Survey: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected the Romanian film industry? Part I

8 April, 2020

Today, the 9th of April, marks of an entire month since the Romanian authorities have taken the first measures to stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the four-and-a-half weeks that have elapsed since have left behind a scantily-recognizable world: the Romanian cultural sector (along with, quite obviously, the global one) was forced to stop in its tracks, leaving thousands of cultural workers and artists without any immediate source of income. In the film industry, many activities had to immediately stop: film productions were put on hold, many cinemas closed down even before the state of emergency was officially decreed on the 16th of March, and every single festival that was slated to run this spring – One World Romania, American Independent Film Festival, Bucharest Fashion Film Festival, Moldova Film Festival and even TIFF, Romania’s biggest festival – have been, as of now, postponed for an indeterminate amount of time. In the midst of this critical situation, instead of working to protect filmmakers, the Romanian National Film Center (CNC) has shuttered down and ceased all of its activities with little to no coherent reason, for the entire duration of the state of emergency, thus stopping all of its current payments to production houses and indefinitely postponing the results of its first funding session for this year – a situation so dire that 160 filmmakers signed an open letter in which they demanded that the authorities would revise this decision.

It’s a difficult and uncertain period, but also, luckily, aside from activities that could be postponed or continued by working from home, we discovered that adversity has, at least tentatively, opened some new doors: beyond the fact that everyone is considering what is going to happen afterward, for the moment, some professional categories have reoriented themselves, even if it’s only temporary, by using the internet. Distribuitors are starting to make their catalogs available on VOD. Countless independent filmmakers are freely uploading their films online. Some film festivals have decided to move forward online. Film critics, working tirelessly, are making lists upon lists of recommendations from extremely various areas of cinema, finding time to translate fundamental texts and to rediscover neglected masterpieces. And cinephiles finally have the time to work through their watchlists.

We wanted to discover the immediate effects of the coronavirus crisis on the Romanian film industry – and we wanted to find out more than just concrete facts and data, but also the stories and thoughts of those which are affected by this crisis. We turned to some of the most important figures in the industry, trying to gather a wide range of people in terms of occupation, be they directly implicated in the creative process or persons who work on creating the conditions in which cinema is consumed – from producers, festival organizers, and distributors, to directors, actors, editors, and film critics. These are the questions that we asked:

  • What projects were you working on when the authorities started taking measures against the spread of COVID-19, and how did these measures affect your activity?
  • What were the short-term measures that you could take to protect your own projects, given that this was a possibility?
  • How do you think that the cultural sector will look like after restrictions are lifted / the pandemic is over, but also your own activity?
Credits: Vlad Bâscă

Ada Solomon, producer, deputy chairwoman of the European Film Academy Board

I don’t even know where to begin. 

I’ll start with the most affected project – the release of Ivana the Terrible [ed.: due on the 13th of March], which couldn’t be stopped anymore – somehow, my optimism caught me on the wrong foot here. We kept on hoping right until the last day before the premiere that things wouldn’t be so critical, that we won’t be asked to stay inside our homes – but it’s already been a long time since. We couldn’t postpone the launch, the multiplexes rejected our proposal to delay that week’s premiere, and so we ended up in a very bizarre situation: the film was released in empty multiplexes and it wasn’t released in small/independent cinemas anymore, since those were the first to close down. Consequently, we couldn’t reap any benefits from the release campaign, nor release the film online, and we cannot relaunch the film from zero after the crisis either.

What we will try to do is to remake – at our expense – a promotional campaign to bring the film back into the spotlight (to which degree people will actually resonate with this, remains to be seen) and to do all that we can to have as many open-air screenings as possible, in both conventional (open-air cinemas) and unconventional spaces – I don’t think people will be in any hurry to spend time in closed spaces after spending such a long period indoors. On the other hand, of course, it isn’t ideal to release a film during summer, but I wouldn’t postpone it for the fall either, because I think that it will be a season that will be packed with releases and events, and I wouldn’t want to contribute to the cannibalization of this already highly fragile guild.

