Will state financing help revive cinematography in Azerbaijan?
The crisis of cinematography in Azerbaijan began after a short period of peak activity in the nineties and continues to this day. Among various reasons for this stagnation, it is easy to single out the main obstacle that the industry is faced with – there is not enough money, neither to produce movies nor to profit from screening them.
The State Film Agency, which the Ministry of Culture is currently working on, promises to change this situation. Many were sceptical about this promise (like most of the promises coming from the state). With the help of the head of the cinematography department of the Ministry of Culture, Rufat Hasanov, we will try to figure out exactly how the state finances cinema in Azerbaijan, and what the new agency will be charged with.
Government money for government studios
Right now, the relevant department of the Ministry of Culture is responsible for state funding and all other issues related to cinema. Annually, about 5-7 million manats [3-4 million dollars] are allocated from the state budget for cinematography. The money are supposed to cover everything – from shooting new films to organizing relevant events.
State financing of film production can be full (if it is a state order) or partial – when the state covers part of the costs of the production studio.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, state-owned studios receive government funding. There are seven of them in total, but mainly the Azerbaijanfilm film studio which specializes in feature films. From 2016 to 2020, 19 feature films, including short films, were shot there upon the state order. Among them, was the detective “Dance of Good and Evil” (2016) based on the novel by Chingiz Abdullayev and the family drama “Pomegranate Garden” (2017), filmed with the participation of the private studio “Buta film”.
As for private studios, in theory they could also be supported by the state, however, theyare not. The reason for this is the public procurement law, which prevents the state from concluding a contract with a private studio directly, without announcing a tender first. In turn, tender presupposes some norms and standards for products, and in the creative industry, when it comes to works of art, norms and standards are inapplicable, since each work is unique. These studios exist mainly off the money earned from filming advertisements and other commercial projects, as well as renting equipment. Alternatively, private studios are looking to receive funding from foreign funds, although this is often problematic, since Azerbaijan is not a member of large international organizations that support film production, in particular, Eurimage.
Why are movies not screened in Azerbaijan?
After the film is made with public money, in theory, it should be released, however, most of the time it is not.
Firstly, there are very few cinemas in Azerbaijan: about fifteen in the entire ten-millionth country (about 90 halls / screens in total). At the same time, the overwhelming majority of cinemas are private and can choose which movies to screen. Azerbaijani directors, both in interviews and in private conversations, argue that Azerbaijani movies that are currently screened in cinemas are mainly the comedies shot by private studios and of poor quality. Nobody wants to screen more or less serious films. The position of the distributors is somewhat different.
“We accept all films that are offered to us, regardless of genre. But if the film is not successful, if the audience does not come to watch it, we won’t screen it. It just so happens that it is comedies are extremely popular, and, therefore, we mostly show them. The rest of the Azerbaijani films are exiting the race very soon”, says Musa Akhundov, marketing director of the Park Cinema chain.
Akhundov says that the highest-grossing domestic films bring in about 1 million manat [588 thousand dollars] at the box office. Over the past few years, there have only been five of such films, and all of them were comedies. The audience liked the adventures of six provincials looking for the treasures of Joseph Stalin (Stalin’s Head, 2017), fruit merchants fleeing the drug mafia (Thyme, 2017) and other stories of this kind.
A rare exception to this rule is the controversial Curtain trilogy (2016-2019), a social drama which caused a lot of unrest among the Azerbaijani public. During the screening of each of the three films of the trilogy, cinema halls were completely full, because the films dealt with “shameful”, taboo topics in Azerbaijani society, such as adultery.
Musa Akhundov also adds that advertising plays a huge role in the success of any film (as was the case with Curtain). But neither state nor private film studios, as a rule, pay enough attention to this.
Rufat Hasanov confirms that the budget for films made at the expense of the state does not include advertising costs at all.
It turns out that movie production in Azerbaijan does not pay off in any way, and often times, public is not even aware that the local cinematography exists.
What is the purpose of Film Agency?
This was the case until recently, as in 2020, for obvious reasons, film production and film distribution were not very relevant. But in May 2020, a scandal erupted – several employees of the Ministry of Culture were arrested on charges of embezzlement, and the minister was dismissed. Soon his place was taken by the new minister Anar Kerimov, who renewed the team, including the cinema department. The reorganized department has zealously got down to business, and they make the main bet on the film agency. The main goal is to create an independent organization and transfer all the filmmaking concerns to it.
The most important thing is that the agency, unlike the ministry, will be able to independently raise money for its own needs instead of relying on state funding.
“The ministry does not and cannot have its own commercial account. Therefore, many services – for example, the issuance of rental certificates – are provided free of charge. But the agency can have its own account and attract additional funding. According to the most moderate estimates, this way it can earn an additional 4 million manat [$ 2.3 million] per year”, says Rufat Hasanov.
Another potential plus, according to Hasanov, is the simplification of the process of obtaining state support for independent studios. That is, studios will be able to directly contact the agency for funding and stimulate the private sector.
On top of that, a film commission will be created under the Agency, and its responsibilities will include “luring in” the foreign filmmakers who are looking for locations for filming, and assisting them in organizing filming in Azerbaijan:
“When choosing locations, foreign film studios are guided not only by the beauty of nature, climate or suitable architecture, but also by less obvious factors such as tax and other benefits. If we offer them favourable conditions, this will increase our competitiveness among other countries in the region, and we will also be able to stimulate various sectors of the economy, including the hotel business and many other areas. For example, last year the Americans shot the Fast and the Furious movie in Georgia and spent 11 million dollars there. We will also be able to involve our local actors, cameramen and other professionals in the process”.
But the process of creating a new state structure takes time, and for now the cinema department is negotiating with Turkey on the joint production of several films and TV series, as week as Netflix, and has already begun to cooperate with private studios in several joint projects and a competition of short films pitching which was broadcast live to provide transparency.