Money, not art, at the heart of debate in Turkey's film sector
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
Big film producers are objecting to what they see as unequal share of income, journalist Uğur Vardan has told the Daily News, explaining a recent crisis between producers and movie theater owners. Small producers had been warning for quite some time about monopoly practices, but their calls fell on deaf ears, as big producers turned a blind eye to the problems of the smaller ones, according to Vardan.
Q: Tell us how this debate started.
A: A film by a prominent producer, Yılmaz Erdoğan, was expected to be shown at movie theaters as of New Year. Another one shot by Cem Yılmaz (one of Turkey’s most popular comedians) was also scheduled to come to movie theaters soon, but they were postponed.
In short, the issue is that a group which is operating the movie theaters is selling the tickets with promotions. But the extra income made through these promotions is not shared with the producers. When the operators sell a ticket together with popcorn and a drink, producers do not get half the price of the promotion package, but only half of the ticket’s price. To put it simply: There is a cake, while producers thought they were getting their fair share now they have concluded that the bigger share goes to the owners of the movie theaters.
Q: Why are we witnessing the problem turning into a crisis rather than an agreement between the two sides?
A: Cengiz Semercioğlu (from daily Hürriyet), who broke the story, interviewed the communication director of Mars entertainment group whose rhetoric was arrogant and not art- and artist-friendly.
She could have said it differently, but she used words that angered the other side. While the tension between the operators and the big producers intensified, this time, smaller players in the sector started to recall other problems.
One such problem is this: Movies which have been very successful in festivals, which have passed the test in terms of cinematography, cannot find halls, because the movie theaters prefer popular movies. The small productions can find either three or five auditoriums. This obviously is not the problem of today, but has been so for a long time.
I recall, once a film which won the best movie award at the Antalya Film Festival waited a year to be shown in movie theaters. By that time, I, as a movie critic, had already forgotten what the story was about. A stimulating wave builds up about a movie in a festival; you feel that movie should be appreciated by larger viewers as well but then it cannot meet with the audience.
Of course I also understand the market conditions. The demand and supply side of the economy has its own requirements. Still the system needs to protect those overwhelmed by the others. The monopolization that is being seen at all walks of life has come to reflect itself in the film industry as well.
Q: It seems Mars entertainment group (bought in 2016 by South Korea’s biggest cinema chain CJ CGV) is dominating the sector.
A: There are other movie theaters, but they hold the majority. Therefore, they are the decision makers. They claim to have supported some films, but I am not sure what they have been supportive of exactly. On the other side, when we look at the top 10 movies in Turkey, there is only one foreign among them: The Avengers.
The rest are all Turkish. That’s rarely the case in the world. Perhaps in France you might see more French movies among the top 10. So when you look, we are faced with popular cinema. If this is what the crowds want, that’s what they will watch.
Honestly, of those 10 movies there are very few I as a movie critic see worthy of writing something about. Artistic criteria do not prevail in films with the biggest box office. That is the case all over the world. But the problem is that there was no place for small fish in the pool. With the current outcry coming from big names like Cem Yılmaz and Yılmaz Erdoğan, the others recalled how they had difficulty in finding movie theaters to show their films. One of the directors complaining about it was Onur Saylak. His film was not shown in the theaters long enough for the viewers to decide whether it was a good or bad film.
Q: You say only one out of the top 10 films is foreign. What does this tell us?
A: This has been the case for the past 15-20 years. Most of them are comedies. People go to the cinemas most probably just to laugh. At any rate it is rare in the world as well to have both cinema critics and viewers to appreciate the same movie. But in Turkey the gap is much wider. So we can say that we have “local and national” spectators.
But that does not mean other movies are not being watched in Turkey. People watch Netflix or other outlets.
Q: Do you think film tickets are expensive in Turkey?
A: They are when considering the economy of Turkey. The monthly minimum wage will be 2,000 Turkish Liras these days. (The prices vary between 10 to 25 liras in Istanbul). Going to a movie once a week for a family with two kids is rather costly.
Q: Yılmaz Erdoğan, one of the biggest producers, has said the film industry has come to the brink of extinction. Is that the case? The industry does not receive much state support. Is that why it has problems?
A: Popular movies don’t need state support. They can cover their costs. The smaller and more creative productions need the state’s support. But the problem at that point is that films against the system, films that are not appreciated by the establishment, cannot get any support.
Q: So what triggered the anger of producers is not a lack of financial resources but their wish to increase their revenue.
A: Exactly. There is a cake, and producers get one third instead of half. In the meantime smaller producers say, “You are complaining about this monopoly only today, but we have been complaining about it for years. We cannot find a movie theater to show our movies because of your films.” They are saying that this problem (operators dictating the terms) was going to knock on everybody’s door one day and that they (the movie makers) should have taken the measures before the knock on the door came.
Smaller producers blame the bigger ones to treat them the same way operators are now treating the big producers. The best example is the documentary called “Only Blockbusters Left Alive.” It was shot to underline this problem of practices of monopolies and to point to the problem of distribution of income.
They tried relentlessly to reach out to big producers to get their views, but they were turned down. This happened two years ago. They did not want to talk because at that time this was not a problem for them.
Q: So what has changed today?
A: They realized that the incomes were not equally distributed. So there is money, not art, at the heart of the issue. The documentary was a warning. But now a colleague is calling on them to put the past behind and for big and small producers to use this opportunity to join hands. Big productions can still get a bigger share but smaller ones need to survive, too. If the two sides in the current debate were to reach an agreement, nothing would have changed. Big ones will shut their voice, saying they got their money, while small fishes would continue to be hunted or struggle to survive.
Uğur Vardan is a journalist with a special focus on sports and cinema. He is one of the most well-known movie critics in Turkey. His movie reviews are published in daily Hürriyet, where he also writes on sports. Before Hürriyet, he was the sports editor of daily Radikal.
Vardan was born in Istanbul. A graduate of Istanbul Technical University, he decided to become a journalist and not an architect, working at several magazines early in his career.