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16 December, 2018  ▪  Олеся Анастасьєва

More alive than dead

How Ukrainian cinema faces modern challenges

Since the beginning of 2018, more than 30 Ukrainian releases have made it onto the big screen. This includes feature-length live-action films that were successful at the box office, such as romantic comedy Swingers, and cartoon The Stolen Princess: Ruslan and Ludmila, which currently holds the record for box office takings in Ukraine among Ukrainian films that were not co-production projects. Around half a million tickets were purchased for this animated film and it has been sold to a number of other countries. It is also worth mentioning the documentary Myth about opera singer Vasyl Slipak, who died as a soldier in our undeclared war. By the end of the year, over 10 more Ukrainian films should be released. If this happens, the number of Ukrainian movies on cinema screens will set a new record.

All of the above paints a very optimistic picture, but something is nevertheless rotten in the state of our cinema. Public funding contests are accompanied by scandals, opacity and accusations about conflicts of interest. Not all cinemas want to show non-commercial Ukrainian films. There are no accurate statistics on the number of tickets sold, nor a clear understanding of what exactly cinemagoers want from a Ukrainian product and for what we are ready to vote with our wallets. In order to persuade them to go and see original Ukrainian films, additional efforts must be made, which producers cannot or do not want to do. Is there any way out of this situation?

Private Cinema, Public Cinema

It should be noted that the number of privately released and state-funded films is approximately the same. Equally, cinemagoers make their decision to see or not see a film regardless of whose money was used to make it, so there have been box office successes in both categories.

This year, the state has allocated more than 1 billion hryvnias ($35.5m) in support of cinema. While previously film-makers could only get state financial support from the State Film Agency, competitions are now also being held by the Ministry of Culture. In addition, a new institution, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, has also held its own competition and provided assistance to film projects in everything from writing scripts to promoting future films.

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The competitions on the basis of which several million hryvnias are allocated by the state for the creation of a film are held in two stages. Initially, the production company submits a large package of documents related to its future project for consideration by an expert commission. Its members should read the script and study the submitted budget, as well as the portfolio of the company itself and the film-makers, in order to award points. The average score is worked out and if it is high enough, the project continues to the second round – pitching (a public presentation of the project to the same expert commission). The film-makers have a chance to personally convince the jury that they need the money. According to the results from the presentation, an average score is calculated and a list of candidates for state funding is formed.

Live-action films, documentaries and animations can all apply for support. Both those who hope to bring as large an audience as possible to cinemas and those who dream of winning a prize at an international festival. This year, the state began to hold a competition for TV series too. This innovation sparked a heated debate in the Ukrainian cinema world on whether it is necessary to allocate public funds to private TV channels and if the authorities are simply trying to buy their loyalty in this way prior to next year’s elections. Indeed, the TV channels themselves are in no hurry to comply with the article of the new law stating that Ukrainian films should be promoted in public service advertisements.

Almost every competition for state cinema funding is accompanied by a scandal. It reached a peak this year during the Patriotic Cinema competition that was held for the first time by the Ministry of Culture. There are several reasons for this.

What is "patriotic cinema"? Parliament backed itself into a corner by introducing a phrase that has no legal definition. But it is a nice word and they certainly wanted to win favour from the electorate. After some verbal jousting, it was decided to consider all good Ukrainian cinema to be patriotic. How could this scandal be avoided? There are several options. The first is to leave everything the way it was. That is, when money for the production of films is allocated by the State Film Agency through its own Council, the creation of which is prescribed in the Law on State Support for Cinema. The second one is to divide up the competitions of the State Agency and the Ministry of Culture based, for example, on the following principle: one supports projects aimed at a wide audience, while the other deals with art films intended for festivals.

