Young filmmakers have everything to lose in the film industry’s crisis | The State of Cinema
The State of Cinema is a new opinion column that will discuss current phenomena that are influencing contemporary cinema (for the better or worse). In this first editorial, we take a detailed look at the delicate situation of young filmmakers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent crisis.
In the scandal that ensued the Ministry of Culture’s wholly inadequate response to Alexander Nanau’s open letter, the one in which he refused a presidential medal for his cultural contributions, everybody seemed to forget about one of the most important points that the documentarian raised in his missive: that is, the dramatic situation that young graduates of film schools are currently facing in Romania. “Any film or theater student in Romania, after having invested entire years of their lives towards their development as professionals, have fewer and fewer chances to ever practice their trade in this country”, wrote Nanau, “because, after the health crisis, most independent theaters, cinemas, and distribution companies will have already disappeared”. The situation of young Romanian filmmakers was almost always overlooked, that is, if it’s not about one of their works being selected in a prestigious international film festival, being used as a way to brandish the existence of “local talents”. And the fact that such a rare signal of distress regarding their situation, coming from one of the highest-ranking members of the local industry such as Alexander Nanau, is almost completely ignored – and not just by the Ministry of Culture, but by all of those that engaged in the ensuing debates and discussion -, is quite telling of this matter.
Young filmmakers have always been the most neglected community within the local film industry, as well as the industry at large – a state of affairs that also has to do with the fact that most of them are directing short films at this point in their careers, and short films are, first and foremost, a very ephemeral format. Countless articles have been written about short films’ disadvantaged position within the film industry and, subsequently, within the canon of film history – including reports of scandalous cases in which submission platforms such as FilmFreeway have enabled predatory behaviors towards filmmakers that were inexperienced with the inner workings of the festival system. But it bears repeating that short films are the most fragile ones around when it comes to conservation, out of all the types of films that are heavily reliant on the festival circuit when it comes to distribution and recognition – first of all because the vast majority of them simply disappear once they have ended their circulation in festivals (a cycle that runs anywhere between six months and two years, depending on eligibility and the premiere criteria of any given festival). Few of them manage to obtain distribution in cinemas (rarely, mostly in retrospectives or omnibuses) or are shown on television, and not all of them become available online (be it in a pay-per-view format or for free) once their distribution in festivals has come to an end.
Given all of this, young filmmakers have even more invisible barriers to face – from avoiding ghettoization in student-only film fests or niche events, to short film(-only) festivals such as Clermont-Ferrand and Oberhausen, to being selected in the highly coveted short film programs of the big international festivals, where the number of selected short films is inversely proportional to the attention that they are offered. In short, this is a field that is highly competitive and saturated, and few manage to handle it even under normal conditions – the coronacrisis has just made things exponentially harder. Since short film is the standard format at most film schools around the world, their creators are mostly dependent on the festival circuit in the first part of their careers, as it is the main means through which they can achieve recognition, but also a way to assemble a portfolio that will allow them to start working on their future projects. Considering this, short films’ strategic importance in a young filmmaker’s career is gigantic: these are films whose production costs and equipment (from cameras and sets, all the way to “human resources” – that is, their colleagues from other departments) are mostly shouldered by the film schools, thus eliminating most of the problems that the filmmakers have to face once they graduate in regards to production and fundraising. Last but not least, the more success a film student has during their studies, the easier it is for them to navigate and surpass these post-graduation problems.
The current health crisis is the cause of two big issues that affect the film industry: first, the major difficulty (or even impossibility, at first) to enter the production phase of the films, both in terms of safety regulations and financial stability, and, secondly, the suspension of festival distribution due to the cancellation or postponement of the events themselves. Even though this might be paradoxical, few 2020 films truly managed to become popular and to attract a heightened level of interest after being distributed online, most of these films having been directed by names that were already famous at a global level, such as Thomas Vinterberg, Chloe Zhao and others. In this context, even if many important festivals screened their short film selections online, some of them free of charge (such as Locarno or Sarajevo), young filmmakers were pulling the short straw yet again: many festivals significantly slimmed down their short film selections, some are still postponed or outright canceled, some maybe forever (such as is the case of Filmul de Piatra, where I worked as a lead programmer between 2017-2019), and the fact that many festivals seem to favor works made by returning talents (not that there is anything inherently wrong about this) creates yet another invisible barrier for absolute beginners.
