Institutions, Infrastructure, Industry: Croatian Film or a Battle for Survival

By Tomislav Kurelec

©Tomislav Kurelec, 2011

The First Steps: Jadran film

It has become customary to link the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia with the demise of a film industry that was known, at least occasionally, to draw considerable international attention. This delighted not only filmmakers and film enthusiasts, but also the government, given that it further underscored the cooperation between the different nationalities and showed the strength of the socialist model that had been created. Even before the end of World War II, on 9 February 1945, the State Film Company (Državno filmsko preduzeće) was established and relatively soon (15 July 1946) separate republic film companies were funded and employing filmmakers. Many of them had only modest film experience and some had none—having to learn their job “hands on.” Croatia’s production company was called Jadran Film, but in the first years after World War II the existence of six film companies (one in each republic) did not result in distinct profiles for each of them. Most projects, in fact, were cooperative efforts, such as the first feature of the new country, Slavica (1947), which was naïve and oversaturated with revolutionary élan. It was produced by Serbian Avala Film from Belgrade, but the director, Vjekoslav Afrić, and most of the actors were from Croatia. Similarly, This Nation Will Live (Živjeće ovaj narod, 1947), the first film made by Zagreb’s Jadran Film, an anti-fascist epic, was directed by Nikola Popović who, along with the majority of the actors, was from Serbia.

A substantial change in production came about in the 1950s. After the rupture of relations with the Soviet Union the demand to adhere to socialist-realist themes relaxed, and, equally importantly, filmmakers were no longer “workers” employed in production companies but could enjoy “independent status.” Both of these components contributed to a gradual profiling of the film production of each republic, although filmmakers in the former Yugoslavia often worked in other republics over the years. This was particularly true for the popular actors, as well as for some big ticket items such as Veljko Bulajić’s The Battle of Neretva (Bitka na Neretvi,1969), which had to be made jointly in order to depict the Partisan antifascist movement in spectacular terms which impressed not only domestic audiences but viewers worldwide.
           
Do You Miss Censorship?

After the fall of socialism, the disappearance of ideological censorship gave Croatian authors as well as those from the other transitional countries an opportunity to express their views more freely and to address the situation in society from a more critical perspective regardless of whether they focused on topics from the past, or from the latest wave of changes. It may seem a paradox that the greater freedom initially brought about weaker films in most of the transitional states, including Croatia. Most of the authors could not resist the temptation to convey more bluntly what they had previously masked with metaphors, and this overabundance of candor diminished the value of many movies that ended up lacking in sophistication and subtlety at the symbolic level.

This problem was particularly glaring in Croatia during the aggression of pro-Serbian forces after it first declared independence in 1991. With the goal of showing the horrors of war and identifying the real aggressors, the first Croatian films about these tragic events left the impression of propaganda. In addition, they had a major problem with domestic filmgoers who did not wish to face once again the traumas they had experienced in real life, while foreign audiences were simply not interested in films with such a salient political agenda. It was only Vinko Brešan’s humorous and layered How the War Started on My Island (Kako je rat počeo na mom otoku, 1996), reminiscent, in structure, of Czech comedies, which represented the war—without pathetic overtones or propaganda—as a clash between a Mediterranean civilization and a repressive government. This drew over three hundred thousand viewers to the movie theaters, a greater number than for some of the Hollywood blockbusters, and tenfold more than many other Croatian films, marking thus a gradual change in attitude among Croatians toward their own film industry.

Distribution: From Popular Entertainment to Elitism

The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the beginning of Croatian independence significantly influenced the viewer’s stance not only toward Croatian film, but to film in general. In a short period of time the number of the movie theaters dropped drastically—from one hundred eighty-eight to eighty-four—only to be further cut in the subsequent ten years to barely over fifty.   
Many movie theaters were physically destroyed during the war, others became non-profitable partly because people avoided congregating in areas where bombardments could be expected, and partly because of the general impoverishment of the population caused by the war. Although in the first years after independence the cost of a movie ticket was halved and amounted to about $1, even this was not low enough for the majority of the population whose average monthly salary was at that time about $75.