An advantage of this first "patriotic competition" from the Ministry of Culture was that all the experts' voting cards are published on the internet after both the first and second rounds so that anyone can read them. They are not signed, but some people with certain analytical abilities were able to work out exactly which expert filled out which card. This is where it got interesting. It turned out that not all the members of the jury were competent enough – some violated the regulations by not giving reasons for their ratings. Others have problems with logic: while recognising a project to be relevant or patriotic, they give the lowest scores. One expert decided to follow the letter of the rules and give a zero for all criteria if he considered the project to not be patriotic. This assessment was taken into account when determining the average score, and some projects did not get into the second round due to one zero from one member of the jury. If we take into account that half of the experts were also applicants at the same time, i.e. they submitted their own projects to the competition, but did not vote on them, an additional question arises: were some of them not simply trying to take out their competitors?

After the competition ended, the Ministry of Culture told the winners that the amount of state funding for a feature-length live-action film or animation could not exceed 25 million hryvnias ($885k), although this was not stipulated anywhere in the competition's rules. Despite the fact that the Cabinet approved the list of winners more than a month ago, the Ministry of Culture still cannot say how much money each winner will receive from the state budget.

A problem that came to the fore during the first State Film Agency pitching that has not yet been resolved is the closed first round. Half of the submitted projects do not reach the second round. It is impossible to find out what these films are about. There is no guarantee that projects that really should be supported are not left behind. It often occurs that during the pitching stage, some experts radically change their mark for one of the contestants. Therefore, the only correct solution would be to introduce one round of public pitching for all projects submitting documents that meet the required criteria, but nobody wants to do this.

So when you hear from officials or experts that the competitions are held transparently and everyone can go to YouTube to watch the pitching, remember that a) half of the projects did not reach the second round and b) the experts' ratings are not publicly disclosed, you will not find their names in the titles of the finished film and none of them will be held responsible for their decisions.

This autumn, the first composition of the Council for State Cinema Support will be selected. The people who join it will decide which films will be supported by the State Film Agency. For the first time, cinema experts will receive substantial remuneration – a monthly allowance equal to 35 times the minimum cost of living for able-bodied persons as of 1 January of the current calendar year. As of 1 January 2018, the minimum cost of living is equal to 1,700 hryvnias, so the monthly allowance for each Council member will be 59,500 hryvnias (47,898 – $1700 – after tax). When the minimum cost of living increases, the salaries of Council members will increase accordingly. Cinematographers have not unreasonable fears that it will include people who have previously voted on projects as part of Ministry of Culture and State Film Agency committees or have selected experts. As a journalist who was present for the election of experts, I can say it seems that the list of winners was approved in advance, the competition for positions is a sham and members of the commissions who elect the experts often make compromises and come to agreements with each other on who to vote for. Often, there is no logical explanation behind their arguments about why they supported one candidate and did not support another. So I can not rule out a new wave of backstabbing and scandals.

Can Ukrainian Films Be Profitable in Cinemas?

This question is discussed continuously. In order to answer it, it is necessary to take two aspects into account: very often, and especially if a film is not publicly funded, it is impossible to know what its budget was. Even if the film-makers disclose the figure, there is no guarantee that it will be accurate. The box office takings are divided between all participants in the process: half the amount is taken by the cinema and the other half by the producers and distributor (an intermediary who negotiates with cinemas to agree on the number of showings, screening times and the period for which the film will be shown). If the distributor invests its own money in advertising, it will take a larger amount. This information is not publicly available. For example, the comedy Crazy Wedding was launched onto Ukrainian screens on 4 October. The State Film Agency allocated 3.24 million hryvnias ($115k) to it, or 30% of the total budget. Over the first weekend, the box office takings were 13,112,491 hryvnias ($466k). It was seen by 149,423 people, which is a very good result for a Ukrainian film. The film-makers have stated that this is a record for a Ukrainian live-action film that is not a co-production project. It is already clear that the movie can stay on Ukrainian screens for a long time and will increase its box office takings week by week. For it to break even, it must bring in almost 30 million hryvnias. At the same time, it should be remembered that we do not know what percentage will be taken by the distributor and how much money the producers invested in advertising. But in any case, it is a very successful Ukrainian project that caters for a wide audience.