Then there are the projects that we were preparing for shootings, the most advanced of which is The Great Tram Heist by the Serbian director Slobodan Sijan, which already had part of its shootings in December and March and was slated to continue in April. Amongst our majority co-productions, Ștefan Constantinescu’s debut feature, Man-Dog, was supposed to start shooting on the 15th of May. This is the project that we have worked on the most in this period, because the preparations for it are in a very advanced stage, so we have been working ever since the first days of isolation on analyzing what can still be recovered, what our losses will be, how we can reconfigure the shootings, how to be most prepared when the restriction measures will be lifted and have all things in order so that we will be able to shoot within four to five weeks once the activities will be resumed.

The entire production team, the directorial department, and our department coordinators are working in this period on elaborating different scenarios on how production can be resumed, on configuring working from a distance. Of course, we’re moving much slower, but we’re moving, and that’s also due to our wish to start shooting as fast as we can but also safely, seeing as most shootings will be crammed during the fall and winter. The same thing is happening to Radu Jude’s newest film, The Sleepwalkers, which should have commenced shooting in June, but the current situation obligates us to postpone it because we cannot properly prepare for it in this period. 

In the case of our projects now in post-production, such as Vali Hotea’s Lebensdorf, and our minority co-production Fish Bone, directed by the Bulgarian director Dragomir Sholev, or Tomasz Wasilewki’s newest film, we set a remote workflow in regards to post-production – that is, adjustments to their image, sound, or digital special effects. We’re advancing on these fronts as much as we can so that by the time that we will be able to freely travel and move around, we’ll only have final operations to take care of, which require the physical presence of the leading actors in the studio. I’m very grateful for the efforts of my colleagues that work on post-production that have still kept on going to their studios, working in safe environments and with a smaller staff,  but still nonetheless working and advancing on their projects. I have one last interesting example, a documentary which is being re-edited, one of its co-directors being in Romania, the other in Ukraine, and the editor’s in Croatia, and we managed to establish an online flow for the editing process to work out.

It’s impressive to see the common effort made by film teams, in order to keep the little wheels inside the huge and complex mechanism of cinema spinning, even if it’s on damage control, but nonetheless, they’re still moving.

***

It’s hard to say how things are going to look like. I won’t say the one phrase which irritates me most during this time, meaning, “nothing’s going to be the same!” The question is, do we want it to be the same? I think that might be a more appropriate question and it might be interesting to assess the change we’d like to see. In the specific case of Romanian cinema, a lot less money will be available for the national cinema fund, because the revenues from the cinemas will be much smaller – due to the fact that they were closed down for a long time and due to the fact that, at least for some time, there won’t be many people going to cinemas after the restrictions are partially raised, and there will be much less revenue coming in from publicity, as a direct consequence of the upcoming economic crisis, that will probably last for quite some time.

There’s yet another consequence that I foresee in relationship to the economic crisis (by analyzing what happened with the 2008-2009 crisis), but also in regards to physical safety, which people will be much more careful about in the coming future. Meaning, I believe that foreign productions won’t be in a rush to film in other countries. In this context, I think that a priority for the local industry is to start working again on the Cinema Support Fund. That is, we first have to work on getting stuck applications to move forward, by moving the Support Fund from the National Commission of Prognosis and Statistics – which might offer a bout of fresh air for the involved Romanian companies, both in terms of cash flow and of the international credibility of our local measures – and then, as a second step, to give cinemas a budget, that might be smaller, yes, but a budget for the 2020/2021 cycle, nonetheless. 

On the other hand, I keep on thinking about the exponential evolution of digital technology (both in terms of shooting, as well as a solution to facilitate the exploitation of cinematic products – meaning screening in movie theaters, but also streaming), which happened simultaneously with the 2008-2009 crisis, and I’m wondering if this evolution was a mere coincidence or an adaptive effect that was brought on by the crisis. In both cases, I expect a similar phenomenon to happen from now on (but I can’t say what it will be, exactly), during and after the economic recession that is coming on up.