daysNonetheless, the first national festival Days of Croatian Film (Dani hrvatskog filma) organized at Zagreb’s Student center in early 1992 in the midst of Serbian hostilities and accompanied by air-raid sirens filled for the entire eight days the city’s biggest movie theater that seats over one thousand people. However, this shining moment of Croatian film was rooted not as much in the love for domestic celluloid art as it was a show of patriotism. The inhabitants of Zagreb wanted to give a festive screening to the films made during and despite the hostilities, demonstrating that they, just like the film artists, were not frightened by threats and air-raids. That this event was an exception was proven in the coming years. The end of the war and a return to normal living conditions did not bring larger numbers of people back to the movie theaters. Even now, the number of box-office tickets does not exceed two and a half million per year, which is on average somewhat more than half a ticket per person. By contrast, sales were nine times bigger in the early 1980s, over twenty million. This indicates that a large segment of the population simply does not go to the movies, while the rest go irregularly (once in several months) and pick five to six of the most popular titles. Since tastes and genre preferences differ, some films do draw satisfactory attendance, but it is interesting to observe that one third of the premieres of foreign films (including those coming from Hollywood) do not yield significantly better results when compared to Croatian films.

A certain amount of sensationalism in the media treatment of Croatian film and insistence on a general lack of interest for it created an extremely negative effect—dissuading even those who have never seen a single Croatian film to give it a chance. Thus after the lengthy initial period when the media looked favorably on domestic film, a negative image started to take hold based at times on judgments of those who had little or nothing to do with film. And yet, even those Croatian films which sold a mere several thousand tickets at the box-office were seen by hundreds of thousands of people when shown on television. Considering these statistics, it is not surprising that Croatian Radiotelevision appears as a co-producer for most of the domestic titles. As a rule, daily media in Croatia avoid deeper probing into these kinds of issues since a systematic investigation does not carry the flavor of sensation. It is clear, though, that a more serious analysis is overdue.
 
daysMovies are no longer the favorite (and least expensive) popular entertainment, and the reason for this is not solely the increase in the price of the ticket. Although the average Croatian sees fewer films in the movie theater than before, it is likely that outside the theater s/he sees more films than ever. Fifteen years ago one could watch no more than ten films a week in translation on Croatian television while now, at least in theory, one can see that many every day. In the same period the number of videos (VHS) and, subsequently, DVDs has gone shooting up and many decide to enjoy the comfort of their own home and free or much cheaper entertainment. They also have at their disposal a greater selection of television films. In addition, they are not bothered by the recommendation that film can be truly experienced only on a big screen since a large number of Croatian movie theaters have not been renovated for years and are not only uncomfortable, but the video and audio reproduction is inferior to what could be had at home for a modest investment.

Still, at least some theaters make an attempt to support variety through specialized programs, catering to the audiences who follow European film festivals in particular (for the screening of which there is financial incentive from European funds). It is a paradox, though, that the leading experts at national and commercial TV companies do not register this discrepancy between the interests that the audiences exhibit in their capacity as moviegoers and TV spectators. While the former segment is mostly younger individuals, the latter includes all segments of the population—including those who never go to movie theaters. Also, among those who see films on the big screen, the viewers often opt for foreign films guessing (correctly) that they will be able to see the domestic titles on television anyway. A relevant question is therefore whether the interest for domestic titles that non-moviegoers exhibit could be put to good use in some way to persuade them to attend movie theaters at least from time to time. As the infrastructure, including movie venues, is beginning to improve, this may serve in the future as an incentive for some parts of the population to enjoy film events outside their homes. A part of the problem is not exclusive to Croatia since on the one hand artistic films are shown rarely, as a rule, and in specialized theaters having to compete with blockbusters, while on the other, they compete (especially when it comes to the younger viewers) with the Internet both as alternative entertainment and as a source of free downloads. All this attests to the fact that the decrease of ninety percent (even a bit more for Croatian films) in box-office sales over the last thirty or so years is not as much a reflection of the merits or quality of domestic films as it is a consequence of technological advancement (in which Croatia is no different from other countries). In addition, this negative effect was augmented by war destruction in Croatia. Even if it is difficult to assess whether films are watched less nowadays than they used to be (here we take into consideration all forms of viewing), film showings in movie theaters seem to have stopped being popular entertainment and have started turning into an elitism of sorts.

Production

Although the position of the film industry in Croatia as well as the audience’s view of it have changed in the course of the last decades, its organization and the manner in which films are produced (in particular the distribution of production funds) have adjusted far less than one would expect, especially given the transformation that society as a whole underwent after the war. At first glance it even appears that many modifications are superficial and that only individual people have been replaced (though not always!) while the structure has remained nearly intact. Although many of these individuals (operating mostly as part of various multi-member film committees) could not be denied their expertise, it could be noted that at least some were more concerned with the state’s interests than the quality of the films, which might seem logical in a system where the state secures the production money. This kind of situation in which national film is dependent on government support is not unusual in smaller industries that cannot ensure survival based solely on box-office sales. In Croatia, however, the roots of the system were planted in socialism and the failure to introduce changes in the 1990s has been costly.

