Greek cinema is suffering post-Olympics cash drain

THESSALONIKI – Greece’s subsidy-driven film industry is grinding to a halt because of severe budget constraints imposed to finance last August’s costly Athens Olympics, the country’s filmmakers complain. The Greek Film Center (EKK), a government-run film production fund which is the industry’s biggest financial backer, has hardly handed out any money this year. «Not a single financing decision has been made… many projects are blocked,» complained Hari Papadopoulos, president of Greece’s Film Directors Association, which leads a public campaign to unlock the funds. EKK is financed by the country’s Culture Ministry, which carried out some of the Olympics-related construction. The Games were initially budgeted at 4.6 billion euros. Net expenses eventually exceeded 7 billion euros. Much of the cost was incurred this year. EKK was among the first to feel the pinch. Its coffers are said to be almost empty. The institution reportedly finds it hard just to pay its own staff, let alone finance new productions. Even Greece’s answer to Cannes, the annual Thessaloniki Film Festival, did not escape the cuts. The budget for the state-financed show, the country’s biggest international film festival, was slashed by 600,000 euros to around 3.6 million, according to its director Michel Demopoulos. «We saved on projects that ran parallel to the festival. Nevertheless, we managed to stage one of its most remarkable editions,» he said during this year’s November 18-30 event. Greek-French director Marco Gastine had to pay 20,000 euros out of his own pocket to present his documentary, shot on 35-millimeter reel, at the festival and obtain distribution. Filmmakers want the government to stick to the support system devised by Melina Mercouri, one of Greece’s best-known actresses abroad, from her post as the country’s Socialist culture minister. «The current, conservative government has not yet clearly displayed its will to continue the system she put in place,» Gastine said. If the Greek Film Center shrinks, moviemaking in the country could head for decline, industry professionals fear. «EKK is an indispensable factor,» said Papadopoulos. «There are almost no independent film production companies at all in Greece,» he explained. The subsidy board bankrolls around 15 long films, 15 short films and up to four documentaries each year. While supporting well-known directors, it mostly provides the bulk of finance for low-budget movies by start-up filmmakers. Greek cinema boomed until the early 1970s but the spread of television and Hollywood blockbusters plunged the industry into crisis. Put off by bad scripts, audiences steered clear of homegrown pictures for decades. Around the mid-1990s, directors started putting out films accessible to the public which wittily dealt with recent history and social problems. Titles such as «The Attack of the Giant Moussaka,» «Valkanizateur,» «Safe Sex» and «A Touch of Spice» sold up to 1.5 million tickets – a huge success in a small movie market of just 11 million. «Brides,» an account of the frequent mail-order marriages arranged in the 1920s between male Greek immigrants to America and ditch-poor women back home broke all records by selling 550,000 tickets in less than two weeks after its early November release. Tightening the state’s purse strings now would result in a dead production season and dry up the industry’s pool of talent, Demopoulos warned. The Thessaloniki Film Festival hosted 18 Greek films this year. This could drop to just four or five next year – the lowest level since the early 1990s.