KYIV -- The dark ages might be over for Ukraine’s film industry. With the Christmas season approaching, 2016 is on track to release a record number of 26 local films to theaters. Government funding is rising again.
"From the first week of October through the end of the year, at least one Ukrainian film will be released almost every week," said Denis Maslikov, executive director of the Ukrainian Film Institute. "This has never happened in the 25 years of the country's independence."
This year’s crop of 26 Ukrainian films is just below the total of 28 films released during the three prior years, from 2013 to 2015.
Ukrainian Movies Battle for Audiences
Although Ukraine has about 2,500 screens, the national industry fights to survive against Hollywood and European productions. In recent years, Ukrainians films have accounted for about 3 percent of all movie tickets sold.
For two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine's film industry was on life support. Deprived of big government financed budgets, Ukraine’s director spent years navigating the post-Soviet film world, discover their voice, exploring new freedoms, and learning to market their scripts to private investors.
On the state support side, a turnaround started in 2013 when state funding increased. Also, the government started a more transparent system of selecting film projects through public pitch sessions.
But this stopped in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and the separatist war started in southeast Ukraine.The government adopted austerity measures to survive. Cash earmarked for films was never disbursed. In 2015, $4.9 million went for films, less than 25 percent of the over $20 million spent in 2013.
This year, government support rose again. The target is $10.4 million.
"The industry has been resuscitated," said prominent Ukrainian producer Denis Ivanov. "Many projects are currently in production, and this dynamic is likely to continue into the future."
Best Opening Weekend in Box Office
One of this fall's releases was the feature-length animated film "Nikita Kozhemyaka" by director Manuk Depoyan. It opened in theaters nationwide on Oct. 13, grossing $193,000 in its opening weekend. This was the highest figure ever for a Ukrainian film.
Meanwhile, filmmakers set their hopes on a law supporting Ukraine’s film industry, adopted by the Rada in September.
To promote the national film industry, the law stipulates 100-percent government funding for debut, experimental, auteur, animated and children's features, and up to 50 percent funding for other feature projects.
Under this law, producers, local and foreigner, who film in Ukraine are to get a 25% cash rebate on their spending here.
With this new law, Ukrainian filmmakers expect to collect even more government support in 2017, almost $20 million.
"The figure could eventually be slightly lower, but we are still talking about money that will have a decisive impact on the industry," said Ivanov, the producer, adding that private cash, especially from television networks, is to come soon.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian filmmakers also look for international co-productions.
"In recent years, Ukraine has actively participated in international co-productions,” Ivanov said. “We have co-produced with Poland, Italy, France, Germany, the Baltic states.”
One prominent international project involving Ukraine is "Polina", co-produced with Belgium and France and directed by Olias Barco. Scheduled for release next year, this movie is shaping up as Ukraine's most expensive English-language co-production.
In addition to co-producing, Ukrainian filmmakers want to make an international impact.
After missing last year's Academy Awards campaign over changes to the country's Oscar committee, Ukraine had again entered a movie in the best foreign-language Oscar race. Roman Bondarchuk's documentary, "Ukrainski sherify" ("Ukrainian Sheriffs"), was submitted for this year’s competition.
To date, the most successful recent Ukrainian movie on the international film festival circuit is Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's "Plemya" ("The Tribe"). Premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, Plemya went on to win more global awards.
"These are all pre-conditions for Ukrainian films to earn a bigger share of the national box office next year and the year after," said Ivanov. "There are enough promising projects."
Battle for Eyeballs
Ukrainian filmmakers face serious global challenges.
"Quality is the main problem," said Maslikov, director of the Kyiv-based Film Institute. "Ukrainian films compete not just with European or Hollywood film. They compete with just about everything that's on the screen of a mobile device for viewers' attention."
"Viewers don't watch Ukrainian films enough, not because they don't like them, but because they have a wide range of options for audiovisual content," he said of the sharpening competition for the public’s attention.
According to Maslikov, a global formula is that one out of 10 films is successful either commercially or critically. As soon as Ukraine establishes a steady flow of original and distinct films, the transition from quantity to quality will follow.
Vladimir Kozlov, The Hollywood Reporter’s correspondent for Central and Eastern Europe, wrote this story for the UBJ Weekend
Photo: Polina, a Ukrainian co-production with Belgium and France, is scheduled for release next year. Directed by Olias Barco, Polina is shaping up as Ukraine's most expensive English-language co-production. (FILM.UA)
Photo: "Nikita Kozhemyaka," a feature-length animated film by director Manuk Depoyan, opened in theaters nationwide on Oct. 13. It grossed $193,000 in its first weekend, the highest figure ever for a Ukrainian film. (Panam Grand Prix)