In regards to events in the cinematic community, I’m also expecting a reconfiguration of this field of activity, meaning a combination (that, in time, will become quite regular) between the direct, physical activity and the online side. I’m thinking here about some aspects, such as the fact that people might feel uncomfortable traveling or being in crowded spaces for a while, as well as the cost-comparison between “live” and “streaming” events, and so on.

It won’t be easy, we should know that by now, but, on the other hand, I cannot say that it has ever been easy over here, in Romania, so a challenge like this should, first of all, fill up our creative resources and our power to adapt – which are elementary means of survival. Then, I also think that things should be taken slowly and on short terms so that we can create a solid basis for everything. The only thing is for us not to get stuck, and that’s it. And that depends on us, first of all, and of us and our activities being properly understood by our respective authorities.

Image via Getty Images.

Tudor Giurgiu, director, president of TIFF

Thankfully, the pandemic didn’t catch me during any shootings, there’s just a couple of projects that I have as a producer, that are in post-production right now, and a couple of others that are in their development/writing stages, which I’d like to direct in the following years. It looks like I’ve had a stroke of unthinkable luck to be able to dedicate some time for research and writing, at a time when I was usually very caught up with preparing for TIFF. And, yes, on the topic of TIFF, the effects are pretty much devastating in this regard, we have postponed the festival and we’re working on all sorts of crisis scenarios and on reprogramming the festival. 

Our projects are safe, and that’s not a problem for us. What’s complicated is to be able to financially support your organization, given that its activities have more than halved, if we take a look at what we were doing last year, around this time. 

It’s going to be different in the future. There’s going to be a lot of precaution, few funds for cultural projects and films, it’s going to be a full-blown crisis. It’s going to be a complicated year.

Personal archive photo.

Cosmina Stratan, actress

I had three films lined up. I thought that it was going to be complicated to juggle around with my schedule, but well, that seems to have been solved. My first shootings were supposed to be in mid-April for a Netflix production, which quite obviously is not going to happen anymore.

The most important protection measure I could take for myself was to realize quite quickly that nothing is under my control. At the present moment, none of the production has any starting dates, and I don’t think we’re going to get any answers about that anytime soon. Everything is on standby for an indeterminate amount of time.

I still have no clue how things are going to be like. It’s hard for me to think that I might even be accurate in trying to form an opinion about it. What comes to mind is a very dysfunctional scenario, in case we won’t be able to restart work by the end of the summer. Hopefully, things will go back to normal until then, but it’s a supposition that is as vague as it can get. 

Credits: Codruța Corocea

Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, film and theater director 

Right before the very first days of quarantine, we finished the editing on a feature film – Mia fails her revenge. Theoretically, we should have started working on post-production. We went to a film market, at Cottbus, together with Anamaria Antoci, one of our producers. We had several discussions with multiple, potential external partners, which could have gotten involved in the film by this point. Quite obviously, these discussions have been delayed sine die. I’d even started working on casting the performers for a show I have to put on in the fall season at Apollo 111 [ed.: an independent theater hall in Bucharest], based on a text co-written with Adrian Nicolae. We had arrived at a pretty long shortlist, which I now have the time to study until I get sick of it. 

I won’t even begin to mention the projects that were in development and pre-production, because the state of the above two is more than enough to get me sad.

The film was independently produced, so at least we have the (quite useless) comfort of the fact that we don’t have any financiers to owe up to. Anamaria is looking for solutions so that we may start working on post-production and she’ll manage it somehow, and we’ll finish it. As to what we’re going to do with the film afterward, and especially when, I have no idea whatsoever. The theater show is financed by AFCN [ed.: a state fund for financing independent arts], and, in an optimistic scenario, it might still be done by fall. If not, we might depend on the decisions which the fund takes – if its implementation calendar can or cannot be postponed.

***

One answer to the final question would be that I made two independent feature films without any sort of financing. Thus, I am perfectly prepared for what is coming up next and my life isn’t going to change even a bit. But that’s gallows humor, it would have been recomforting to work in a way that is less improvisational and nerve-wracking.

