60th THESSALONIKI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL || 31/10-10/11/2019
Agora is addressed to all young directors and producers, giving them the opportunity to learn from esteemed professionals how to capitalize on the opportunities offered in an international market framework. In this year’s Agora Talks, hosted in the theater ‘Takis Kanellopoulos’ in the Museum of Cinema, stimulating topics concerning film and television production, but also important case studies, were addressed. The first session started with a conversation regarding limitations, but also opportunities offered by low budget productions, with the participation of Antoine Le Bos (Artistic Director of Less is More – screenplay elaboration workshop), Katriel Schory (expert on film topics) and Amanda Livanou (producer, Neda Film). The talk was coordinated by Marie-Pierre Macia (producer, MPM Film).
At the beginning, Ms. Livanou said that given the state of things in Greece small budgets are a way of life; according to her, a film’s quality is not exclusively defined by the money spent on production. “It is true that for the last ten years it has been a rough patch – unfortunately, we have to make tough decisions in very short notice” she characteristically said. Ms. Livanou then mentioned as an example the film L by Babis Makridis, in which she worked as a producer: the director, having earned some money from commercials, decided to shoot the film almost by himself, by changing many of his initial ideas and by adapting his demands to the hard economic facts of the times. “He essentially rewrote the screenplay, he decided to shoot the film not on the Macedonian mountains but on the outskirts of Athens, he employed just the bare minimum of actors and costumes and adopted what we called a “communist system”: everybody got payed exactly the same. We shot the film in 24 days, trying to keep an amiable ambience. When we got some money returned from the Greek Film Center, everybody received the same bonus and ultimately everything turned out fine”, she mentioned. Concluding her statement, Ms. Amanda Livanou insisted on the fact that since then, a lot has changed and the situation gradually took a turn for the worse, yet this experience taught her that choices and opportunities are countless.
Mr. Schory then took the stage, initially tackling the need to assist young filmmakers and seasoned producers alike, who are frequently trapped in endless waiting for funding or project approval. Having mentioned that nowadays (with technology on the rise) cinema has become more democratic (meaning that everybody has access to a camera, on his mobile phone even, and is thus able to shoot a film), he noted that small budget films essentially rely on actors and their performance. “That is why we try to obtain special authorization, so that professional actors can take part in small budget films. We have to think vertically, not horizontally. That means how to bring together the right people in order to get quick and productive results. That is why the films must rely on exhaustive rehearsals and not on improvisation, quite simply because days on set are limited”, as he put it.
Mr. Schory then referred to a quite successful project he took on in Israel, a project based on the simple idea of a couple getting to know each other in a bar, with the film almost in its totality unraveling in a car, since they are looking for parking space. The film was shot in three days and met great success. Yet another example was the political film Room 514; Mr. Katriel Schory emphasized that four months of rehearsals came before the shooting of the film, that was completed in four days of filming, taking place in the director’s home. “The camera was placed in six spots and the final editing was completed in twenty-seven takes”, he added.
The third statement came from Mr. LeBos, who presented the Less is More program to the attendees, whose goal is to help screenwriters develop their ideas. “We consider that limitations bring results, not the other way around. With a scanty budget, and when there are all kinds of limitations in general, this is when the screenwriter is pushed to become more productive. That was demonstrated through various exercises with the participants on the program; we observed that when we gave free reign to somebody, the results were poor. Besides, research has shown that the brain needs some kind of internal antagonism, and all kinds of limitations provide that”, he underlined. Mr. Antoine LeBos emphasized that the program chooses sixteen projects every year and takes place in a small village in Brittany, away from distractions. The task is to not pick up ideas that demand a lot of organizing, because this causes problems to the creative process. “One can encounter infinity in a very confined space. For example, the Iranian or the Romanian cinema got to the top exactly because of their limitations”, he noted in his concluding remarks.
In the next session, a case study of the children’s film My Grandfather Is an Alien was presented, a co-production from seven countries, with the producers Ida Weiss (Senca Studio/Bela Film -Slovenia) and Darija Kulenović Gudan (Studio Dim - Croatia) taking the stage. The talk was coordinated by Anne Schultka (project manager, Kids Regio).
Ms. Kulenović Gudan started by stating that the movie’s first teaser was released around Christmas 2018, while the film was screened in March 2019. She worked in the project for seven years in all, encountering a lot of difficulties, production and screenplay-wise. She emphasized that it was very hard to solidify collaborations, since it is hard for a children’s fantasy film to attract interest. “We sent the screenplay to a lot of collaborators and we applied for funding many times. We encountered frustration, but also success. The project was eventually taken on by two directors and a lot of producers, with a final budget of 2,500,000 euros, that, believe me, was not sufficient in the end.”
Ms. Ida Weiss, taking the stage, added that obviously a lot of mutual concessions had to be done, especially in what regards funding coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Luxembourg or Norway. “For example, we had initially picked a Slovenian actor for the main part, but because of the Norwegian co-production we ultimately chose a Norwegian actor”, she noted. In conclusion, the two speakers mentioned that the film was shot in Zagreb for the most part, but also Slovenia, while the end of the film was shot in Norway. The film eventually obtained distribution in all countries participating in the production, and this is rather the prime advantage of international co-productions. “Our aim is this one: have children watch quality films, and not only consume big studio ones. We want to educate children so that they become the future audience of the documentaries or the art-house films we would like to produce. Nevertheless, arguably the most important institution for children’s films in Europe is Cinekid, taking place in Amsterdam every year in October”, they concluded, thanking the audience for its attention.
