×

Escalating U.S. Pressure, Sanctions on Iran Take Toll on Its Film Industry

U.S. President Donald Trump’s escalating pressure on Iran is taking its toll on the country’s film industry, with production slowing down owing to the crippled economy and international sales of Iranian movies — especially to U.S. distributors — being hampered by sanctions.

“The economic situation is a disaster for independent cinema” in Iran, said Paris-based sales agent and producer Katayoon Shahabi, who is Iranian and was a member of the main Cannes jury three years ago.Inflation is slashing budgets and funding sources.”

The sanctions mean that “it’s basically impossible to sell to any country, not just to the U.S.,” she said, because for companies based in Iran, “you can’t receive any money.”

Shahabi’s Cannes slate this year includes Tehran-set drama “I’m Scared,” directed by veteran Iranian auteur Behnam Behzadi, who was in Un Certain Regard in 2016 with “Inversion.”

“I’m Scared” — which centers on a poet in Tehran contending with his girlfriend leaving the country and losing ownership of his shop in a society ruled by the rich and powerful — had a tough time getting made. In the midst of production last year, as sanctions bit and Iran’s currency plummeted in value, “the cost of crew and accommodations almost doubled,” said Shahabi, who produced the film.

“Shooting had started, and fortunately the actors, who had signed contracts, did not ask for a raise,” because Behzadi is an important director, Shahabi said. But the budget rose from about $550,000 to $780,000. “If he had started production now, he would not have been able to complete it.”  

As for U.S. distributors, “companies that work with Iranians are penalized, so they don’t want to take any risks,” she said. And “it’s practically impossible for Iranian directors to attend U.S. film festivals, awards or promotional events.”

Tehran-based international distributor Mohammad Attebai said that companies like his Iranian Independents must use workarounds. “Anybody in this business has to have a bank account or a company outside Iran,” he said. “Otherwise, simply you can’t sell movies, or even pay for your expenses while attending markets.”

In Cannes, Attebai has signed a deal with France’s Wild Bunch for French rights to Iranian actioner “Just 6.5,” about a tough narcotics cop, played by Payman Maadi (“A Separation”), squaring off with a drug-trafficking kingpin. The fast-paced thriller denounces the damage caused by illegal drugs in Iran, and is being touted as the country’s all-time highest-grossing film domestically, barring comedies.

Attebai, who is the Iranian cinema consultant for the Venice and Tallinn Black Nights film festivals, said U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy had prompted a 31% drop in film production from 169 features in 2017 to 116 features last year. “This is the first clear impact of the sanctions that we can see,” he said, adding that both public and private funding have diminished.

Attebai also said that “a lot of young filmmakers in Iran think that political sanctions are making it harder for Iranian films to be selected for major international film festivals.” Though he doesn’t personally believe this to be the case, he said the sanctions can have an indirect negative effect because festival selection committees are concerned about whether titles that make the cut will be picked up by distributors and have promotional muscle behind them.

For directors such as Jafar Panahi, who is known to be a dissident, sanctions are not a problem, Attebai said. Panahi’s “3 Faces,” which won the best screenplay prize at Cannes last year, was the country’s biggest cinematic export, selling to Kino Lorber in the U.S.

Nor have the sanctions had an adverse impact on upper-echelon Iranian filmmakers such as double-Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, though the Trump travel ban got in the way of Farhadi attending the 2017 Oscar ceremony, where his film “The Salesman” won.

“Filmmakers continue to work as they always did,” said Iranian actor Babak Karimi, who appears in “The Salesman” and several other Farhadi films and is a close friend of the auteur. “We are so used to living in instability and uncertainty.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content