The only success story of a young local filmmaker in 2020 was that of Lucia Chicos, whose graduation film, Contraindications, won the 3rd prize (ex-aequo) of the prestigious Cinefondation side-bar of the Cannes Film Festival – and, notably, this was the filmmaker’s very first time at an international film festival. Only one other Romanian short film was selected at one of the big festivals in 2020 – The Parallel State by Octav Chelaru, which was presented in the hybrid edition of the Pardi di Domani section of the Locarno Film Festival, where Chelaru is a returning talent. Aside from that, if we take a look at the roster of Romanian short films presented by the only two major local festivals to have had such programs (aside from Cinemaiubit, the country’s most important student film festival, and SUPER, the teenage filmmakers’ festival), TIFF and Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest, we end up with a tally of only 20 short films (6 of them being present in both festivals) that were screened publicly for the entirety of 2020, along with the Journey Around the Home in 60 Days omnibus, which was compiled from works commissioned by the European Film Festival. Of course, this is a very small number of films that escaped being ghettoized in youth festivals.
The overall situation becomes even bleaker when we take a look at the results of the Romanian Film Center’s (CNC) latest round of financing – and we must remind readers that the CNC has organized no new funding sessions throughout 2020 and refuses to organize a new one, despite the cinematography law’s provisions, until the Cinematography Fund will not have at least 20 million RON in its coffers – because, despite the industry’s protests in 2016 and 2017, where filmmakers also called for the inauguration of a special financing section dedicated to short film debuts, the access of young filmmakers and producers to state funding is still overwhelmingly hard to achieve. And this is painfully visible if we look at the list of projects that were financed in the last round: from a total number of nine films, six of them (meaning two thirds!) are to be shot by directors that already have multiple feature films under their belt or who work as TV series directors, two films are directed by filmmakers that have previously released shorts (Ioachim Stroe and Vladimir Dembinski), while only one film is directed by an absolute debutante, screenwriter Andrei Epure. What must also be added is that no single female filmmaker was awarded a grant to direct a short film during this session, which, although the evaluators are doing blind readings of the scripts, is unnatural, especially given the ever-increasing number of female filmmakers who created short films in the past few years; it’s self-evident that such a state of affairs is regressive. Even though the gender balance is a bit better when it comes to thematic short films, the situation is otherwise identical: six out of nine are to be directed by established filmmakers, two by directors that have done a few shorts in the past (Ilinca Neagu and Sebastian Mihailescu) and only one absolute debut (that of an already-famous screenwriter, Ana Agopian). (To make things even more depressing, only two debut features were financed in this round: Sarra Tsorakidis’ Ink Wash and Vladimir Dembinski’s Criseea IV; sources speak of the fact that some producers are simply unwilling to work on debut films anymore in the next few years, due to the economically unstable climate.)
In the end, we must also take a look at how UNATC, Romania’s leading film school, coped with the sanitary crisis and the government restrictions. Off the bat, this is not meant as a harsh critique of the institution, which has kept in permanent contact with its student reps throughout the crisis, and even created a program for students to access free psychological therapy for those in need – but it’s clear to everyone that student film productions were deeply affected in 2020. Given the particular situation of students that were on the brink of graduation, in the second semester of the 2019-2020 university term, they were given the chance to either graduate in time, but with a film that would be shot during lockdown using any sort of recording equipment they might have had on hand, or to have their bachelors’ or masters’ exams during the fall session, presenting films that were shot at their own risk, outside the school itself – because schools and universities were still closed down, and the students’ productions, as such, fell under the incidence of the guidelines and rules elaborated by the Ministry of Culture. Of course, the vast majority of students chose the latter option, according to our sources, even though many of them had to massively re-write their scripts (the luckiest students had prepared to shoot films with just two characters) or to outright abandon their original ideas – and even though it looks like film shootings seem to have resumed at a normal rate in the new semester, productions that are shot on location are still taking place in difficult conditions, and the students are shouldering the costs of COVID-19 tests from their own pockets, that is, if they can even afford them: most choose to sign an affidavit provided by the university (who, in all fairness, does supply them with free masks and disinfectants), stating that they will take onto themselves any consequences should their crew get infected while on set.
All of these facts lead us to the following natural question: What kind of effect will all of these accumulated circumstances have on the careers of young filmmakers in the long term? Should we earnestly be asking ourselves if many of them have basically lost the start of their careers, some of them possibly irredeemably? It’s necessary to admit that we are facing the very real possibility of a lost generation, if the industry, at all of its levels – starting from producers and up to curators, all along the entire chain of production and distribution – will not show solidarity and support towards young (Romanian) filmmakers.