What Happened to the Film Industry in Bulgaria?
In a time of ever so interconnected world, a world where I can meet someone from the other side of the planet and still have common interests because both of us have watched the same films and listen to the same music, one begins to wonder - among all this global American hegemony of media, where does the national (whatever that might mean) go? Do national productions still exist? At least in Bulgaria, not so much. Especially when it comes to film, no one talks about Bulgarian productions, and all theaters are flooded with Hollywood, and any career related to the field is considered a dead-end. However, when I talk to my parents and grandparents, they look fondly at old movies that they had watched before. So, the question remains: what happened to the Bulgarian film industry?
The failure of the Bulgarian film industry to transition sustainably from socialism to capitalism both in a financial and ideological sense has created a monopoly of Hollywood on the market and suffocation of Bulgarian productions, which in turn stunts the open dialogue about pressing contemporary issues.
Bulgaria was under socialism for 42 years (between 1948 and 1990) (Encyclopaedia Britannica). At that time, the Socialist party was in control of all production and distribution of media, including the film industry. Multiple films were banned because they did not uphold socialist values and were undermining ideals that the party was trying to establish among the population. For example, Binka Zhelyazkova’s 1967 film The Tied up Balloon was banned because it was considered too existential and offensive to the Party (Clark, 2016). However, this heavy state involvement in the industry also meant a lot of funding and support for the industry since they had an interest in creating and spreading propaganda. According to Janakiev (2003), film directors were in a very privileged position as part of the intellectual elite. The support from the government gave them freedom, and everyone related to the industry had the freedom to travel and extensions to shoot their films up to 819 days (as opposed to 40 days after 1990). Therefore, it is safe to say that filmmakers were free from the audience's demands and could produce experimental and original productions to a certain extent, amounting to over 25 films per year (Tomova, 2009).
After the fall of Socialism in 1990, the Bulgarian film industry faced two challenges - financial and ideological. As with any other state-owned property, the film industry had to be privatized. However, according to Tomova (2009), there was no vision of what would happen with it. The state film monopoly was destroyed after 1991, and there was an attempt to privatize certain elements of it, but without a unifying idea for the development of the sector. Tomova (2009)’s analysis also states that the film distribution was privatized only after 1994, and the network of film theaters around the country was privatized in 1997. Therefore, it is evident that this industry and its development after the political shifts was not a priority of the transition efforts. According to Iordanova (2001), the state pretty much stopped financing the film industry as a whole - it decreased the funds to one or two films per year. This dramatic shift trickled down to other issues concerning the complicated web of film production and distribution. During socialism, the state was interested in supporting movie theaters in virtually every town and village in the country. Therefore, after its fall, most of these entities had to close down due to a lack of funding and interest from the public. On the other hand, it seems like over the last few decades there has been a monopoly of large multiplex cinemas that prevent smaller productions from being screened and gives way only to big ones that already receive more than enough attention. As of right now, current film productions try to obtain funding from various sources - government, international organizations, private donors, credits, and their own resources. However, based on Iordanova (2001)’s studies, it seems like the primary source of funding for film productions is still state subsidies. However, through analysis of data from the Ministry of Culture, Tomova (2009) finds out that the ministry ends up giving away an average of 2 million leva (1 million euro) less than initially planned each year between 2005 and 2009. There are no indications that this tendency has changed. Therefore, even though there is a de jure state effort to stimulate the industry, the help does not end up being distributed to the right place, nor is it enough. Other sources of help only amount to about 10-30% of the cost of the production. Furthermore, as Tomova (2009) points out, the returns on investing in a film seldom amount to more than 10% of its value. Therefore, people who invest time and money in film production in Bulgaria usually end up earning nothing. Economically, movie production in Bulgaria in the first two decades after the fall of socialism proves to be unprofitable due to the lack of appropriate financing systems in place and the failure to establish continuity throughout the transition to capitalism.
The ideological challenge of the transition is more straightforward. Now that the state does not control what is being produced, film studios have more agency. Before, all films had to adhere to the socialist agenda. This wealth of opportunities creates confusion - what do we produce then? Bulgarian filmmakers have been looking for the answer in many places - Hollywood, other European productions, internal struggles, politics, literature, etc. However, Anisimovich (2019) concludes that most Bulgarian feature films produced after 1990 deal with issues around the effects of socialism, the transition, and the attempt to reconcile with the past and heal from it. One such example is Zift, which will be discussed later in this paper.