Another answer is that the Romanian cultural field (and, generally speaking, the European one as well) is highly dependent on public financing. So our immediate future will be shaped by the governmental and institutional response to this situation. Throughout the EU it seems that people are asking themselves questions regarding the continuity of the cultural sector and (especially) about how to protect the dependent workforce. We, on the other hand, have coppers who’re singing the national anthem on the streets and TV skits with ministers dressed up in leather jackets – few reasons to be reassured. And beyond the specific point in which a given film or theater production may be, what seems dramatic to me is what happens to the people behind them. I’m personally aware of many actors and technicians who have lost all of their income sources because they were working strictly on per-project wages. Solutions that can offer more protection to the cultural sector means much more to them than receiving some applause and seeing their name on the end credits, it means the difference between subsistence and a normal way of living.

Credits: Facebook

Cătălin Cristuțiu, editor

I’m still working on a documentary film, which I’ve started editing shortly before the COVID-19 crisis. Fortunately for me, I have safe working conditions so I can keep on editing.

In case I wouldn’t be able to go to the studio anymore, I prepared a simplified version of my gear so that I’ll be able to work from home. I also have all of my projects stored on mobile hard drives, which I can easily transport from the studio to my home and back.

It’s hard for me to make any predictions – the situation is quite literally unstable and I’m trying to readapt every day. Until the situation goes back to normal, the biggest anomaly right now, which is affecting hundreds of people, is the one that is taking place right now at our National Film Center (CNC), an institution which now is basically shut down for an indefinite amount of time. If even in this period in which filmmakers are vulnerable they’re taking such irresponsible decisions, it’s hard for me to predict what will come once the crisis is over.

Credits: TIFF / Facebook

Monica Felea and Ștefan Bradea, distributors (Bad Unicorn), festival organizers 

If we were to talk strictly about film distribution, we launched collective (collective) shortly before the pandemic and we only managed to keep it on screens for two weeks, and we managed to bring in a respectable amount of audience members, around 22k. We could have probably made it up to 30k, given its important subject matter – the state of our healthcare system, corruption, the role of the press in society. But, beyond distribution, we are involved in the organization of several cultural events that are directly affected by the current situation: The Shakespeare Festival in Craiova, TIFF, Pelicula, fARAD. The Shakespeare Festival has already been postponed for next year and, depending on how things will evolve in Romania, it remains to be seen if these events can still be organized this year, and under which shape.

In the case of collective, we canceled all of our remaining screenings and we asked our audience to respect the official guidelines, and to catch the film up on HBO or its on-demand platform, HBO GO. From HBO’s statistics, it seems that it was its most-watched film on its channel in recent weeks, even surpassing Disney productions, which is something that can only make us happy. Regarding the other projects we are working on, we’re trying to identify a way in which they can still happen this year, even in the second part of the year (if and only if the restrictions imposed by the authorities will allow us to do so), or in a smaller, online version.

What must also be said is that we’re amongst those in the film and creative industry that have a direct line of dialogue with the authorities, in order to help them identify concrete support measures for affected projects. Many European countries (and not just France, where culture is a national priority) have already taken measures and their national film centers have already established concrete lines of financial support for production, distribution and festival organization.

For the moment, we have no idea how long things are going to last, we can only speculate and hope that starting with the fall, maybe in September, things will gradually come back to normal and allow for events that have over 30-50 participants. But that doesn’t automatically mean that people will instantly want to go to screenings. In many ways, especially concerning the higher-educated audience which is avid for quality cultural events, I think they will probably have a sort of isolation trauma and even though we can only hope that people will enthusiastically return to cinemas, the more realistic scenario is that their first stops will be in a park, then maybe a coffee shop 🙂 

In what concerns us and other film distributors that work with auteur cinema (there’s about five or six of us), it’s going to be pretty hard to hold out in the backbenches for a long time (which is, longer than four months), and we’ll probably have to start finding alternative distribution circuits. VOD platforms aren’t very well-established in Romania, and any film revenue from this sector is still incomparable with the kind of money you get from having it run in cinemas, so I think that having a direct-to-VOD release like in countries such as the UK, France or Poland, is still unfeasible. 

