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Categories: Features

Filmmaker Horatiu Damian discusses how to succeed in the Romanian film industry, from production and screenwriting to funding. Addressing the difficulties for new filmmakers.

Upon graduating from Film School, the question was clear for me, as it was for Lenin, in his time: what to do next? Well, I followed some steps (not his) but I knew I still needed experience. That’s why I enjoy reading my colleague’s articles: I know I have a lot to learn.

Entrepreneur & all that…

Romanian flag

By AdiJapan via Wikimedia Commons

My first move was to open a production company. In Romania it’s not difficult to incorporate one. If you are under 35 years of age you are spared all the incumbent taxes. You have to fill in the specific activities as stated in the regulations, with the right codes and all. A month later you are in charge of your production company, specialised in cinematic activity.

It is a highly desirable move. Having ideas and developing them are quite OK through a firm. Whatever the project, your would-be partners prefer to work in such a regulated environment. Especially when financial and tax aspects are considered, they aren’t interested in a guy who thinks he is the next von Trier. Plus, with a firm they take you seriously, which is what you want.

Speaking of Lars…

Upon entering Film School (it is not a prerequisite to film making), a majority of us thought of ourselves as spiritually inhabited by the aura of great directors, past and present. My alter egos included the aforementioned Dane as well as Tarkovsky. Today I am glad time heals the mental scars, leaving my mind opened to pragmatic action. If you want to make film seriously, and you are from Transylvania (Romania), there are some possibilities.

The system. Easier said than done. Romanian cinema is, today, organised along the lines of a National Centre for Cinema (Centrul National al Cinematografiei, or C.N.C.) Twice a year, according to the law, a competition for projects is initiated. A jury, presumably selected from the best personalities the local industry has to offer, examines the projects and gives marks. A shortlist is formed and the best qualified projects will receive funding.

The system

In fact, it’s a credit covering half the budget. The other half has to be found by the Producer from alternate sources: products and services are accepted. Having a Producer well-connected within the industry means up to 50% of the budget can be covered through the equipment and studio services.

Then it is the product placement, a very legitimate way too. If secured, the only artistic glitch is to accommodate those products in the film so as not to cause stir or ridicule. Don’t worry: we have a lot of good examples from the Romanian films. The last to date, The Child’s Pose (Romania, 2013, director: Calin Peter Netzer, Golden Bear of last year) gives as a full masterclass on how to do it properly and effectively.

The firms who advertise can direct the percentage required by law directly to the films of their choice, bypassing the C.N.C. There are also, theoretically at least, tax incentives for those persons or firms that consider investing into the movie business. And the credit granted by the C.N.C. is the only one in Romania which can be repaid in ten years, with zero interest rate. If the producer is not able to return the credit, the movie becomes property of the aforementioned C.N.C. One thinks ten years is more than a reasonable time span to commercially exploit a movie.

In comes doubt

But (and there’s a big but, or even more than one) we are in the middle of a world crisis. Advertising budgets have dropped substantially. The environment discourages potential investors. Not that they were very willing before. Keep in mind, Romania is a parochial society, which means that Film is not considered a legitimate investment opportunity, nor a cultural priority. Romanian society has furnished plenty of examples in the past that it does not suffer if the national Film ceases to exist altogether.

ByAlex:D [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s more. The Romanian Film community is notoriously protectionist, organised along the lines of a caste: the graduates of the Bucharest Film School, the traditional and prestigious UNATC (The National University of Theatre and Cinema- founded in 1952). All the hotshots in the local cinema come from here. Although other schools appeared in the historical provinces (mine, in Transylvania, is already a decade old) none of their graduates have received financing from the official system. That of which is designed in a manner that is functional only for the Bucharest-based producers, with a long activity, films distributed through the national distribution channels etc. The criteria is such that a newcomer from outside Bucharest cannot fulfil. Then, of course, there is corruption and mafioso relations. But that’s for another chapter.

So, if one is to follow in the footsteps of the “system”, this would entail coming into contact with a major production company in Bucharest. What better pretext if not a script?

About the intricate complexities of scriptwriting

What constitutes a good story? One to be encapsulated in a successful script? Syd Field or Robert McKee can teach you techniques, useful ones. But they are intelligent enough to avoid codifying what cannot be framed by rules.

Speaking of which: In 2005 a very prestigious guest landed in my hometown. It was the 4th edition of the Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF) and Barry Gifford, the screenwriter of Lost Highway and City of Ghosts, was an invitee. At the workshop I asked him what are the rules for a good script. I feared he’d swallow the mic at the stupidity of my question.“Rules? What rules? There are no rules”, he answered. Right.

You can read Sculpting in Time. Or some old Pudovkin. They shan’t illuminate you. You can read the script of Django Unchained and gain some more knowledge. But everyone writes in her/his own way. The base for The Colour of Pomegranates is poetry from the last Armenian ashug (minstrel); Sayat Nova. For Blade Runner it was a very thorough Philip K. Dick novel. But what about The Blair Witch Project?

Thus, after reading and examining all the above and many more, I wrote (amongst many other things) a script for a short fictional movie. I sent it to all the majors in Bucharest. For about six months there was total silence. After that one company  showed interest. Long story short: I signed some contracts and the script will enter the national semestrial project competition. Which does not give me any guarantees. Since 2000, when the system was implemented, there were occurrences when the  competition was aborted. When held, it was never free of scandal, and the present edition isn’t an exception. I can only say that I invested myself into this script and I will defend my chances all the way.

Another option (which, in fact, is the first).

We live in a globalised world. Information travels, so do people. There are more opportunities today for pitching your project than, say, twenty years ago.

When at a Romanian indie film festival I inquired some of these Romanian “independents” about the prospects. “Outside state funding there’s no hope”, was the prevalent and disappointing answer. That’s  an even better motive for me to try the alternate way. I am a filmmaker from Transylvania, with little chances from the “system”.  So I welcome a universe of grants, projects, pitches. The times we live in have their pros and cons. As Alan Rosenthal puts it, in today’s environment, the good grant writers obtain financing more likely than great filmmakers. How to write good grant projects is an art in its own right. The above mentioned Alan Rosenthal gives some precious indications in some of his books (I tried his Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos, for a guidance).

I have four very good subjects to turn into projects. I started with the most important. It is the story of a Jewish family, encompassing the whole XXth Century and whatever was spent from the XXIst. It deals with issues like Holocaust, surviving under Communism, tolerance and the importance of culture and civilisation. It is very spectacular subject and universal in its meanings. I know how to do it, I projected everything to the last detail. So begins the project writing.

In Film School no one really taught us how to budget a project let alone how to write grants. Trial and error aside, I started the endeavor some three months ago. I am now adding the finishing touches. Then comes the gauntlet of pitching (and all the rest). My only annoyance is that I’ll have to repeat these operations for my other three projects. I don’t really like bureaucracy but I’ll learn to love it if I need.

What I feel is that we are clearly in a period of transition, similar to the introduction of sound in Film. There are new opportunities at hand – but only if we can identify and use them.


Posted on Jan 14, 2014

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