Will the Iran nuclear deal energize the country’s filmmakers and open up the Iranian film industry internationally?

Now that the landmark accord between Iran and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia has been officially adopted, it’s likely that economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted. That may even open roads for foreign film companies, including the Hollywood studios, into a country where more than half of the 81 million citizens are under 30.

For the U.S. film industry, it was never illegal for an Iranian national to acquire an American movie and show it, but U.S. distributors nevertheless have been subject to restrictions on doing business in the Middle Eastern nation.

“We are not allowed to invest in distribution or promotion on a film, which you would normally do, which makes (such an investment) not a very interesting proposition,” says Chris Marcich, president of international for the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

But, he adds, “If sanctions are lifted, there would be no more stumbling blocks on the U.S. side for Hollywood to seek opportunities in Iran.” According to Marcich, it would be up to the studios to decide whether they think the time is right to develop the market.

Several Hollywood majors did not return requests for comment.

REEL LIFE: Shahram Mokri’s genre film “Fish & Cat,” clockwise from top left, is a local hit; pirated movies for sale on the streets of Tehran; director Keywan Karimi, above left, films “Writing on the City,” for which he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Writing on the City Courtesy of Sajad Vasiresh/AP

In early June, as the accord was being assessed by the international community, and its adoption seemed imminent, producer Barry Navidi (who works closely with Al Pacino) returned to his native Tehran after 15 years to hold a master class at the Intl. Urban Film Festival. “In time, with the right circumstances, I would like to bring a Western production here,” Navidi told Variety. “It would be nice to bring the two cultures together, and make something international.”

That’s not likely to happen soon, but lifting sanctions could boost the local film industry, says Iranian director Shahram Mokri. “First, because filmmakers can hope that people will have more leisure time to go see movies (when the economy picks up).” Second, because a more competitive atmosphere will prompt more Iranian filmmakers to want to make themselves known abroad, he says. Mokri’s single-take slasher “Fish & Cat” made an international splash after launching at Venice, and it’s also a hit locally.

Harry Amies, who runs London-based company Harry/Amir, which aims to bring Western productions into Iran in partnership with Iranian producer Amir Rezazadeh, also is optimistic, while taking a wait-and-see approach. “It won’t mean that everything will open up immediately, but it will definitely make international collaboration and distribution easier,”
he says, adding that a degree of fear remains as well. Hardliners, who gave ground to reach the nuclear agreement, may now put more pressure on the arts and culture sector.

A possible sign of that backlash: In mid-October Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced to six years in jail and 223 lashes for his film “Writing on the City,” about political graffiti spanning the period from the 1979 Islamic Revolution through Iran’s contested 2009 election. Though sentenced, Karimi remains free pending appeal.

Director Reza Dormishian — whose “I’m Not Angry,” about a student expelled from his university for his politics, is banned in Iran but traveled widely on the fest circuit — sees a linkage between economics and freedom. “Naturally, when the economic situation improves, we will face (the issue) of having more cultural tolerance,” he says.

There is already more willingness by the government to allow international broadcasters back into Iran — BBC News recently sent a reporter to the country for the first time since the disputed 2009 presidential election, and authorities have let journalists from American-Jewish magazine the Forward into the nation to do a wide-ranging report about Iran.

But earlier this month, after being held for months without being officially charged, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, was convicted of espionage, a charge the reporter denies.

“In time, I would like to bring a Western production here.”
Barry Navidi

Rezazadeh says the Iranian government believes it has been misrepresented by the international media. “They hope that by allowing more international media in, that image will gradually change,” he says. Still, the main problem with the Iranian film industry is that it is severely underscreened.

“We just have 330 screens for a country of 81 million people. That’s nothing,” says Mohammad Attebbai, topper of global sales shingle Iranian Independents.

Moreover, 99% of those locations show local films exclusively. Out of 75 movies screened in Iran in 2013, the only foreign title was “Caesar Must Die” by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Worse, the number of moviegoers in Iran is gradually decreasing, notes Iranian film journalist Hossein Eidi Zadeh. “Screening foreign films would be a good way to encourage people to go see more movies,” he says, but adds that distributors would have to find a way to show films with minimal or no censorship — a difficult task.

Further alienating the studios, piracy of Hollywood titles is rampant, and not just on the Internet. In June, during the Urban Fest, a bookstore at Tehran’s Mellat multiplex was selling censored bootlegs of Hollywood titles, including “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” “Collateral Damage” and “Babylon A.D.”

Yet, a willingness to let bygones be bygones exists within cultural circles in both the U.S. and Iran. “I’m just hoping that in two or three years, the sanctions will get lifted, and we will be able to really get things going here,” says Amir Esfandiari, head of international affairs at the Farabi Cinema Foundation, which reps Iranian cinema at festivals and markets around the world.

On July 14, when the agreement was initially signed, many Iranians, tired of sanctions and isolation, danced in the streets and celebrated on social media, where #IranDeal trended on Twitter
and #IranWinsPeace was tweeted 2.8 million times.

The MPAA’s Marcich understands the country’s depth of creativity. “Politics aside, they are a nation with a film tradition, with pride in their films and an interest in what Hollywood does,” he says.

“There was always a dialogue, but we couldn’t take it any further because the situation prevented it. It was always sort of an expression of ‘Let’s hope that soon we will be able to take this further.’ I think now we are on the verge of being able to do that, and I think that would be good for both countries.”