Once again, we have to look at the historical context to understand the full ramifications of the problem. In socialism the government, as the peoples’ representative, concerned itself primarily with the functioning of social mechanisms. It presented ideological control as a way to ensure the rule of the working class over material production and the workers’ rights to live from their work. These clichéed phrases were then used occasionally as a threat to those who did not subscribe to them. In cases of such disobedience in the area of film, the money for a given project did not come from the budget for culture but was secured from the percentage of box-office sales, including foreign sales. At the moment when the numbers of moviegoers started decreasing in the 1980s, Croatia was the only republic in Federal Yugoslavia in which a substantial amount of money, 1.5 % of the obligatory TV monthly subscription to Radiotelevision Zagreb for TV set owners (now Croatian Radiotelevision), went directly into the film industry fund. In other words, the film industry was not financed directly through the Ministry of Culture, but rather it was managed, just like many other areas outside the arts, by a body known as the Self-Managed Community Services (Samoupravna interesna zajednicaSIZ). The greatest part of SIZ income went towards financing feature films (although a portion also went to documentaries, short features, experimental, and animated films). A fraction of the resources was used for quality improvement since a special committee evaluated the achievements of each individual film which, in turn, generated additional funding. Furthermore, in some periods there were special incentives for bringing audiences to movie theaters and for this reason the film would be given additional funding that would match its earnings at the box-office. One could say that such a system was quite productive for Croatian filmmakers since, just as their counterparts in other socialist countries, they mastered a complex stylistic vocabulary in order to avoid political censorship. Due to a number of successful co-productions, Zagreb’s Jadran Film became a reputable production company with a world-wide reputation.

daysUnfortunately, these positive elements were overshadowed by numerous obstacles. Behind this shiny surface the fact remains that in the 1980s feature-film production was modest and amounted, for instance, in 1983 to only one film, while in 1986 it was increased by only one more co-production supported by another Yugoslav republic. There are multiple reasons why this seemingly promising situation did not yield a greater number of films. One of them is the need to have the entire financing in place before the shooting began. By contrast, in Serbia many more films were made, mostly in the production of working communities (radne zajednice) which were formed for individual projects and in which film artists invested their own money with the risk that they might lose it if the film were a flop. In Croatia, the expectation was that not only the funds for film itself, but also the profit margin for the producer (most often Jadran Film) needed to be secured before shooting began. This approach turned out to be both advantageous and disadvantageous. While the leading names in Croatian film industry at the time claimed that it was precisely this industry that was most professional in the Yugoslav context, others saw this as a hindrance. The very fact that Jadran Film and, in rare instances, other producers were guaranteed profit at the outset and that the profit was later increased by the film’s earnings at the box office destroyed the premises on which professional production is based—accepting both risk and responsibility for a film’s success to insure the producer’s full engagement in the process of making and placing the film, i.e. its production and distribution. 

This situation demonstrates particularly well the downside of socialist self-management. Jadran Film is a company which was established first and foremost through the involvement of diverse filmmakers, their efforts and products, and even partly owing to income generated by them which was plowed back into the company and was supposed to serve as a foundation for future work. However, the funds were diverted to profitable co-productions which made Jadran Film a sizeable producer on a world scale—not only in terms of investments, but also profits. This capital, which, according to the then ruling ideology of socialist self-management, was supposed to belong to the workers (in this case filmmakers), never made it into their hands. Rather, it was held by the company and probably ended up in the pockets of its leading managers. In addition, the company would appropriate almost a quarter of the funds allocated to the film to start with since it charged exorbitant rates for its services. In cases when a foreign agent offered a contract to a Croatian actor in a co-productions, Jadran Film appropriated an extremely high percentage (usually 85%) of the fee paid to the actor by the foreign producer. If the actor challenged this system, he or she would lose even the remaining 15% of the original fee—and 15 % was still much more than what would have been paid for a similar role in a Croatian film.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Croatian Homeland War ended, and there were radical changes in all segments of society, the model of financing in the film industry was expected to be entirely transformed as well. But the only part of the system that changed initially was the segment that was the most reminiscent of socialism: the self-managed community services were cut and, as a result, there was no money from the box-office tickets (which was minimal anyway because of the turbulence of war as explained above). Furthermore, no percentage was coming from subscriptions to national radiotelevision which the state shielded less as a public service and far more as a propaganda machine of the new regime under the authoritarian leadership of the first president, Franjo Tuđman. Film fell under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and was financed directly from the state budget. To make things more complicated, Croatian Radiotelevision consented to a tacit agreement to become a co-producer of every Croatian film though it would not have the right to decide which films were going to be made. For this purpose it had to earmark funds equal to those secured by the Ministry with the relief being that a part of the support need not be in money but could be rendered in services (technical assistance, editing, etc.).

