Film screening in Iran:
A Never-Ending Labyrinth
by Massoud Mehrabi
The Iranian cinema has produced an average annual number of 75 features in the past ten years with only 50 films finding their way onto the public screens every year. Therefore, more than 200 features have not been screened for the public audience. Most names on this long list belong to artistic films of the Iranian cinema some of which are cultural assets which give credit to our cinema. Since they are different from mainstream films, such films are usually excluded from public screening schedule and are only screened in domestic and foreign festivals where they usually win prizes. A simple calculation is enough to demonstrate hefty money invested in such films and subsequent losses suffered. The financial losses is, of course, calculable (about 2 billion dollars), but the cultural loss incurred as a result of not screening such films and depriving the Iranian cinema of their capacities cannot be translated into figures. A review of screened films, however, will reveal behind-the-scenes economic relations of the Iranian cinema with directors of artistic and cultural films as final losers; in order to survive, they have to follow suit with clichés of this useless commercial cinema. Most artistic films have been withheld from public screens as a result of the aforesaid economic relations and certain policies. Such policies, which do not allow cinema officials to pay serious attention to these films, are considered by some analysts as a form of censorship.
A reportage-like review of the preceding year will reveal unhealthy relations which govern film screening in Iran. Film screening was at its worse in 2010. It has been vogue during the past few years for distributors or producers to present their works to movie theater owners. The latter group decides when and how long every film should be screened according to its own forecast of box office returns of those films. The Screening Council, on the other hand, simply oversees registration of contracts and serves as arbiter in disputes. Naturally, owners of movie theaters prefer those films which are more likely to be moneymakers while rejecting any film which they consider to be a box office failure. Even when screened, the worst schedules are assigned to artistic films: the lowest number of movie theaters, limited showtimes, and short screening periods at a time of the year that screening is least likely to attract the audience. Many directors and producers protested to unsuitable screening of their films last year. Massoud Atyabi, a director, put the highest blame on the state-run theaters (some theaters in Iran are owned by the government) which considered a single showtime at the worst time of the day for his film. Hamidollah Aziznejad, another director, argued that if his film had been screened in the first half of the year, it would have been competing with five or six films and box office returns would be higher. Hassan Fathi, still a director whose film was screened in a bad time, announced that he would remain silent in protest to that unfair situation and would not take part in interviews with film magazines and periodicals. Fereshteh Taerpour, a producer of films for children, maintained that some movie theaters could not make good plans for film screening due to confused relations which determine screening. Therefore, her film was screened in morning showtimes when children were at school and it was practically impossible for families to take their children to movie theaters to watch it. Mohammad Ahmadi, a producer of different artistic films, who was protesting to concurrent screening of too many films in the fall, said, “Only 15 days after screening of our film started, 11 new films were screened. I don’t think that our cinema can handle so many films in such a short period of time and, therefore, some of them simply fail.”
A few directors whose films have been turned down by distributors, have announced that they are ready to take part in a televised debate with state officials on the dire situation of screening in Iran and problems facing cultural films. Similar protests were expressed by a higher number of filmmakers. What added to their resentment was the high number of low quality films which are sometimes even screened without having to wait their turn while there was a long list of other films waiting to be screened. Simultaneous screening of five films with the same superstar was an ironic result of that situation. Film screening in single showtimes also got out of hand. For example, out of 14 films screened at the beginning of winter, six films were screened at a single showtime in a day.
Such protests prompted Cinema Department of Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to announce late last year that it is formulating a screening schedule to put an end to that situation. Although certain filmmakers welcomed the announcement, others moved fast to oppose it. Different stakeholders from spokesman of the Screening Council to Central Council of Directors’ Society called it a reactionary measure which was not compatible with the government’s privatization drive. As a result of those reactions, the Cinema Department backed off, announcing that the plan will be adjourned until signs of cooperation were seen.
Despite the adjournment, High Council of Producers and Distributors of the Iranian Cinema released a statement noting, “The critical situation of the Iranian cinema with respect to screening in the past few months and years has raised the necessity for revising the way films are selected for public screening. The public opinion has come up with new demands which cannot be met by current group of people that selects films and whose members are but a few owners of movie theaters. If they continued to impose their views on the general audience, charges about prevalence of low-quality films on the Iranian cinema would remain in place.”
Following the statement, head of the Association of Movie Theater Owners said, “Such remarks are cause for concern and I don’t know on what knowledge they have based their statement. I don’t believe that this statement has been released by the High Council of Producers which includes Filmmakers’ Society, Society of Producers, and Association of Independent Producers because I know their members are well aware of how screening decisions are made and are well aware that screened films are not selected by owners of movie theaters. We have been a partner to production of weak and low-quality films with their producers for about 30 years. What has happened to deprive us of our right to choose?”
It seems this grotesque play will continue to go on in a never-ending labyrinth.
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Publishing Date Winter 2011
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