"Only Blockbusters Left Alive": Discontents of Turkish Cinema

in 35th International Istanbul Film Festival

by Chris Fujiwara

One of the most discussed films at the 35th Istanbul Film Festival was Only Blockbusters Left Alive: Monopolizing Film Distribution in Turkey, a documentary by director Kaan Müjdeci (whose Sivas won the Special Jury Prize at Venice in 2014). Using a wryly humorous tone while marshaling an imposing set of facts and figures, Only Blockbusters Left Alive describes the dire situation of independent cinema in Turkey.

By certain metrics, Turkish cinema appears to be in promising shape. According to Müjdeci’s film, Turkey’s film industry is the second fastest growing in Europe after Russia. Turkish ticket sales more than doubled from 2005 (27 million) to 2015 (60 million), and domestic production more than quadrupled over the same period (from 29 to 136). I admit I was surprised to learn that Turkish cinema has a higher domestic market share than that of any European country: more than 50 percent.

The problems with the Turkish situation become evident when one looks at which films and which distribution companies are reaping benefits, and in what proportion of the whole. In the last week of December 2015, according to a snapshot of Turkish exhibition presented in Müjdeci’s film, 60 percent of Turkish screens were showing a single film, Dügün Dernek 2: Sünnet, the sequel to a hit comedy. Meanwhile, Emin Alper’s Frenzy (Abluka), winner of the Special Jury Prize at Venice, was on 25 screens (less than 1 percent of the total) after six weeks in domestic release. The three biggest Turkish distributors have a combined market share of 70 percent, according to Müjdeci.

The Turkish film producers, directors, distributors, and other film professionals interviewed on camera for the film expose various dimensions of the problem. The audience for independent films is small, and nothing is being done on the cultural-policy level to increase it. Distributors reduce risk and costs and maximize profits by massively booking lowest-common-denominator films into shopping-mall multiplexes and megaplexes. As producer Serkan Çakarer says, the audience at these venues is, arguably, not really a film audience (“They just want to be entertained”), while, on the other hand, “People who watch my films don’t go to shopping malls.”

Necati Sönmez, director of the Documentarist festival, puts it this way: “An award-winning film at the Berlinale gets a one-week engagement. Sometimes not even that. Or it’s screened for two days during the week through alternative distribution networks.” Or take the case of a recent Turkish film that became well known internationally, Ali Aydin’s Mold (Küf, 2012). According to Sevil Demirci, one of the producers of the film, Mold was screened in Italy in 10 to 15 prints, earning 10,000 euros. In Turkey, it screened in only a single copy and earned 3,000 Turkish lira (around 1,000 euros). Pelin Esmer, director of Watchtower (Gözetleme Kulesi, 2012) and 10 to 11 (11’e 10 kala, 2009), tells of struggling to get a meager number of bookings for her works only to hear anecdotally from friends that promised screenings were cancelled. “Having to fight this, I think, is a total waste of energy.”

How can independent films reach an audience? Self-distribution used to be one answer: director Yesim Ustaoglu tried it when her 1999 Berlinale award winner Journey to the Sun (Günese Yolculuk) failed, after a year of effort, to find an established Turkish distributor to take the film. These days, when the cinemas are almost entirely integrated, self-distribution is no longer an option, says Demirci, adding: “We can’t make the films we want to. There is no audience. It seems like the only option is to close shop.”

According to producer Yonca Ertürk, films are marketed according to the blockbuster model, relying on well-known actors and currently popular themes. The inevitable result is an emphasis on stereotypical films. Another producer, Funda Alp, argues that current distribution policies are lowering the taste level of the public. “It’s akin to going to hell, really… You’re forcing them to watch the same things… This isn’t just detrimental to cinema. It’s also fundamentally detrimental to the audience.” As theater manager and festival director Irfan Demirkol says, “The audience grows lazy.”

Producer/distributor Marsel Kalvo experimented with an alternative venue, Other Cinema, but “it turns out that the kind of festival-film audience we thought existed doesn’t exist,” Kalvo says. His research indicated that a significant part of the film-festival audience goes to festivals just to be seen, or because it’s the thing to do. The Istanbul Film Festival audience achieves attendances in the 100,000 to 200,000 range, but according to Demirci, such numbers evaporate when festival films get released to cinemas on a regular first-run basis.

Demirkol and several others talk of arbitrary state cultural policies that do not help the situation for independent film or for the audience. Demirkol also cites an instance in which money that the Ministry of Culture had earmarked for film producers ended up being embezzled before reaching its rightful hands.

What is to be done? Recalling a well publicized and politically effective 1977 march from Istanbul to Ankara in protest of censorship, Demirkol suggests that a similar tactic, backed by figures capable of attracting media attention, could work today to create the impetus for policies more beneficial to independent films and their audiences. Director Onur Ünlü advocates a shutdown of production, saying that filmmakers are more important economically than they may think. Serkan Çakarer calls for alternative means of distribution and points out that mainstream commercial cinema is dependent on independent cinema and should collaborate with it.

That may be true. It is discouraging to learn in the end titles of Only Blockbusters Left Alive, however, that the producer of Dügün Dernek 2: Sünnet, the top Turkish film at the end of 2015, declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

Chris Fujiwara