For comparison, I will mention another of this year's releases, also intended for a wide audience and supported by the State Film Agency. The Secret Diary of Symon Petliura brought in 2,385,171 hryvnias ($84k) from 31,928 tickets sold during the four weeks that it was in cinemas. It was allocated 23,599,998 hryvnias ($840k), half of the film's total budget, by the state. Is it necessary to give money to such a movie? It will not pay back the funding through cinema screenings, nor will it be successful at prestigious international festivals. Nevertheless, the film was created at the Dovzhenko National Film Studio, which according to its manager – who is also its film director – requires state funds. Many viewers consider this kind of cinema to be "patriotic".

Some producers prefer not to use the services of distributors and release films themselves. They personally come to agreements with each cinema regarding screening times and the number of showings. The creators of Alive chose this path. They had one condition: the movie should be shown in the DCP format, which provides better picture quality and sound. Not all cinemas agreed to this, and some even claimed that the film-makers did not contact them at all, so it was not released on a large number of screens. This year, the same group is releasing the film King Danylo. They are "going it alone" again and plan to continue with the above-mentioned image and sound format. Time will tell if it is able to get into more cinemas than Alive did. After all, the cinemas also have arrangements with distributors who supply them with films from big American studios, which provide them with their main income at the box office and allow them to remain profitable. Both Alive and King Danylo were privately funded by their film-makers. They do not disclose the budgets of the films and say they do not need financial support from the state. In fact, it is a good thing that in Ukraine there are films that are funded both privately and publicly.

I Was There, The Film Was Not

On social media, it is often possible to read reviews like "I decided to go to see a Ukrainian film, but no one else was interested, so there was no showing". In fact, some cinemas only put on a screening when they have sold three, or sometimes five, tickets. This problem is especially relevant in regions where entire cities only have one cinema. Some movie theatres in Kyiv also have a tendency to do this, but there is much more choice in the capital, so it is not a problem to find a cinema where a film will be shown to even one paying customer. After one viewer, a popular film blogger, made a post on Facebook about his unsuccessful trip to see a Ukrainian film, the manager of the Baida cinema in Zaporizhzhia, Oleksa Nasliednikov, wrote, "Yes, there is a certain economic basis for putting on a screening. The minimum number of viewers to cover costs is four to five people. A cinema is not funded by anyone except its owners and they don't have to justify themselves to anyone except the film's distributor. But we always try to go meet our audience halfway." Two problems arise here at the same time. The first is that our compatriots are not too enthusiastic about going to see most Ukrainian films. The second one is that the Law on State Support for Cinema provides for state financial assistance to cinemas in small cities, namely, "the reimbursement of interest paid on bank loans received for the construction and/or reconstruction and/or technical re-equipment of cinemas located in settlements with a population up to 250,000 inhabitants". This article of the law has not started to work yet. Perhaps the document should prescribe support for cinemas that undertake to show all Ukrainian films – including those that are privately funded and those that are released without a distributor – even if only one ticket is sold for a screening.

Another problem is that not all Ukrainian films see a wide release (there is no precise definition of the term "wide release" in Ukrainian legislation, but in the cinema community it usually means a film that is shown on at least 80-100 screens), if they are released at all. In some cities, where, for example, there is only one cinema, Ukrainian films, including those created with state support, may not be shown at all.

Sometimes (often in the capital), you find that when you finally want to go to see a Ukrainian film and visit the cinema website, you see that it is not being shown anywhere or that there is only one showing in one cinema at an awkward time. Why is this the case? The answer to this question is given above. Ukrainian films usually have many showings at convenient times during the first week after release. It is worth remembering that if very few or no tickets are sold for a film during its first weekend, the cinema is unlikely to continue showing it. The issue is not that the cinema itself is not patriotic, but that viewers did not turn up, while it is still necessary to pay rent and employee wages. Therefore, instead of a showing a Ukrainian film, they will put on a foreign one that will certainly attract cinemagoers. And not just one.

What Is a Ukrainian Cinemagoer Like?

