Iranian cinema and publicity:
by Massoud Mehrabi
“Criers” were the first publicity agents in Iran. Before a passion play (a form of original Iranian theater), they would move about in busy neighborhoods of cities and villages and while playing trumpets or beating on drums, call on people with their strong, pleasant voice to go to where the play was performed. Passion plays had their roots in customs, traditions, religious beliefs and ancient culture of the Iranian people. Therefore, governments almost never banned them over many centuries that such plays were in vogue. This was contrary to modern theatrical plays, which due to their modernist themes and anti-tradition nature, were opposed by traditional society and the Qajar dictators (1781-1925). When Iranian theatrical plays were still nascent (about 1900) it was very difficult to get people go to playhouses. However, after religious intellectual figures like Mirza Reza Tabatabaei Naeini (who for the first time published a periodical called Theater in 1907) wrote about cultural and social benefits of plays and their compatibility with Islam, publicity for theatrical plays cautiously began by printing a few lines in different periodicals.
When immigrants from Russia poured into Iran following Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, professional artists and theatrical performers were among them who were influential in promoting theatrical plays in Iran after 1920s. While performing plays written by famous world writers, they also brought new publicity techniques to Iran. Printed publicity for plays changed from a few lines to graphical advertisements. Printing posters in different sizes and on color paper began and, like European countries, most of those posters were installed at cafes which were frequented by educated people. Special show-windows were added to front of playhouses in which photos of the ongoing play and performers were displayed. Drawing placards (or big boards) to be installed on the entrance of playhouses or employing people to roam along city streets taking small publicity boards with them (like what had been already practiced in the United States and Europe) was quite common.
During the same years, film and cinema was on the rise in Iran and modern publicity tools were there to help the newcomer. At that time, common people made no clear distinction between theatrical plays and movies because they believed “this is entertainment”. Designing posters and drawing placards for movie theaters by painters and designers who already worked for plays was a major instance of how cinema availed of its predecessor. Surprisingly, presence of Bolsheviks in Russia had “the butterfly effect” and helped the Iranian cinema to take great leaps with regard to film publicity! Let’s not forget that the first Iranian feature film (Abi and Rabi, 1930) was made by one of the Russian immigrants: Avanes Ohanian.
The new profession thrived on this background. When after an 11-year interregnum, a second period of filmmaking began in Iran (after 1946), experienced people active in film publicity outnumbered filmmakers by a great margin; a division with few commanders. Film trailer was the most powerful element which was added to film publicity during that period. This had been already experienced in western countries and its power in attracting the audience had been proven. At first, directors made trailers in a naïve way, but experience editors later took charge and some of them specialized in making trailers.
In the absence of television, movie theaters were the best place for screening trailers. They even installed loudspeakers in front of theaters (like old criers), so that, passers-by could hear trailers (and the film which was being screened). It was entertaining for people who could not afford a ticket to stand at the entrance of theaters and listen to what reached them over loudspeakers! Some people even found watching trailers (seven or eight of which was sometimes screened before the main feature) more attractive than the main film. Voices of the most skillful dubbing artists, which were heard in trailers, were enough to make audience with different tastes restless to watch those movies. Most trailers did not contain summary of films, but were attractive lies gift-wrapped in true statements. Superficial action scenes, dancing and singing, as well as nudity and love scenes were the main elements of trailers. Most pre-revolution films in Iran ran on clichéd stories which only differed in actions scenes and songs and dances, which were the main elements used to make trailers. As the national Iranian television was inaugurated in 1958, it worked as a major means of airing film trailers. However, traditional community did not like scenes which were screened in the darkness of theaters to be aired for families. Reactions from religious figures caused filmmakers to produce two types of trailers for every film: one for movie theaters and a more refined version for broadcast on television.
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, themes and content of film publicity changed in parallel to changes made to cinema policies. Pictures of revolutionary figures with clenched fists substituted images of beautiful actors. Dancing, singing as well as comedy and love scenes were obsolete and gave way to revolutionary wrath and uprising of the oppressed against the oppressors. Film trailers were dripping with blood!
As revolutionary fervor gradually abated, films focused on more tangible social motifs and cinema publicities became more realistic. Following establishment of the Iranian House of Cinema, still photographers, poster and placard designers, and trailer makers established their own societies and their works were annually judged by jury and people during different editions of Fajr International Film Festival. Ten years from 1985 to 1995 should be considered golden decade of film publicity in Iran. The best and most artistic posters, placards, photos, and trailers were produced in that decade. Publicity material became more realistic and closely matched what people saw on the silver screen. After election of Khatami’s reformist government in 1997, filmmakers were given more latitude to cross some of the red lines. However, most mainstream filmmakers used that opportunity to make films which featured teenagers and film publicity was oriented in a new direction.
The most challenging issue facing filmmakers during recent years has been arbitrary and ideological treatment of trailers by television managers and high prices charged for airing film trailers. Although filmmakers have been able to use billboards (at relatively reasonable prices) for the past 10 years, airing trailers on television is still more effective. Representatives of film producers have frequently met with officials of the Iranian television and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to cut prices and broadcast all trailers, but no clear results have been achieved yet. Television managers frequently air film trailers which conform to their taste at low prices (and sometimes in return for airing that film on television channels), but they seldom allow trailers which are against their ideas to be aired on the state-run television.
Film publicity still remains Achilles’ heel of the Iranian cinema.
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