Baltic filmmakers struggle to get film industry in motion

  • 2004-06-10
  • By Julie Vinten
RIGA - Baltic cinema is in a bad state. With a severe lack of adequate equipment and well-trained film professionals, as well as being chronically underfunded, the industry is lacking behind virtually all European standards.

According to prominent Latvian film director Laila Pakalnina, it's misleading to even talk of an industry. "There is no film industry in Latvia. You can't call a few films a year an industry," she says.
During Soviet times the Baltic film industry was thriving, and money was no problem as long as films followed the stringent formula of socialist ideals. But with Baltic independence in 1991, film funding from the former U.S.S.R. came to a halt. Baltic filmmakers could now make the kind of films they wanted, but since the financial structure was dismantled and the cinema network broken up, the industry had to start over from scratch. "The old system is ruined, the new one is unclear," as Estonian director Rando Pettai put it at the time.
However, Baltic cinema is finally starting to get its act together. Several recent homegrown hits have helped provided the impetus to turn the industry into a serious business and after the turbulence of the 1990s, there are some promising signs for the future.

The state of things
The Baltic film industry is almost entirely dependent on state subsidies. According to statistics, the total amount of state funding for domestic films in 2003 was roughly 54 million kroons (3.5 million euros) in Estonia, 1.1 million lats (1,6 million euros) in Latvia and 4.5 million litas (1.3 million euros) in Lithuania. These trifling amounts are expected to cover everything and anything concerning film, from production, to organizing film festivals, to film education.
A maximum of two or three features and about 30 short- or full-length documentaries are produced annually in each of the Baltic countries - hardly enough to call this a thriving business. Lithuania has only had a single feature playing in cinemas each year since 1999, and none at all in 1998, whereas 15 domestic features were made in Estonia over the past six years. But this is still a modest number compared with the close to 20 features the Scandinavian countries each produce a year.
The average budget for a Baltic feature film is roughly 700,000 euros and some 60,000 euros for full-length documentaries. As state subsidies can't cover all the expenses, many films obtain backing through coproduction with foreign countries.
"It helps to get films cofinanced, but also, importantly, to keep films in touch with recent professional standards," says Martin Aadamsoo, managing director of the Estonian Film Foundation, the largest film financier in Estonia.
Typically, most profits are generated through the sale of TV-rights locally or internationally. Baltic cinema is looking for a breakthrough in cross-country distribution, and coproduction can also help by getting the film distributed in the coproducing country.
Marketing of Baltic films has also intensified over the last years, but finances for this purpose still leaves something to be desired.
"There should be a strategic, state-level approach for promoting Lithuanian films at international film festivals and markets," says Jurgis Giedrys, head of the department of art at the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.

Movie going
"The biggest problem today is too few screens [...] which limits the nationwide coverage and reduces producers' revenue base," Aadamsoo explains. In Estonia, the number of permanently working cinemas has dropped by 98 percent from 611 cinemas in 1991 to just 12 in 2003. Latvia and Lithuania now have 33 and 65 permanently working cinemas, respectively.
Cinema-goers have become increasingly demanding in recent years, but small and old cinemas can't afford to renovate their interiors and buy updated equipment such as projectors and sound systems.
One cinema multiplex opened in Tallinn in 2001 and one in Riga last year. Some are of the opinion that these multiplexes are the reason why cinemas are closing down. This is hardly the sole factor, though, since statistics show the number of cinemas started to fall long before the multiplexes appeared.
But whatever the reason, the problem is acute. In 2003, 88.4 percent of cinema tickets in Latvia were sold in the capital of Riga. Experts say that unless smaller cinemas are financially aided, Baltic audiences will perhaps only be able to go to the cinema in their respective capitals in the future.
Baltic films generally do well at festivals, but rather poorly concerning cinema admissions. Nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs in Estonia. For two years in a row, domestic films took first place in the country's top 10 films.
The 2002 feature "Nimed Marmortahvlil" (Names in Marble) posted a remarkable 136,171 admissions, and "Vanad ja Kobedad Saavad Jalad Alla" (Made in Estonia, 2003) beat both "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The director of "Made in Estonia," Rando Pettai, explains his film's success: "One of the secrets of success is the right timing. Not a single comedy had been produced in Estonia for a while, and humor connects people."
The last two real Latvian hits were "Liktendzirnas" (Millstones of Faith, 1997) with 121,861 admissions, and "Baiga Vasara" (Dangerous Summer, 2000), which took second place for admissions that year with 74,351. In Lithuania 21,948 people went to see "Elze Is Gilijos" (Elze's Life) in 2000.
But these films merely represent the highlights of recent years. The majority of Baltic features have to make do with perhaps 3,000 admissions in the year they are released.
There's no doubt that Baltic audiences go to the cinema less often than other European countries. The average annual admission rate is a mere 0.60 per capita, and while the limited number of cinemas is one reason, another must surely be the cost of relatively high ticket prices against the average monthly income, which is massively lower than that of most other West European nations.

Creatively speaking
As with the rest of the world, Baltic audiences clearly prefer American movies. Partly this is because audiences aren't used to being able to choose local films because there are so few of them but also because, according to Pakalnina, they "don't want to see European-type films."
Some believe that the limited interest in domestic films can be explained by the fact that they simply aren't very good, and this is due to the shortage of well-educated and experienced filmmakers. There are no specialized film schools in the Baltics, and the small industry doesn't provide much opportunity to gain expertise.
Most Baltic films are also very parochial in their subject matter.
"Estonian film is complicated and egocentric in its essence. It's common to create figurative connections, which often remain incomprehensible, especially to the foreign viewer," Pettai explains.
That it is time to start thinking in broader, more universal ideas is something Giedrys can agree to. He believes there is also the will to do this.
"There is a new generation (in Lithuania) of directors and producers who want to produce commercial, popular films for a broad audience," he explains.
But some argue that Baltic films don't need to be profitable, since their purpose is to promote and preserve local culture and language.
Atis Amolins is the managing director of the Latvian distribution company Baltic Cinema. He says that some filmmakers tend not to care about reaching a wider audience and improving revenues, but he believes that they should when using public money to finance their films.
"I become very suspicious if somebody says 'I make art, and I don't give a damn if people like my movie or not,'" he says. "That a movie is commercial doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. If the result really is art, it won't end up with just 2,000 admissions. More people than that will go and see a good movie."
Fortunately, Baltic cinema is full of highly motivated people who sincerely want to improve the current situation, and they have many good ideas how to go about it. And now that the Baltic states have joined the EU, foreign markets and financial assistance programs will be much easier to access. The hope is that filmmakers will soon be able to turn this level playing field to their advantage and start to realize the enormous potential that the Baltic states have to make good, strong, locally flavored films.