This article is based on an article with the same title which appeared in the Neos Kosmos English Weekly on February 2, 1997.
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I’ll declare my bias up front: I want to see Greek films at the cinema. The last time I saw Greek films in a theatre regularly was in the 1970s at the now-demolished National Theatre. These were usually Saturday-night double features (a melo and a Finos Films musical comedy, usually starring Aliki Vouyouklaki). Today, Greek films are screened on SBS; at special interest festivals where films made by the Greek Diaspora are shown (eg. Constantine Giannaris’s work at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival); on pay TV (the two Greek channels: Mega and Antenna); the annual Greek Film Festivals in Melbourne and Sydney, which screen contemporary features; the Melbourne International film Festival (MIFF), which screens Greek films every so often; and a number of video shops, which stock Greek films. But next to none are exhibited commercially – the most recent was Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos, 1996) which had a two-week run in 1997. So, what’s going on?
Tait Brady, General Manager at Palace Films, which exhibited Ulysses’ Gaze, says that the response to the film was disappointing in terms of both reviews and box office. However, expectations weren’t all that high from the outset since the film, like all of Angelopoulos’ work, is demanding.
Ulysses’ Gaze had already screened as part of an Angelopoulos retrospective at that year’s MIFF. The retrospective, a collaborative project between MIFF and the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GCOMV), was, according to Sandra Sdraulig, Executive Director of MIFF, “a wonderful success. It was incredibly well-received by critics, cinema buffs and the [local] Greek community. And Angelopoulos was so positive about the retrospective that he sent a note to be included in the festival’s catalogue.” Given the way in which the retrospective had been received, MIFF were interested in keeping in touch with Angelopoulos’ future work. According to Sdraulig, MIFF tried for two years to secure Eternity and a Day (1998), but, unfortunately, in the end, the film didn’t sell to an Australian distributor.
This is an example of the complexity of exhibiting films, which those in the industry are aware of, but which those not involved are not. The process is much more complex in the case of “specialist films” i.e. films that are perceived as not appealing to a mass audience. As well as distribution, one of the other interlocking aspects of this process is marketing, which, in the case of specialist films, seems to be crucial in decisions about whether or not they will be exhibited and how. Petro Alexiou, script-writer and co-curator of the Sydney Greek Film Festival, believes that “local distributors aren’t going to take a risk with films from Greece which don’t have a commercial track-record in English-speaking countries. Non-American films are competing with the huge marketing and advertising budgets of Hollywood films.” For Greek films to be a viable option, they have to appeal to a broader audience, not just to Greek-Australians. It’s becoming more difficult for most specialised films, except French films and films by Almodovar, who in a sense paved the way for Spanish films, to attract a broad audience. Sandra Sdraulig thinks that that there are a number of reasons for this: “many countries (eg. Greece and Italy) are producing films for television, not cinema. And foreign-language films are culturally specific, so there are hurdles to overcome, on cultural, as well as linguistic levels.” The language issue is about the reluctance of most cinema-goers to choose to see films that are in a language other than English. “It’s also”, Sdraulig says, “about promotional material (such as trailers, posters etc) not being in English, which adds to the cost and makes it more difficult to justify distribution.”
But marketing is also about promoting the fashionable because that’s what sells, and films are as vulnerable to the fickleness of fashion as any other “commodity”. Currently, Greek films aren’t “in”. But neither are many films that veer from the mainstream. Tait Brady believes foreign language films “definitely had a moment about 7-9 years ago” when classic arthouse films, especially those made by Chinese film-makers (eg. Kaige and Yimou) did well, but that now it’s more difficult to “sell” non-mainstream films to audiences.
The Melbourne Greek Film Festival, which is organised by the GCOMV as part of its annual Antipodes Festival is, apart from SBS, which screens a small number of features, the main vehicle for showcasing contemporary Greek films. Jorge Menidis, co-ordinator of the National Network of Hellenic Australian Festivals, says that “the [Melbourne] Greek Film Festival is very important from the point of view of promoting modern Greek cinema. It’s a successful event, especially this year’s when Safe Sex ([Thanasis Papathanasiou, 1999] reviewed in Issue 6 of Senses of Cinema) had incredible attendances. It screened twice and both times people were turned away. We’re still getting requests to re-screen the film, five months after it was first exhibited.” Ironically, films that are screened at the Melbourne Greek Film Festival (which usually takes place in April), which might be of interest to MIFF, don’t make it to the latter festival because of its criterion to screen only premieres.
Safe Sex is one of a small, but growing number of independent productions which run in parallel to the state-supported system. This system is administered by the Greek Film Centre (GFC), the Greek government’s film-funding body. There is a feeling among some of the local programmers I talked to, that the paucity of Greek films exhibited here commercially is partly due to the lack of support provided by the GFC to that nation’s film-making. It’s thought that few films are produced in Greece and the ones that are, are largely not of a standard that appeals to Australian distributors, because, the argument goes, those films won’t appeal to Australian audiences as they are considered “too” culturally specific and stylistically unsophisticated.
However, Alexiou maintains that the GFC has provided support consistently for the last twenty years. “Funding may be low,” he states, “in comparative terms, but so are production costs.” In fact, the number of films produced in Greece is comparatively reasonable (according to Alexiou, in 1999, about 28 features were produced in Greece, a country with a population of approximately 10 million, compared with about 18 features produced in Australia).
But when considering the issue of “taste”, the effect of the long-time global dominance of mainstream American films which has been to steer audience tastes toward their product needs to be taken into account. This is an issue for any film that’s not produced within that system, including Greece, where, like Australia, local feature films find it hard to compete with American films. Petro Alexiou thinks that Greek producers “probably have enough on their hands trying to survive in Greece and Europe. Up until now, they haven’t had the resources to systematically market their films for commercial exhibition in Australia, a small market where television rights (SBS-TV) provided the only sales potential.”
So it goes back to marketing. Alexiou thinks that “with the right marketing, certain Greek film-makers, like Voulgaris and Goritsas, whose films have qualities that could make them commercial propositions here, could get on the commercial exhibition circuit in Australia. While it may not be realistic to think that a large number of Greek films would be viable commercially here, there may be a large-enough audience comprised mainly of second and third generation Greek Australians.” He asserts that what’s needed to break the vicious cycle of the reluctance of commercial distributors to take risks with “an unknown quantity and an audience that’s unfamiliar with films from that particular country” is a commercial success with one film followed by the commercial success of several others.
It seems the hard time Greek films are having is linked to the hard time specialist films in general are having. I believe that as a result, the world, as we view it on cinema screens is shrinking and will continue to do so and that, as a consequence, so will the richness of our cultural life.