The televisual landscape in the States and Greece, changes in the way TV series are developed and their relation to cinema were among the topics discussed in the Unboxing TV unit. The panel consisted of: Mike Werb (Face/Off, The Mask, screenwriter-producer based in Los Angeles, invitee of the Greek Film Center, Hellenic Film Commission Management), William Horberg (producer, The Queen's Gambit – Netflix, USA), Amanda Livanou (producer, Sleepover – tv series in progress), and Lefteris Charitos (director – Wild Bees, Antenna TV). The talk was coordinated by the journalist Ms. Elena Christopoulou.
Mr. Mike Werb talked about his experience in collaborating with big American TV networks. “Everything begins with an idea. Sometimes it’s a novel, or some news that attracts your attention or an idea someone else has. Developing a screenplay is a lonely experience even if you are working with others.” Expanding on the development of a screenplay, the American screenwriter described the following stages:
-Development of the initial idea.
-Preparing pitching through exercises for its presentation.
-Getting into contact with producers collaborating with the big networks.
-Promoting pitch to prospective buyers.
-Preparation of the pilot episode in text, from one to fifteen pages. At this stage there is an agreement on the fee and usually this comes with a percentage.
“TV is a very competitive system. The twenty-two episodes season is dying in the States. Now each cycle ranges from six to eight episodes and this is the best way to narrate a story”, he concluded.
William Horberg took on the changes concerning the spectacles industry. “I grew up in a time when movies were movies screened in cinemas. This market is constantly changing”, he observed. The American producer mentioned two projects that he is actually running, the film Flag Day, directed by Sean Penn, and the TV series The Queen’s Gambit, for Netflix. As he said, “for Penn’s film, an independent production, looking for funding was a nightmare. Inversely, for The Queen’s Gambit, it took only eighteen months from our first meeting to production.” The American producer emphasized the importance of the initial idea and of the screenplay for a TV series to happen and stated: “There is an overabundance of content nowadays, we have what we call posh television, buyers constantly come and go, yet telling stories remains eternal. From all the ingredients it takes to make a series or a film, the screenplay is the most important one. This is what attracts a good director and talented actors. And as Kubrick said, ‘Real is good. Interesting is better’. Ultimately, screenplays are structure. A finely foregrounded end includes catharsis.”
Mr. Lefteris Charitos, creator of the big Greek success Wild Bees talked about his experience, and sketched some comparisons with the American reality. “Everything in TV has become cheap. Low budget in Greece really means no budget. A TV series episode costs 40,000 euro, we don’t have the American scope of funding in our disposal. Wild Bees is a big success because the viewers are attracted by the characters, the story.” Talking about the process of writing a screenplay, he observed: “In Greece, screenplay development is not a thing. A screenwriter writes a screenplay or more, and if the idea gets ahead, then production will, too. Due to the financial crisis, many screenplays were sidelined. Greek channels, for the last ten to fifteen years, are buying series from Argentina, Spain, and Turkey.” Mr. Lefteris Charitos also talked about his decision to collaborate with actors not quite known to the public for Wild Bees. As he said, one of the actresses, Maria Kitsou, participating in a film screened in the Festival, called Cosmic Candy, and he is certain the success of the series will help the film.
The producer Ms. Amanda Livanou also expanded on the differences and the similarities between the Greek and the American experience, and she added: “As a producer, I see no difference between a film, a documentary and a series. I move instinctively.” Ms. Livanou talked about her collaboration with Ms. Maria Chatzakou, who decided to turn to writing screenplays when she had the idea for Sleepover, a Neda Film and Chaos Film production. “I don’t know which channel would bankroll a series for a forty-year-old woman. I applied to the Media -Development program of the EU and the response was positive.” Ms. Livanou also mentioned that Greece is a conservative country with channels practically taking no risks – “who would go for a lesbian series for example?” as she emphatically put it – yet she expressed the belief that things are gradually changing in the TV landscape. The two American invitees also referred to the future prospects opening up due to Netflix’s shift towards local markets. William Horberg expressed the certainty that Greece will be included in this plan. “Your country looks like a sleeping giant to me. I believe there will be plentiful opportunities for co-productions and for contact between Greek and American filmmakers.”
In the last session of the day, Ms. Vassiliki Diagouma, a representative of The National Centre of Audiovisual Media and Communication explained that using economic motivation in the film industry has influenced the growth of the Greek audiovisual sector during the last two years. After expressing gratitude towards the Festival, saying that the outward journey of The National Centre of Audiovisual Media and Communication started from Thessaloniki, she referred to the three basic pillars for supporting audiovisual production in Greece: Cash Rebate, the digitalization of audiovisual works, and education.
In what concerns production, Ms. Diagouma claimed that the Greek Cash Rebate is already running for a year now, with almost eighty works (ranging from films to series to videogames) integrated in the program, half of them produced in Greece. “The profit from participating in the program equals a 35% return on the budget, and even reaches 80% if the production takes place exclusively in Greece. Applying for cash rebate can be done by anyone supplied with a Greek VAT number up to two months in advance of filming, and forty-five days later the applicant will receive a response. I should note that the money is tax-free, so there is no withholding tax. The National Centre of Audiovisual Media and Communication’s total budget amounts to 70 million euros, guaranteed by the Greek state. Already, more than 60 million euros have been invested in production, and more than 20 million euros have been returned, while more than 15,000 people have found jobs”, she claimed.
Ms. Diagouma next stated that for 2020 a new program for tax exemption is prepared, that will offer up to 30% tax deduction. “We want to turn production into a Greek state of affairs. That is why we have founded a film offices network in all thirteen Greek administrative regions. In what concerns Thessaloniki especially, we consider that future prospects are huge. Education holds considerable weight for us, too. In collaboration with Nu Boyana Studios in Sofia, we send off to Bulgaria young people to be educated, so that they come back to Greece trained, to become our prospective professionals”, she noted.