Nobody can give a precise answer to this question, because such studies have not been conducted in Ukraine, unless individual producers try to determine who goes to see their films. Of course, there are certain common principles. For example, a feature-length animation is intended for the whole family to go to the cinema together, so it has a good chance to collect the most money at the box office. Romcoms are mostly enjoyed by young people aged 16-25. During the holidays, when there are several days off in a row, cinema attendance is higher, so a struggle between several Ukrainian films has broken out for this year's New Year market. Usually, a cinemagoer is looking for emotions, for example, to laugh, so the greatest demand is for comedies. Ukrainian manufacturers have understood this trend, so 2018 and the beginning of 2019 will be remembered for a large number of films in this genre. Viewers also like to see stars and celebrities, so representatives of show-business are appearing more and more often in cameo roles.

Perhaps films about politics like the American series House of Cards would be in demand from Ukrainian audiences: as sad as it is to admit this, the most high-profile and popular figures in Ukraine are politicians and our society is highly politicised. In addition, the release of such a product will in any case cause a scandal, which is also an element of advertising, sometimes one even more effective than 100 positive posts on social media. But so far Ukrainian film-makers have not dared to make such movies and the problem, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the budget. The audience is lazy – for them to find out about a film, it has to be talked about 24 hours a day on every medium. This advertising costs a lot of money and not all producers want to invest in it, because in any case not enough tickets will be sold in order to cover these costs, not to mention the production budget. We mentioned the box office takings of Ukrainian films that were successful in cinemas, but they are few and far between. While more than 200,000 people can go to see mass-market movies in Ukraine, a festival drama will attract from 2,000 to 20,000. There are very few people interested in such films in Ukraine. Why so few spectators go to see mass-market films is another issue that requires sociological study. It could be due to economic factors, laziness, lack of interest or lack of time.

According to Media Resources Management, 14.23 million cinema tickets were sold in Ukraine in the first half of 2018 and 15.6 million in the first half of 2017. It is impossible to count how many of them were for Ukrainian movies, because often distributors and independent film creators do not disclose this information. The introduction of a unified electronic ticket – a corresponding provision is set out in the current Law on State Support for Cinema – could change the situation. But, unfortunately, there are no signs that this will happen in the near future.

What steps should be taken in the near future in this field? First of all, compliance with the law, i.e. ensuring the adoption of acts necessary to implement a unified state system to keep an electronic record of tickets sold. The state should commission a highly-rated sociological service with a good reputation to make a "portrait of the Ukrainian cinemagoer". It is worth surveying not only people who buy tickets for Ukrainian films, but also those who as a matter of principle only go to see foreign movies, as well as those who do not go to the cinema at all, in order to understand what stops them from doing this. In addition, it is necessary to expand the network of cinemas in the regions with financial support for those who will provide regular screenings of Ukrainian films.

RELATED ARTICLE: Silent Dialogs With Film

Another step is the creation of an online resource that would bring together most Ukrainian films, both new and older ones. This would be a platform for the further promotion of Ukrainian cinema not only in our country, but also abroad, thanks to which it will be watched, in particular, by Ukrainian migrants. Film-makers, in turn, will be able to further monetise their content. In addition, it will help track how many people are willing to pay to watch Ukrainian films if they do not want or cannot go to the cinema for any reason.

The evaluation of projects that are applying for state funding should be transparent. If the experts do not want to state their names on the voting cards that record their ratings, the end credits of the finished film should at least show who exactly backed the project. It is also important to involve foreign specialists who have experience of successfully implementing cinema projects and have not worked with Ukrainian film producers in the expert commissions. The experts should be banned from moving from one commission to another and constantly voting on projects that are applying for financial support.

For the further development of its cinema industry, it would be a good idea for Ukraine to join Eurimages, the European cultural fund that deals with film co-production, distribution, exhibition and promotion. This will enable actors in Ukrainian films intended for festivals not only to receive funding from abroad, but also to create co-produced films, expanding their distribution at least to the countries that provided funds. In addition, films supported by Eurimages will have a great chance of competing in top-class international festivals, which will enable Ukrainian cinematography to become part of the international professional film industry. 