Of course, we took a quick step towards making our film catalog available online as direct VOD (vimeo.com/badunicorn), but our future releases (Corpus Christi, Babyteeth) and the films we had eyed for acquisition, we still hope for things to come back to normal and for cinemas to be reopened, so that these films can be watched the way they have been intended to – starting from its director all the way up to the distributor. 

Personal archive photo.

Victor Morozov, critic de film

L’après

The professional joys of the life of a film critic at the beginning of 2020 were quite rare, and not just in Romania. The enthusiasm to watch films and to share them with others was – and still is, more than ever – what kept most of the institution of film criticism alive. Even so, let’s say that I’m one of the privileged members of the community: there’s an outlet, Dilema Veche, which has been publishing my reviews for almost three years, a fact which has offered these reviews a certain degree of visibility, and, most importantly, has spared me the very volatile and painful status of being a freelancer, the malady of our contemporary times. A thing which didn’t, however, spare me (at all) of the financial precarity of the job, regardless of how constant my publishing rhythm was. I can’t see any kind of escape out of this situation, especially not now. 

The pandemic arrived. Cinemas closed down. Festivals took a break. Written media, which was already agonizing, seems like it’s going to close shop soon enough. As soon as the print distribution of Dilema Veche had ceased, my meager paycheck disappeared along with it. An interview (which I consider to be important) that I had with a French director that had been invited to attend the One World Romania Festival, which had been greenlit by an online publication right before the event was postponed, is gathering dust in a folder of my laptop. Days pass by just the same. I miss going to the cinema.

Let’s call it this way: to be a film critic during a pandemic isn’t the worst thing possible – and that’s not just due to the fact that the trade is doing so bad the situation couldn’t even be able to further deteriorate. It’s also because, here and there, there are initiatives still popping up. In every state of emergency there is emergence, said Homi Bhabha. Streaming platforms are racing against each other with their best content. Directors are making their older films available for free. Entire festivals – such as Cinéma du Réel, for example, which has just finished its course on the Tënk.fr platform – can now be watched from home. There are many lists coming up that recommend all sorts of films that are available online. There’s a sort of effervescence in the air which is created by the possibilities of the online medium (which, let’s be clear about this, will never be able to replace the experience of a cinema screening). Critics can still write, and it even seems that their area of recommendations has expanded: classical films, experimental documentaries, unknown auteur films – everything at once. People are craving any kind of content, without much consideration, as long as it makes time pass faster. 

My life as a film critic, as you may imagine, hasn’t changed all that much. My student life in Ireland, either. (I miss the library and its offer of books). I’ve published an interview with a very promising director about a week ago, in an online French magazine that is dear to me. It’s something that I haven’t achieved in normal times. Also, in March, along with a good friend of mine, I launched the FuturEast.blog, which is dedicated to the Eastern-European and ex-Soviet space, and that has kept my mind busy for the most part of the day. It wasn’t isolation that motivated us to launch the project: it was an idea that was haunting us for a long time, and we managed to make it real during a damn pandemic. It’s pretty hard to fight off tiredness, but I feel that this is a good time to make new schemes.

What will follow afterwards? Everything should be rethought, as someone said. The air will become even more rarefied. Many cultural initiatives won’t be able to revive after these months. Will the Dilema Veche newspaper still have a print edition? For those of us in the publishing branch, the situation wasn’t all that rosy before, either, so let’s not delude ourselves. It’s possible that things might be even worse when we’ll be able to come back into the streets. I’m trying to imagine this après and I hope we won’t leave this thing feeling completely exhausted. I hope that we will have the force to mobilize, to practice solidarity, to contest, to reinvest into ideas and worlds that are utopic. I hope that we can catch other trains after this “shakedown”. Why not?          

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.