A big reason why domestically produced films cannot emerge in the Bulgarian market is Hollywood, as it is the case with many other countries too. American productions are the most-watched movies in almost every country (Pibernik, 2015). For Bulgaria in particular, the reason is two-fold. On one side, it has to do with the nature of Hollywood movies, but on the other, with the timeline of their introduction to Bulgaria and the rest of the world. In terms of the movies themselves, Hollywood movies seem to be a great example of Becker and Murphy’s rational addiction theory (1988). The theory states that the utility of the “addictive” good depends on the past consumption of the same good (i.e. if you have watched a similar movie before, you are going to enjoy it more in the present because you have developed a taste and liking for it) (Sisto, 2004). This holds true for a lot of Hollywood productions as a lot of them count on unoriginal plots, famous directors, loved actors, sequels, etc. UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) says that for 2010, when one looks at the 30 most attended movies globally, 23 of them were Hollywood productions, 11 of them were sequels or “unoriginal scripts.” This business approach of the industry trains the audience to be “rationally addicted” and get more utility from watching movies with already familiar plots/crew. On the other hand, historically, Hollywood has been immune from the huge historical turmoils of the 20th century and has been able to develop and spread, whereas Europe and the rest of the world have had to deal with the turmoils in question. There, the American commercial productions were welcomed because they served as an escape from the tragedies of everyday life (Pibernik, 2010). All of this holds true in the case of Bulgaria.
American production had started infiltrating the mainstream amid socialist rule. Star Wars Episode IV, for example, stayed on the cinemas’ schedule for a few years after it premiered in Bulgaria in 1982 (Zahov, n.d.). Anisimovich (2019) claims that Bulgaria’s socialism, in fact, is one of the “looser” ones since the dictator Todor Zhivkov was blamed for carrying out a “two-faced policy” where he was trying to keep a good relationship both with the East and the West. Therefore, especially during the last decade and a half of socialist rule, domestic and Hollywood productions alike were flourishing in Bulgarian theaters. The only difference is that after the fall of socialism, as discussed above, Bulgarian film production virtually disappeared, whereas Hollywood productions kept coming at the same pace. In fact, the sharp decrease in domestic films just opened up more space for Hollywood to occupy. According to the UIS, for the period between 2010 and 2017, only 4 Bulgarian movies made it to the top 10 most popular movies for the whole period (a total of 80 films, the rest of which were either American or coproductions). If we look at Anisimovich’s claim and those trends together, we can see the pattern - the Bulgarian audience is also a part of the “rational addiction” to Hollywood - the more movies people watch, the more satisfaction they get from watching even more of those movies. Together with the lack of adequate financial support, this phenomenon suffocates the Bulgarian film industry.
Anisimovich (2019) talks about the current phenomenon of processing the transition among countries of the former Eastern Bloc. She thinks that there is a trend of existential movies that process the transition, the ideological shifts, and the gap left by the abrupt transition from socialism to capitalism. This stands correct when we look at the overwhelming number of movies around socialist or post-socialist scenarios. Such examples are Zift, The Petrov File, The World is Big, and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, among others. However, the fact that these movies reflect reality in such a brutal and direct way in the attempt to start a conversation, they end up avoiding it because the escapist Hollywood productions are more digestible for everyday purposes. In an ideal world, the content-heavy Bulgarian movies will produce food for thought and foster dialogue among the (many) people that watch them. However, the reality is that those movies suffer from a lack of budget, lack of proper distribution, and therefore lack of interest both from movie theaters and from the audiences, which, in turn, disincentivizes capable film studios from developing the industry further.
Zift is an ambitious production that premiered in 2008. It’s a neo-noir film set in the early years of socialism in Sofia, Bulgaria. The setting is very apocalyptic, the city is haunted by gangs and corruption. Through the actions of the Moth, the protagonist, and the way he narrates the story, we can see that he is very disillusioned but also neutral and proceeds through his life without much emotion. He uses a lot of curse words, talks about love the same way he talks about murder - without any personal attachment and doubt. This choice of speech is consistent with other symbolism in the movie, like the appearance of Voltaire’s Candide in the beginning and at the end of the film, a work known for a similar gradual disillusionment with reality where the protagonist loses his optimistic beliefs about the suffering in this world (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Candide
The climax scene of the movie deserves special attention since it is the most striking example of the attempt of the film to process the transition and the shared historical past of Bulgaria. For context, the moth has been poisoned and is having a very hazy existential moment with the headquarters of the socialist party and the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov (the first socialist leader of Bulgaria). Here, the moth has a spiritual, semi-religious existential questioning. He’s pondering the point of having a body in a mausoleum, comparing it to Jesus (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. The Moth and the Mausoleum
This moment serves as a hint that there are a lot of gaps in the history and ideology, that people still do not entirely grasp what they are supposed to believe in. The comparison with religion also questions the authority of the regime at the time, considering the mass rejection of Christianity at the time.
