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Bos/Hrv/Srp 21 Jul 12

Multiplexes Revive Serbian Cinema at a Price

New multiplexes have been the salvation of Serbian cinema - but they come at the expense of diversity, in terms of the narrow selection of US blockbusters they show.

Jovan Ristic
BIRN Belgrade
Entrance to Arena cineplex in Belgrade | Photo by Beta

Catch a film in Serbia these days, and the chances that it comes from countries outside the US will be minimal.

Movies from Asia, Africa, Latin America, as well as Eastern Europe, are more the exception than a rule. Cultural diversity in Serbian cinemas appears all but extinct.

Money dictates this state of affairs. Because funds are tight, distributors have become careful when it comes to buying rights for movies, and only invest in films that seem guaranteed to attract audiences.

Experts believe the authorities could change this if they lent some financial support to the distribution of non-commercial and art-house movies.

They could also take a more active role in the accessing the international film funds that give out money both for production and distribution.

But the Film Center of Serbia, FCS, says that although the 2011 Law on Cinematography envisages state support for film distribution, domestic film production must remain the priority.

However, only a handful of domestic movies fill Serbian movie theatres each year, one expert says.

Cinemas back thanks to multiplexes:

After Serbia’s neglected network was all but destroyed in the process of economic transition, cinema halls have slowly begun to reappear, at least in big cities.

Film experts say the situation is much better than it was back in 2007, when the corruptly managed privatization of the old state-run Beograd Film cinema chain left the capital without most of its cinemas.

Illustration: an empty cinema hall | Photo by Beta  

The number of visits reached an all-time low that year, when only 1.28 million tickets were sold in Serbia, a third of the number sold a few years earlier.

In the meantime, multiplex cinemas have appeared, offering top quality screening and 3D technology for audiences in Novi Sad, Kragujevac and Nis.

The number of cinemas in Belgrade has recovered, though not to pre-2007 levels. In 2011, the number of ticket sales had climbed back to 2.6 million.

However, Serbia’s remaining distributors remain cautious about what they wish to buy, sticking carefully to predictable blockbusters. Movies from major film studios dominate the multiplexes, leaving audiences with little in terms of choice.

Guided by market forces:

US blockbusters also dominate the repertoires of Serbian cinemas because the big distributors, with contracts with Hollywood studios, are also owners of, or partners to, the multiplex cinema chains.

Distributors, as well as owners of multiplexes, say predicted earnings dictate their choice of films.

“When we buy the rights for a movie, we assess its commercial capacity - its income,” Marko Ckonjevic, of Megakom, a distribution company that built its reputation on importing independent films, says.

He says that distributors have to minimise the risks they take.

“Every movie has a complex financial construction that includes rights, translations, buying digital copies, inserting subtitles, promotion of the movie, and transport to cinemas.

“This financial construction is very fragile when you work in this country,” Ckonjevic adds.

“The income from ticket sales is divided between the distributor and the cinema and in the case of independent productions, the distributors’ share is smaller,” Ckonjevic notes.

No diversity:

Cineplexx is a part of the Delta City shopping mall | Photo by Beta

Under this tight system, movies from around the world – with partial exception of some from Britain, France, Italy and Spain - have almost become extinct – because no distributor in Serbia wants to invest in screening them.

Managers of distribution companies say the others lack a potential audience. As a result, films from other countries can only be seen at some of the bigger film festivals.

Film critic, screenplay writer and director Sasa Radojevic says that Serbian audiences are missing out on almost all movies that don’t come from the US.

“Movies from Hong Kong were once popular but now are extinct,” he notes.

“Japanese and Korean films are rare, as are Indian. Eastern Europe is almost an unknown territory. We don’t see Hungarian, Czech, or Polish movies. Even the choice of Russian movies is narrowed down,” he adds.

“We do not see movies from Germany, Africa we miss completely, and movies from Latin America can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” he concludes.

Few art cinemas:

Lesser-known world productions are shown in Serbia only at festivals and in a handful of art cinemas like Belgrade’s Dom omladine and Dvorana kulturnog centra.

