Few Romanians will wax nostalgic about life before the fall of strongman Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed in 1989 after two decades of iron-fisted rule. But there was at least one industry that flourished under his Communist regime, with roughly 450 movie theaters operating across Romania at the time of the dictator’s death.
Cinema was an unexpected casualty of the country’s rough-and-tumble transition to democracy, when hundreds of theaters shuttered—many to reopen as bingo halls, pawn shops, nightclubs and churches. Admissions halved in the two decades after the fall of Communism, and Romania has the lowest rate of screen penetration in the E.U., according to a study released this year by the Council of Europe’s European Audiovisual Observatory, with nearly 60,000 inhabitants per screen—more than twice the number of neighboring Hungary, and roughly five times the number of cinephile France.
There’s been a cautious revival in recent years. Though Romania’s 90 cinemas are a fraction of the country’s Communist-era peak, that figure represents a nearly 20% increase from just five years ago, spurred by renewed efforts to renovate and restore old movie theaters. At the third edition of the Transilvania Talent Lab, which took place May 29 – June 2 during the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival, participants gathered to address how to make the most of that improvement, focusing on ways to professionalize an often ragtag network of independent theater operators scattered across far-flung provinces.
“There are so many things that you have to factor in, depending on where your cinema is, what is the building, what is the neighborhood, and what you want to do with it,” says Boglarka Nagy, programming manager of Bucharest’s Elvire Popesco Cinema, who led a series of Talent Lab workshops. Many newcomers to the world of independent cinema, she says, assume running a movie theater is just a matter of “turning on the projector…[and] pushing the play button. It’s not.”
The Talent Lab offered 10 exhibitors from Romania and neighboring Moldova a chance to develop their management skills and better understand how to market and promote movies. Part of the aim was to help theater owners understand what it takes to build a community of film-lovers, from digitizing cinemas to developing partnerships with local media to figuring out “who your audience is, and [how to] to cater to their needs,” says Nagy.
“For some of them, they are very skeptical,” says TIFF industry manager Dorina Oarga, who notes that many independent Romanian theaters are run by municipal authorities with no formal cinema management training. “Some, they are very surprised. They’ve been working in the cinema for 20 years, and nobody came to say, ‘Look, you can improve.’”
The numbers suggest cause for guarded optimism among local exhibitors. Admissions have risen more than 50% since 2013; total box office in that period jumped from $40.3 million in 2013 to $66.9 million last year, according to the National Film Center. While much of that success could be attributed to the expansion of Cinema City, Romania’s largest theater chain, which opened its 26th multiplex in May, the steady growth suggests even arthouse exhibitors stand to benefit from improved ways of doing business.
“It’s very necessary,” says former culture minister Corina Suteu, whose Film ETC. Association assists and consults with municipalities across Romania to revive local cinemas. The organization partnered with TIFF, Europa Cinemas, and the Association of Municipalities in Romania on May 31 to host a one-day event focused on teaching local authorities that cinemas can be engines of economic growth and development.
“The audiences are there,” says Suteu. “We just don’t give them what they need.”