UPDATED: Are Foreign Filmmakers Key to Boost Ukrainian Cinema?
8 October, 2019
U.S. actor Tom Cruise (far right) meets the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center left) in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 30.

Update: Late on October 16, the Office of the President of Ukraine reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has now signed the law on increasing financial compensation for foreign filmmakers producing films in Ukraine.

With his dark hair slicked back, and radiating cool in a loose black V-neck shirt, Tom Cruise looked quite at home in President Zelenskyy’s Kyiv office, following a personal invitation to discuss future plans for film production in Ukraine. 

But though not all foreign filmmakers have the opportunity to enjoy the presidential treatment, there are soon to be equally attractive benefits in reach for those looking to cooperate with Ukrainian cinema. In recent years, the country’s film industry has been on the rise, with growing numbers of spectators flocking to newly-built screens, and government funding hitting 1 billion hryvnias (around $40.5 million) in 2018. State support is now due to open up to foreign producers also keen to cash in: following a lengthy process beginning in 2015 and mired in procedural delays, a rebate – amended recently from 16.6% to 25% – for foreign filmmakers producing in Ukraine is set to be launched next year.  

It may have been a long time coming, but the promise to match incentives already offered by other Eastern European nations could be just what Ukrainian cinema needs to experience an industry boom on the international market. Arnold Kremenchutsky, CEO of the Ukrainian Film Office, sees the rebate as a necessity in the current global film climate.

“Along with quality and locations, rebate is the only crucial condition for foreign producers, when they are choosing the country in which to shoot,” he explains. 

For him, difficulties in securing the rebate system have resulted in fewer opportunities for Ukrainian companies to gain experience working with major international studios and talents, meaning underdevelopment for the industry. 

“It makes local films more competitive and popular,” he says. “This raises the international image – and supports better international recognition – of Ukraine.”

But branching out into the global spotlight might seem counterintuitive for a film industry currently steeped in local, domestic production. Around this time last year, Christopher Miller reported on the contemporary cinematic scene in RadioFreeEurope/ RadioLiberty, noting that, following 2014, Ukrainian cinema took a decidedly patriotic turn, along with a wider cultural interest in Ukrainian tradition. There are now more Ukrainian films in production than ever before too, with the State Film Agency, or DerzhKino’s penchant for patriotic pictures promoting the idea that domestic is best. 

But some claim DerzhKino’s checklist-based criteria is too stringent, and patriotism too restricted. Whilst a focus on literal image making for Ukrainian film production is clear, the question remains as to how far this can prove profitable for the cinema industry.

This tension is also recognized by Daria Sipigina, current business director at the BURO creative laboratory. She was also a local producer with international TV crews during the Euromaidan revolution and the war in Donbas. 

“Ukrainian cinema expands not vertically but horizontally: the number of films may be growing but that does not necessarily imply qualitative change,” she explains.

With four times more people going to cinemas to watch locally produced films than five years ago, Ukrainian cinema is facing an urgent need to diversify. Film, says Sipigina, should be didactic and inspiring, but profit and cinematic prowess are also crucial.

And this is where the cash rebate could come in. 

“Without a doubt,” says Sipignia, “A cash rebate system will make Ukraine much sexier for foreign production companies.”

Reduced production costs and unique filming locations mean foreign filmmakers and industry bigwigs – like Cruise – already have their interests piqued – but recent productions have exposed just how far the industry still needs to improve. In summer, it was Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet, due to be set partially in Ukraine, which found itself at the core of the issue. Instead of Ukraine, it was filmed in Estonia – which set up its state support for production in 2016. And this is even the case with productions focusing on Ukrainian history. The much-acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl was initially set to be filmed completely in Lithuania, says Sipigina, until luck and perseverance gained Ukraine its spot in front of the cameras.

“The reason why Ukraine, even though being a better fit, was not originally chosen, was simple,” she says. “No cash rebates provided by the state.”

From left to right: Keir Dullea, Katharina Kubrick, guest, Jan Harlan and director Christopher Nolan arrive for the screening of 'Sink Or Swim (Le Grand Bain)' during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France on May 13, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

Meanwhile, since 2014, Lithuania has been advertising its Film Tax Incentive. From its launch to 2018, a total of 115 films have made use of its generous 30% production cost savings.

And Sipigina also feels the rebate has a more visionary role, with the potential to improve the country’s film prospects in more ways than simply mere monetary value. Cinema, she thinks, is a crucial tool for raising awareness, and the rebate would be a considerable boost, allowing the patriotism and Ukraine focus of local pictures to be expanded on a wider scale; introducing to the country’s history and culture to international audiences and breaking down stereotypes in turn.

But some film experts are still worried. The Chernobyl series, for example, was criticized for applying too much ‘Hollywood’ to the story, in place of encouraging Ukrainian input. And such concerns regarding the long-term impact of international cooperation are not merely limited to one series, either. The fear is that, despite growth, Ukraine’s cinematic influence simply does not hold enough sway on an international scale. Though Sipigina stresses that international cooperation supports local professionals and improves intercultural understanding, she agrees that Ukrainian companies often only contribute with what she describes as mere "service work" for foreign clients. They, in return, provide few contributions to the local industry. 

From left to right: Con O'Neill as Chief Executive Officer Viktor Bryukhanov, Paul Ritter as Chief Engineer Anatoliy Diatlov and Adrian Rawlins - Chief Engineer Mykola Fomin. Photo: shot from the TV series "Chernobyl" / IMDB

Kremenchutsky is adamant, however, that such reports are exaggerated.

“Modern films are becoming highly international and globalized, wherever they are shot,” he explains, dismissing the idea that incentives could dilute domestic production. Instead, he argues, schemes like the upcoming rebate are essential for the country to blossom into the "Hollywood of the East".

U.S. actor Tom Cruise meets the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 30. Photo:

“You're good looking – like the movies,” beamed President Zelenskyy to a breezy Cruise as they shook hands in greeting on September 30. Ukrainian cinema might well also be set to look good after its rebate scheme is launched next year – but this time, it will be for real.

READ MORE: Foreign Directors Choose Kyiv As Their Shooting Location

/By Juliette Bretan