Cinemagoers themselves should also remember that when you want to buy a smartphone, you go to look for one in the shop and do not wait until someone brings it home for you. It is the same with films: if you want to watch new Ukrainian movies, look for them at the cinema.




What to See at the Cinema This Year*

* Films that have been released or have an announced release date



Opening day


Brief description***



The Secret Diary of Symon Petliura

6 September

Historical drama

Ukraine, 1917-1921. A desperate struggle for the independence of the Ukrainian People's Republic is ongoing. UPR leader Simon Petliura is trying to curb the aggression of Bolshevik Russia. After losing a battle, he is forced to emigrate to Paris. But even there his life is constantly under threat from agents of Moscow...

Oles Yanchuk


When the Trees Fall

13 September

Modern coming-of-age drama, a dark erotic tale**

The story of rebellious five-year-old Vitka, her teenage cousin Larysa and young gangster Shram in provincial Ukraine. Larysa has finished school and must decide what to do with her future. She wants to create her own destiny, but is condemned by the whole village for her love of Shram the gangster. Her mother and grandmother only think about what people say, so Larysa does not have their support. She understands that she does not want to end up the same way as her relatives. The lovers plan to escape together, as far away as possible from the dilapidation, public condemnation, relatives and criminals. But are they willing to pay the full price for their freedom?

Marysia Nikitiuk


Hero of My Time

20 September


Young man Zhorik wants to conquer the capital. He is attracted to the expensive stores, fashionable shopping centres and "European values", but for now he lives in the world of beer kiosks, cheap attractions and dirty staircases. Our hero seems to think that very soon he will cross the invisible line between these two dimensions in the city of contrasts. But how can you find a "social lift" if you cannot even get the lift in your apartment building fixed?

Tonia Noyabriova


Noble Tramps

27 September

Musical comedy action

The humorous story of Bodia and Mirek, two members of Lviv's batiar subculture who live according to the motto "Love Lviv, women and jokes". The noble tramps get into various escapades that brighten up their lives, all while remaining positive characters. When they unexpectedly become the guardians of young girl Khrystia, their adventures only grow in scale. The film takes place in the Lviv of 1938-1939.

Oleksandr Berezan


Crazy Wedding

4 October

Authentic comedy

Vasyl Serediuk, the director of a local history museum, sends his daughter Katia to study in France, but did not expect such a turn of events: a month ago, the girl told him that she is marrying French cardiac surgeon Francois. "The Serediuks are a European family!" was always Vasyl's motto. But imagine his surprise when the European son-in-law of his dreams turned out to be a Frenchman of African origin. It seems like a great idea to organise the wedding so that it never takes place. But will this be possible when true love is in the way?

Vlad Dykyi


Bald Mountain

4 October

Mystical thriller

Maya is unable to come to terms with the mysterious disappearance of her mother on Bald Mountain. A chance meeting with a young man encourages the girl to go to an ominous place where she will have to face otherworldly forces.

Roman Perfiliev


Call Sign Banderas

11 October


In autumn 2014, a group of counterintelligence officers in the ATO zone led by experienced captain Anton Sayenko (call sign Banderas) tries to prevent a sabotage operation and neutralise a Russian sapper.  The mission is complicated by the fact that it is taking place near Banderas's village, which he left a long time ago. Its inhabitants treat him as a traitor and the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a hostile force.

Zaza Buadze



18 October


13 short stories show the full variety of life in the occupied territories – from tragedy to comic farce. "Little green men" cannot remember the names of their "hometowns not far from here". A German journalist is met at a checkpoint with a cry of "We've caught a fascist!". Weddings are celebrated, gang violence is rife on the streets, cars and money are expropriated for the benefit of the "republics" and people live in basements to escape the shelling. Serhiy Loznytsia's film raises the question of where the border between truth and fiction lies in this kaleidoscope.

Serhiy Loznytsia


Dzidzio. First Time

25 October

Romantic comedy

In his heart, Dzidzio is a great artist and naive child. All his life he kept one tiny secret that grows into a huge problem. But this time neither his mum nor his cool friend can help him. Dzidzio has to solve such a sensitive problem for the first time and be veeeery careful about it.

