Lyon’s International Classic Film Market brought into focus the opportunities and challenges of heritage film in Greece, Hungary and Latvia on Wednesday, presenting stark differences in the three territories.
Greece’s heritage film sector, while a niche market, can be vibrant if handled correctly, according to Spyros Damianakis, managing director of Athens-based boutique distributor Neo Films. “There is a market in Greece for classical films and this year we decided to jump in,” Damianakis said.
Neo Films, whose contemporary releases currently include Gabe Klinger’s “Porto,” starring the late Anton Yelchin, and Joshua Z Weinstein’s “Menashe,” released the 1954 Marlon Brando-starrer “On the Waterfront” and Luc Besson’s 1988 “The Big Blue” this summer – they key season for classics, which do well in open-air cinemas.
Cinema-going habits change drastically from summer to winter, Laetitia Kulyk, audiovisual attaché at the Institut français of Greece, explained. Multiplexes focusing on mainstream blockbusters dominate the winter months but virtually close down in the summer, when the open-air theaters come to life.
Working with the right exhibitors is vital, Damianakis added. A number of theaters, particularly in Athens, are devoted to classic films, such as the Thision, widely considered one of the most impressive open-air cinemas in the world. “The Thision actually became very successful with classic films, that’s how it built its name. It has a history of showing classic films. I would not have released ‘On the Waterfront’ or ‘The Big Blue’ if I did not have that cinema. The Thision is the best open-air cinema in Athens. Its location is unrivalled, with your film you have a front-view of the Acropolis lit up at night.”
Damianakis also warned that while classic films can be successful, film distributors have to tread lightly in view of the market’s limited size. “If you oversaturate the market, it loses its appeal. You should release no more than two great classics every year that can be billed as must-see films of the summer.”
Other commercially successful classics re-released by distribs this summer in Greece included Stanley Kubrick favorites “The Shining” and “Dr. Strangelove” and Andrzej Żuławski’s “L’important c’est d’aimer” (That Most Important Thing: Love), starring Romy Schneider, Damianakis said.
As for Greece’s own film heritage, a lack of a central policy and the ongoing financial crisis has impeded digitization and restoration efforts, according to Konstantinos Aivaliotis, director of the Greek Film Centre’s promotion and distribution unit, Hellas Film.
There was a program launched nearly a decade ago to digitize some 150 films but the initiative was ultimately scrapped due to technical problems, Aivaliotis said. The Greek Film Centre, however, is developing an educational film platform, which may provide some new opportunities for digitization efforts.
By contrast, Hungary’s generous National Film Fund is investing in its heritage films, said National Film Fund Managing Director Ágnes Havas.
Annual government funding for Hungary’s film archive is some €2.5 million, from which €1 million goes to digitization and restoration.
In addition, Hungarian heritage films that were financed by the state are seen as national film assets and their exploitation rights are controlled by the National Film Archive. “The archives can make money from selling the films that have been restored and digitized,” Havas said.
Havas pointed to the success of Zoltán Fábri’s 1954 drama “Merry-Go-Round,” which screened this year at the Lumière Film Festival to a sold-out crowd and also sold in France.
Another recent success was the restored version of the 1915 silent film “Undesirable” by “Casablanca” helmer and native Hungarian Michael Curtiz, which sold to various countries for VOD and television.
Simon Shandor of Paris-based Clavis Films, a distributor specializing in Hungarian film, said restoration was vital for the further exploitation of heritage films. “We cannot accept films that are not restored, it’s impossible.”
Countries and stakeholders are duty-bound to maintain their heritage films for the sake of new generations, Shandor added. “We have an obligation, you have an obligation if you want these films to circulate.”
Latvia, meanwhile, faces a number of obstacles in digitizing its own heritage films as well as introducing audiences to international classics, according to Dita Rietuma, director of the country’s National Film Center.
All of the films produced in the country during Soviet occupation are stored in the Russian archives in Moscow and if Latvia’s National Film Center wants a particular title it has to buy a copy or make a restoration from a positive copy.
The country has nevertheless invested nearly €1 million in restoration efforts, including the work of Rolands Kalniņš, known as the father of Latvian new wave.
Due to the country’s history, many international classics remain unknown to audiences, Rietuma explained. There are opportunities, however.
“You have to build an audience,” added. “It’s impossible to release classical movies in our country because the market is too tiny, but it’s possible to sell out one or two screenings of classical films, but you have to make a special event with a lecture. Then you can sellout ‘Casablanca,’ ‘Rear Window’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and you can get around 600 people.
“Festivals and events are the only markets for classical films. But to take an old film and try to release it is complicated and too expensive.”
Generations of people in former Soviet countries “don’t know European and Hollywood classics because these films were not screened when they were young people,” said, adding that movies like ‘Casablanca’ and Hitchcock films were never screened in Latvia during the Soviet era.”
While the European Union offers considerable support for film development and distribution, it does not offer specific financing for the restoration of heritage films, according to Matteo Zacchetti of the European Commission’s Media Support Program.
There are, however, a few film education programs that could offer some possibilities as they rely heavily on heritage films. In addition, a new program is set to go into effect in 2020 that may offer additional assistance.