From a more pragmatic standpoint, the creation of the film also serves as an example of the failed transition. Konstantinov, the producer of Zift, says that even though they got 1.2 million leva (~600 thousand euro) from the state, they still needed to find a way to acquire at least 500 thousand euro more (and 50 thousand of these were out of pocket for the filmmakers). He further explains that even though all the on-stage names in the film (actors, directors, producers, etc.) are Bulgarian, they needed to reach out to multiple foreign parties for help in post-production and equipment because Bulgaria has no viable options for them (Staykov, 2011).
Even though Zift was a relative success, compared to other Bulgarian movies released after 1990, it has proven to be a big struggle for everyone involved. In an article from 2009, called “Zift is the most successful Bulgarian film”, it is revealed that the movie made only 200 thousand leva (100 thousand euro), which is around 11% of all the money invested in this production, meaning that everyone who supported in it pretty much lost their money. Therefore, there is no incentive for non-state actors to invest in Bulgarian productions. Furthermore, if we look at UIS’s statistics from 2008, Zift didn’t make it to the top 7 most-attended movies for the year (all 7 were American productions) (Fig. 3).
|1||Shark In Venice||US||Fiction|
|2||Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull||US||Fiction|
|3||Sex and the City||US||Fiction|
|4||Quantum of Solace||US/UK||Fiction|
|5||The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor||US/Germany||Fiction|
Fig. 3: Top 7 most attended films in Bulgaria for 2008 (adapted from UIS)
If we go back to the claim that people don’t watch Bulgarian movies because they are “addicted” to Hollywood, we can see that all seven adhere to the idea of unrealistic escapist plots for the reality of the Bulgarian audience: 3 sequels of popular plots, 2 action films set in the US, one superhero movie and one prehistoric story. Therefore, the Bulgarian audience adheres to the globalizing forces of Hollywood that teach a certain taste and expectations for what a desirable movie plot is, and Zift does not adhere to any of this because it asks real and painful questions.
So, to answer the question of what happened to Bulgarian film, Zift, contemporary scholarly and popular literature demonstrate that the answer lies in multiple spatial and temporal dimensions. On one side, it is the interplay of the globalizing forces of Hollywood that have been shaping the taste of the audience for multiple generations. On the other, it is the difficult transition between political regimes that has left a lot of systemic and ideological gaps open until this day. Productions like Zift, however, show us that there are quality attempts to close those gaps and that there is progress.
Anisimovich, A. (2019). Coming to Terms with the Past: New Bulgarian Cinema and the Post-Communist Transition.
Becker, G. S., & Murphy, K. M. (1988). A Theory of Rational Addiction. Journal of Political Economy, 96(4), 675–700.
Clark, M. (2012, October 25). Chronicling Repression: Bulgarian Cinema under Communist Rule. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/bulgaria/articles/chronicling-repression-bulgarian-cinema-under-communist-rule/
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Bulgaria—Late communist rule. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/place/Bulgaria/Late-communist-rule
Gardev, J. (2008). Zift. Miramar Film.
Iordanova, D. (1999). East Europe’s Cinema Industries Since 1989: Financing Structure and Studios. Javnost - The Public, 6(2), 45–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.1999.11008710
Janakiev, A. (2003). 100 godini filmov protses: Lichnosti, filmi, saloni [100 years film process: Personalities, Movies, Theaters]. Titra.
Pibernik, M. (2015). Why is it that Hollywood still dominates the world’s cinema markets in the twenty first century and how are other national cinemas attempting to fight back?
Sisto, A., & Zanola, R. (2004). Rational Addiction to Cinema? A Dynamic Panel Analysis of European Countries.
Staykov, D. (2009, December 28). “Дзифт” е най-касовият BG филм. [Zift is the most successful bulgarian film]. 24chasa. https://www.24chasa.bg/Article/326651
Staykov, D. (2011, February 1). Снимай филм само ако имаш 1 милион в джоба. [Shoot only if you have 1 million in your pocket]. 24chasa. https://www.24chasa.bg/Article/723263
Tomova, B. (2009). БЪЛГАРСКАТА ФИЛМОВА ИНДУСТРИЯ В УСЛОВИЯТА НА ПАЗАРНА ТРАНСФОРМАЦИЯ. [The Bulgarian Film Industry in the conditions of Market Transformation] 27.
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