Money and movies: how do the V4 states support filmmaking?

State subsidies for culture and the arts are a delicate issue in post-communist countries, especially due to the legacy of support coming with control and censorship. Nevertheless, culture is a key element of national identity; it represents the current values of society and constitutes its heritage for further generations. Therefore, finding a new relationship between the state and culture has been one of the essential issues in Central European countries in the last 22 years. Cinema has been a crucial part of national cultures of all the four Visegrad countries since the interwar period.

Foto: Creative Commons/ PPoHio

After the last major round of changes after 1989, the transition from centralized state control to the functional structure of independent national cinema is almost finished in the Visegrad countries. Each country has been trying to improve the conditions for national cinema and establish effective mechanisms to support films from the development of projects and production, to promotion, distribution and circulation. “Film industry indeed is a standard business – you can look at the film laboratories, sound studios or camera rental firms from the strictly economic point of view. Filmmaking on the other hand means the artistic power before all – Czech films tell our stories, use our language and show the environment we live in. They are part of our national identity,” wrote producer Pavel Strnad in the polemics with the Czech president in the discussion about the cinema law in the Czech Republic.

State Funds

Presently, the main institution that supports the cinematic industry is a national fund that gathers resources from several public and private bodies and redistributes them to filmmakers in open calls. A significant part (slightly more than a half) of the subsidies comes directly from the state budget assigned for culture. The rest of the fund budget comes from advertising revenues of public and private television, cinema admission fees and/or contributions from retransmission providers.

The producers, distributors, cinema owners or festival organizers then apply for the Fund’s contribution in the regular open calls. The applications are evaluated by a committee composed of representatives of professional organizations (producers, distributors, televisions), cultural and academic institutions and important national cultural figures. In all four countries, the Fund has a ‘50%’ rule, i.e., the Fund’s contribution can cover a maximum of 50% of the whole budget of the project (film, festival, cinema digitization).

The Czech fund distributed almost 13 million EUR in 2011, Slovak fund reached 7.3 million EUR, and Polish funding was 36 million EUR. While in Slovakia the production of feature films is very low (3 and 5 in the last two years), there are significantly higher numbers in the Czech Republic (between 20 and 25 in recent years), Poland (up to 50 per year) and Hungary (around 20 annually until 2010).

Frontrunner walking backwards

Hungary was the first country that transformed the national cinema and defined the role of the state in such projects. The film law came into force in 2004 and the Hungarian Motion Picture Public Foundation (MMKA) was established. The year 2005 brought the introduction of the Act on Cinematography in Poland and the launch of the Polish Film Institute (for promoting cinema on international level), which has led to a significant increase in the number of films produced in Poland. The support of the audiovisual industry in Slovakia changed in 2010, when the Slovak Audiovisual Fund started its full operation. Only the Czech Republic is still waiting for its film law (which should redefine sources and mechanisms of distribution of the funding of the existing State Fund for Support and Development of Czech Cinema) that has been very much discussed in the last five years and this year it is expected to finally pass.

In Hungary, however, the situation has recently changed. Whereas there already was quite a stable infrastructure, the government has stopped MMKA from operating at the start of 2011 (officially, it was shut down in May). The number of domestic films has decreased rapidly – according to Filmunió, a national film center for promoting Hungarian cinema abroad, there were only 6 features made in 2011 (in comparison to 21 in 2010). The new law has passed at the end of 2011. The Hungarian National Film Fund will now receive 80% of the tax revenue earned by the national lottery, which is estimated to generate about 7.6 million EUR in 2012. But optimistic estimates say it will be able to help financing only up to eight domestic feature films, one animated film and one documentary over the year.

Catching up with the West

At the moment, the majority of the central Fund resources in all four countries are allocated directly to production and creation. One of the crucial shifts that have appeared is recognizing the phase of the development of projects as a necessary and equal part of making the film. Although such funding is quite common in Western Europe; the EU’s Media program includes a chapter that specifically funds film development, it has been impossible to finance this introductory, yet elementary phase of creation in the Visegrad countries – until recently.

This stage usually includes research, interviews with experts and with potential protagonists, research in archives, visits to potential shooting locations, writing of the literary script (also for documentaries, not only fiction or animation films) and of the technical script for shooting. The Czech State Fund has recognized this phase by changing the rules in 2010, so now the producer can include expenses for research in archives, for camera operators, photographers, research interviews, etc., in this pre-production stage and it is applicable also for documentary films. This is a step that significantly improves the conditions for high-quality filmmaking.

Another remaining challenge is the fact that none of the V4 countries has a special system to support emerging talents. Young filmmakers, beginning their careers after finishing film school, need to find an independent producer who helps them find financing of their projects in competition with the veterans and big names of the national cinema.

The central question, if cinema should be supported by the state or if it should function as a self-sufficient culture product, has been discussed in all four countries, especially in connection with cinema law. In three countries, the inevitability of state support of cinema was encoded in the legislature. In the Czech Republic, these discussions have been very much alive in recent years. The vast majority of voices in the discussion (with the notable exception of  President Václav Klaus, who  vetoed a new film law in 2006) point out that if cinema should be part of the national culture, than state has to make contributions as it does for other arts. Otherwise, cinema would narrow itself into certain popular genres and the artistic films could disappear completely

New Screen

Until now, the four Visegrad countries have been trying to meet the standards that are common in Western Europe, where some countries have developed unique mechanisms to help cinema find new challenging ways of expression. The Danish Film Institute, for example, runs a department called New Danish Screen which has an annual budget assigned to support new emerging directors; their films can make it to theatres or television  but if they don´t, it´s not considered a failure. This special support encourages looking for new ways of film aesthetics and narration and it is obviously a successful strategy, as Denmark has produced a significant number of high-quality features and especially documentaries in the last five years that are vastly successful internationally.  Danish cinema has been considered one of the most progressive in Europe, especially in the field of documentary film. If we look farther, in Canada there are two state funds – one for projects with commercial potential or aimed for television broadcast, and one for artistic films. It is no wonder that Canada has one of the largest and strongest scenes of experimental cinema in the world. There is no such a system in the Visegrad countries. But, as can be seen in Czech Republic, where even the film law has yet to pass, or with the turbulent Hungarian situation, to make only the inevitable first steps –  ensuring the basic standards of a stable environment for the national cinema can be a long and difficult, yet very important, process.

 This is and edited version of article published in the Visegrad Insight 1/2012.

Andrea Slováková

Andrea Slováková

is a documentarist, teacher and a film programmer. In 2003 – 2011 she worked in the management of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.