“The audience of these movies has to travel to festivals, because there are not enough art cinemas,” Sasa Radojevic says. 

 “There is also no younger generation of ambitious distributors to would deal with its distribution more seriously.”

Radojevic says the “domination of movies from major production companies has increased with the rise of multiplexes”, reflecting the connection between new cinemas and the distributors.

For example, the Austrian cinema chain Sineplexx owns the Delta City multiplex in Belgrade, the Plaza in Kragujevac and the Vilin Grad in Nis.

It is also a partner with Megakom distribution company, which since last year has represented 20th Century Fox. 

The Tuck distribution company also represents several “majors” and is the owner of the Takvud multiplex.

Of the three biggest Serbian distributors, only Taramount does not have its own cinemas.

“The market has obviously recovered to some degree, and the reason for that is better infrastructure, that is, new multiplexes,” Marko Ckonjevic, from Megakom distribution, says.

Tuck programme director Ivan Micic agrees that the rise of multiplexes is “a fortunate development” for Serbian cinema but says that many problems remain.

These include unfair competition, Internet piracy, taxes on ticket sales and the expense of rebuilding the destroyed network of commercial cinemas.

Accessing funds could help:

Visitors crossing the street | Photo by Beta  

Some film experts believe that accessing world movie funds could bring more diversity to Serbian cinema.

Since 2003, Serbia has been a member of Euroimages, which co-finances European co-productions as well as distribution.

Its former representative in Serbia, Vladimir Tomcic, says Euroimages gives 3,000 to 5,000 euro per copy to distributors that buy movies whose production was supported by Euroimages, for screening in Serbia.

But Tomcic says that only five Serbian cinemas, including the Belgrade art-house cinema Dvorana kulturnog centra, receive annual help from Euroimages.

In return, they have to prove that more than a half of the movies they screen are produced in European countries.

Money for distribution of movies could also have come from the Media Programme, run by the European Union, whose members include Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

But the chance to do so was never used. The programme expires in 2013.

Serbia failed to join the Media Programme although it was invited to do so several times, says Ana Ilic, who works on the promotion of Serbian cinematography in the world.

“The Ministry never responded to the invitations,” Ilic noted.

Ivan Micic says that Serbia doesn’t follow the practice of most European counties, which provide money both for film distribution and production.

 “Serbia only helps the production side. But if you don’t help distribution, then who are the movies filmed for?” he asks.

Tomcic believes the state also should help distributors to buy foreign movies, especially those that have won prizes at important festivals.

“Award-winning movies have a high price. For example, Piano, which was awarded on many occasions, was expensive compared to other movies,” Tomcic noted.

He said that the state should assess which movies are artistically important and help distributors buy the rights to them.

Broken promises:

At the end of the last year, Serbia obliged itself to help the distribution and screening of movies with the adoption of the new Law on Cinematography.

The law bound the state to finance both fields of the film industry, but these pledges are far from becoming a reality.

One problem is that the law appears to contradict other laws or legal documents, such as tax regulations. 

Meanwhile, before it can implement these regulations, the government must adopt a programme on the proposal of the culture minister.

FCS Deputy Director Mirjana Petrovic told BIRN that financing distribution is not the priority in the current situation.

“The FCS does not neglect distribution and screening,” she said.

“We are well aware of the problems in these areas, but after the adoption of the Law on Cinematography, our priorities are connected to financing domestic movie production - because if there is no movies, there is nothing to distribute,” Petrovic added.

She says making domestic movies is more important than buying rights to foreign ones.

However, some experts say that Serbian cinematography, which once produced movies that broke records in ticket sales, now also has little to offer.

Sasa Radojevic says only two or three domestic movies come out a year with any potential to become blockbusters - by drawing more than 100,000 viewers.

He believes that “nourishing the practice of cultural diversity” must mean importing quality productions. “We do not have cultural diversity anymore, at least not on the public scene,” he said.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme. 

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