a slow-burning thriller that’s drawn comparisons to the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” his first feature clearly revels in defying the expectations and conventions that have defined the Romanian New Wave throughout its decade-long run.
As with Radu Jude’s genre-bending “Aferim!” in 2015, “Dogs” offers a convincing argument that audiences will have plenty to look forward to from Romania in the years ahead—whether from the New Wave or whatever replaces it. “In the end, they choose the movie,” says Mirica. “They don’t choose the movement.”