“Cinema and business: bridges” themed discussion was organized by YARAT Contemporary Art Space and Azerbaijan Union of Filmmakers on December 16.

Initially, Sevda Sultanova, film critic, the moderator of the event addressed these questions to the guests, “If we imagine cinema as a product, where should we start to turn this product into a brand, and how the development process should be in it, and what should we do to make cinema attractive to entrepreneurs?”

The head of Jeykhun Imanov Studio (Jis) advertising company Jeykhun Imanov: I have two options in my mind: First of all, cinema is a state-subsidized art, but on the other hand, it is also a commercial material. I think we should look at the local market and study it. Also, we have to look at the global market that how can our culture, our approach, for example, can be broadcast in Netflix or another platforms? If at all, we should be integrated into the Turkish market. Since almost 3 million Azerbaijani living there as well as our language is similar.

Orman Aliyev, executive director of Baku Media Center said that the commercial films made in Azerbaijan have found a certain customer as well as underlined a certain progress of these films in the exact genre compared to a few years ago: “If more ordinary comedies were filmed in Azerbaijan a few years ago, but now, after Covid-19 and Patriotic War, those simple ones no longer arouse interest in the audience. Now social dramas are made mostly by bloggers and it is accepted quite normal by people. We cannot say that the process is not going, it is progressing, but very slowly.”

Zaur Darabzadeh, Chairman of the Supervisory Board at “CinemaPlus”:  “We as of “CinemaPlus” work with all directors and are ready to work. We give an initial advance deposit to great numbers of directors to make their film. So two weeks after the release of the film, we can take that money. We believe that there will be at least 6 films with high box office in Azerbaijan every year”.

Zaur Darabzadeh, who addressed the box office issue, said that they only give these numbers to official institutions:  “Because we have confidentiality contracts with the directors. That’s why we can’t represent any movie`s box-office anywhere except official institutions. But I can only say that after the pandemic, the top-selling film in Azerbaijan was “Vitriolic ” (Zeher tulughu).

At this point in his speech, AUF Secretary Ali Isa Jabarrov asked “While protecting the financial confidentiality of the projects` names could please share with us what is the opportunity to sell a comedy film in the “Vitriolic” format or the one that raise social issues?”

Zaur Darabzadeh: “You can have a super cast as well as promo, but if the product isn’t that quality, you won’t have an audience. In our experience we have observed that one businessman has spent a lot of money for a production accompanied by a perfect cast, really good promotion. But the film did not have an audience because it was not that high quality of work. In my opinion,  if the film and the script are both good – you, as creative people, know this better, of course, we approach the topic from a business point of view – at least 80,000 viewership can watch this film. And it is not a bad number, 80,000 people means a box office of around 600,000 Azerbaijani manat. Value added tax (VAT) is deducted from this 600,000 AZN, 53 percent goes to “Cinema Plus”, and the remaining 47 percent goes to the film producer.”

CinemaPlus representative also said in his speech that he drew attention the exemption of cinema from VAT during Minister of Culture Anar Karimov`s meeting with the cinema community on December 13: “We want cinema to be exempt from VAT in Azerbaijan when it is produced and sold. This may not continue permanent. For example, it can last 5-10 years within a certain program. Let me underline one point. I raised this issue in the last meeting with the minister too. I have always said that the number of cinemas should increase in order to increase the number of viewership.

Moderator Sevda Sultanova said that the Ministry of Culture is the only institution that allocates funds to non-commercial films in Azerbaijan and asked Rufat Hasanov, the head of the Audiovisual and Interactive Media Department of the institution, what his priorities are for changing the mentioned direction and does he think that 3 films made by ministry last year have the potential to attract the audience?”

Rufat Hasanov, head of the Audiovisual and Interactive Media Department of the Ministry of Culture, said that it is difficult to predict this, but he also said that there are films he expects good results: “In my mind, especially after the pandemic, both Vagif Mustafayev and Asif Rustamov’s films can show better results, because they have potential.   But I do not believe that these films can earn beyond their budget. There are several reasons for this, such as demand,  going to the cinema, limited market and the number of cinemas, which we are  already discussing. In other words, if we treat cinema as a business, I think there are two ways in the 21st century: First of all, there must be more cinema halls. In this regard, I completely agree with Mr. Darabzadeh that the more the number of cinemas, the more of the sales so market will grow.

As a general rule, when we say cinema, it is necessary to understand that there are 3 main directions: “Even in the discussion with honorable Minister, quite interesting thing happened. A certain part of the 100 people hall said that commercial films should be made, because cinema is a business, it should become an industry and we should make money. Another part said that cinema is a higher art form. Filmmaking should be treated as an art ensample. This kind of art has Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and others. But the third part said that cinema is an ideological tool and we should use cinema in this direction for protection of our values, history and heritage. In fact, it seems to me that all 3 approaches are correct here. All of them should develop in parallel merely.”

The head of the department emphasised that the Ministry of Culture in Azerbaijan has 45,000 employees and only 8 one of them manage such an important field as filmmaking. He also mentioned the importance of revising the law on “cinema”. “Since 1998, the law on “cinema” has not been upgraded. In this sense, no one denies that there are loopholes and the process takes too long indeed. Among  former post-Soviet countries, almost Azerbaijan and Belarus were the countries that did not have a specialised institute related to cinema.

AUF Secretary Ali Isa Jabbarov: advertising business is more developed than our cinema, paying is high, and there is both a cinema and a business element here. It can be interesting experience for us as well. Advertising is a successful model with an audiovisual element, perhaps if there is ideas, personnel, and producers transfer from advertising to cinema, this can support the development of cinema.”

Emphasizing the importance of sales talent in the field of cinema, the director also said that the producer institute in Azerbaijan is not developed. We don’t have bright, charismatic leaders on the sphere. To put it bluntly, the talent for grabbing money is very important in this business. I’m sorry to say like that but there are people who have the ability to sell garbage to investors in advertising, but not in cinema.”

Now, as producers, their main goal is very low for now: “It seems to me that we, the producers, should not make a Gelandewagen, but a Prius. While producing a Prius, we should sell and make a profit, and later can make a Gelandewagen. Low-budget, effective, hit”.

Director Elvin Ashirov said in his speech that he does did not agree with what his colleague Ali Isa Jabbarov said about the sale: “Because we have very good “project idea sellers”. We have seen several times that they were able to sell the product, we estimated as fiasco, to an investor when we have met with the company president. When the material is “Garbage”, cinemas doesn’t screen and the audience doesn’t watch it either. What happens in that case?  Local cinema receives a blow, the consumer comes, pays 7-8 AZN, buys the ticket, and when leaving he/she curses the same brand, director, and sometimes the cinema too. Therefore, we must work until we convince the consumer that there is an Azerbaijani product of high quality in the cinema.”

After the speeches, the guests answered the questions of audience.