daysIn effect, nothing changed in the mechanism through which the projects were selected. Special committees consisting now not of five but of three members continued to do the job, and for several years the decision was made by only one commissioner. Although at times one is tempted to wonder about the competence of some of the committee members, the bulk of the problem seems to lie elsewhere. The principal issue remains that, with the rare exception, the only films made are those financed by the Ministry of Culture along with Croatian Radiotelevision in a way which not only covers all expenses but also secures profit for the producers. Consequently, the producers continue to be free of any risk or responsibility for their product and often ask for additional funds in order to send the film to foreign festivals or for English subtitling. Abolishing the small percentage of funds awarded on the basis of the film’s success (according to various film juries and box-office results) has visibly de-incentivized the producers in their efforts (or lack thereof!) for the quality of the films or their launching on both domestic and foreign markets. And without producers’ responsibility for the films in whose credits they appear and assuming at least a part of the financial risk, it is difficult to expect healthy developments in the film industry.

Any suggestion that producers might invest own funds in film has to face a justified argument that Croatian film—just as with the films of other small countries—simply cannot return the invested funds. Still, one wonders whether a possible solution to the problem could be to give the winning projects approximately 80% of the funds, and to award the remaining 20% to finished products based on the previously agreed criteria for success: yield at domestic box-offices, visibility at international festivals, foreign sales, etc. This model would allow non-commercial and small national film industries such as Croatia's to make (but also to lose!) some money. Unfortunately, there has been no serious move in the direction of a more productive model for financing in the film industry (especially by the Ministry of Culture), and, as a result, Croatian film still does not have the infrastructure that most of Europe has.

With the exception of allocating funds from the state budget, not much has been done to protect the film industry. After socialist Yugoslavia’s dedication to film because of its significant propaganda potential, and after the initial period of Croatian independence when film was unfortunately also used at times for non-cinematic purposes, a more democratic Croatia stopped caring as much about this area of art at the institutional level. Sure enough, film has remained relevant as a segment of culture, however, it was not given the kind of priority as those areas which could attest to the existence of the nation for many centuries. As it would have been awkward for the state to allow Croatian film to fade into the background of successful Yugoslav titles, help was provided but the infrastructure was not reshuffled. It is therefore surprising that this kind of climate with a general lack of enthusiasm produced not the same, but even better results in terms of the number of feature films. Instead of barely four films in the past, the last decade has been yielding six to eight titles annually. It is difficult to say whether this unquestionable success has been the result of measures by the Ministry of Culture that are invisible to the public or of efforts by filmmakers themselves, especially the younger generation which has not had a chance to rely on socialist habits. One thing, however, is sure: after fifteen years of trying to persuade the Ministry of Culture to consider a bill to regulate the film industry, it was the filmmakers who played the decisive role in 2007 when a comprehensive law on audiovisual activities was finally passed. Although even this did not prove sufficient in terms of protecting the film industry through certain mechanisms that are customary in other parts of Europe (such as obligatory quotas or an incentive for showing domestic films, tax breaks for sponsors, or bank loans with special rates), it did make the Croatian Audiovisual Centre (Hrvatski audiovizualni centar—HAVC) possible with its role as a film institute much like those in Scandinavian countries or Greece.

 For the time being the impression is that the Audiovisual Centre will have a difficult time bringing to fruition concepts which are, for the most part, quite good but not easily realizable with the modest staff that the Centre has at its disposal. Significant steps forward were made during the brief period when Albert Kapović (1957 – 2008) was at its head, in particular in the area of international co-productions. One of the significant changes in the law obligates the Audiovisual Centre to rely on several new sources of financing such as a percentage of the brutto revenue from audiovisual producers and distributors, national commercial television, regional television, cable distributors, etc. If this is realized, it will provide a way for the Croatian film industry to survive despite many problems that still need to be addressed and a serious economic crisis in the country.

Translated by Aida Vidan

 

Updated: 21 Jun 11