Taras Dron and Mykhailo Khoma


Black Cossack

25 October

Mystical love story

A ring, a sabre and a daughter are all that Hanna has left from her husband who went to war. The woman turns down her numerous suitors to run the farm and bring up the child on her own. But unexpectedly strange things start to happen – at night, someone comes to do the hardest jobs: ploughing the field, fixing the gate... A witch gives Hanna an enchanted egg that turns her invisible and lets her find out who is visiting her at night. A Black Cossack appears before her, cursed to not see the light of the sun...

Vladyslav Chabaniuk


The Wild Fields

8 November


Herman returns to the town of his childhood to visit his brother who owns a petrol station in the Donbas steppe. Instead, he gets stuck in this unnamed city for a long time: his brother disappears, the local mafia try to take over his business and his old friends are involved in some strange dealings. The man has to decide whether to try to unravel the situation in his birthplace or take a step back and return home.

Yaroslav Lodyhin


King Danylo

22 November

Historical action

The 13thcentury is a time when danger lurks everywhere. People are constantly tense because war can break out at any moment. In 1238, Danilo and his brother Vasylko attack a castle on the border that belongs to a secret order, taking its head prisoner. On behalf of the Order, he makes an offer to confront the threat from the East together. They are talking about the Tatar-Mongols, led by the legendary Batu Khan. Danylo, the Prince of Galicia-Volhynia, has two options – war or agreement. Realising it will not be possible to defeat the Mongols by force, he risks everything and goes into the enemy's lair to conclude an agreement. At first glance, the plan seems doomed to fail and Batu could easily behead his guest, but how will it actually turn out... Even if Danylo survives, the biggest problem is waiting for him at home – the boyars, who seek their own gain wherever possible.

Taras Khymych


Swingers 2

5 December


The comedy's characters prepare for the New Year and seek to fulfil their sexual desires during the celebrations.

Andrejs Ekis


Kruty 1918

6 December

Historical action

A feature film based on the true story of the battle at Kruty railway station in winter 1918. Against the background of these fateful events for the country, brothers Andriy and Oleksa Savytskyi fall in love with the beautiful Sofia. The Bolsheviks are approaching Kyiv and the city is full of "red" agents. The Government of the Ukrainian People's Republic sends all combat-capable army units, including cadets and students, into the fight against the enemy. Four hundred young men, including Andriy and Oleksa, face four thousand well-armed troops.

Oleksiy Shapariev


A December Fairy Tale, or the Adventures of St. Nicholas

13 December

Family comedy/adventure

On the eve of St. Nicholas's day, Nicholas himself unexpectedly comes to see a second-grader whose family has just moved from a big city to the Carpathian Mountains. He is in fact a thief in a wizard costume. The boy is able to team up with his teenage sister and local kids to defeat the gangster and save the true saint.

Semen Horov


Sex and Nothing Personal

20 December

Romantic comedy

When the girl you love turns you down because you're useless in bed, your happy life comes to an end – at least your sex life. But Serhiy meets stripper Diana, who wants to make a real macho out of him. Although her lessons are of a theoretical nature, they will surely not be useless or boring!

Olha Riashyna


Me, You, Him and Her

27 December

Romantic comedy

Maksym and Yana have been married for 10 years. The relationship has turned into a partnership, love into respect and passion into a duty. When tempting prospects appear on the horizon, the couple decides to split up. Will a probation period of one month ordered by a judge change the situation? What if they bring to life their wildest dreams and boldest fantasies? This love triangle from the Quarter-95 studio will be in cinemas soon!

Volodymyr Zelenskyi and David Dodson


Films that did not receive funding from the Ukrainian state are marked in green


According to the State Film Agency, the scheduling plans of distribution companies UFD, B&H, Arthouse Traffic and MMD, cinema listings and publications on, and Ukrinform


**The genre is specified as stated by the film provider

***The description is given as stated by the film's producer


By Olesia Anastasyeva


Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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