A look at the people, art, innovation, business, and ideas from a land that has influenced the world for decades yet remains a mystery to many.
Movie Making Is Still Dominated By Magyars:
Agnes Havas Talks Shop
Walking up the stairs at the Hungarian Film Laboratory, I was met with a buzz of activity from people scurrying through the halls and intense chatter coming from the surrounding offices and corridor. I was early, but someone immediately went to alert Agnes that I had arrived. I then made myself comfortable down the hall and marveled at the number of people who greeted me, asked if I wanted coffee, and attempted to show me a more comfortable sitting area. What was funny was that none of these people were receptionists, but for some reason they went out of their way to welcome me, a random stranger, as they went about their busy day. For those readers who are Hungarian or have lived here in Hungary long enough, you know this is not normal.
I did finally accept a coffee and then began meandering through the main hall to take a closer look at the posters lining the walls. Did you know that Leslie Howard, famed for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, was half Hungarian? George Cukor, born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, directed My Fair Lady, which probably explains why Eliza was deemed a Hungarian princess. Cukor also worked on numerous other films, including A Star is Born with Judy Garland. I then stood staring at a poster of Basic Instinct, trying to figure out the connection. Of course! The writer was Joe Eszterhas, a Hungarian native who also worked on Flashdance and Jagged Edge.
But truth be told, I was not there to delve into the long history of prominent Hungarian figures in Hollywood, as impressive as that story may be. No, I was there to focus on movie making here in Hungary. In the past two years, a Hungarian film has taken home an Academy Award: Son of Saul in 2015 for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016 and Sing for Best Live Action Short Film in 2017. Not bad for a country with a population of under 10 million, and we are not even touching upon the bevy of other international awards these and other Hungarian films have garnered over the years.
Hungary in fact stands just behind France for the longest record of Academy submissions for Best Foreign Language Film. The small Central European country with its uniquely challenging dialect has sent in feature films for Oscar consideration since 1965, accumulating nine nominations and two wins (Mephisto back in 1981 was the other). This year, On Body and Soul has been submitted and has made the Oscar shortlist. The work, directed by Ildikó Enyedi, has already racked up a number of awards, including a Golden Bear at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, where it also picked up two additional honors, and Netflix has just recently acquired all North American rights to the film. On Body and Soul also made history when it took home the Sydney Film Prize at the Sydney Film Festival, as Enyedi was the first woman as well as the first Hungarian to win, and Alexandra Borbély took home the Best Actress Award at the European Film Awards in December as well.
Of course, On Body and Soul is just one film. This past year alone, over 24 Hungarian feature films have been released to cinemas locally and have garnered hundreds of nominations and more than 70 awards around the world thus far. For the first time since 2008, tickets sold for Hungarian movies exceeded one million at the beginning of November and are estimated to hit 1.3 million by the end of the year. These numbers represent a significant local market share, presently estimated at some 10%.
What is the engine behind such success? Hungarians have long been known for their ingenuity and creativity, in all fields. But they also sport a government that is keenly aware of such native talent and more than happy to nourish, support, and promote it for the world to see. Enter the Hungarian National Film Fund, the bustling nest of activity surrounding all things pertaining to Hungarian film.
As I had sat reading through my notes, Agnes Havas came hurrying up to introduce herself. I stood up to greet her immediately but was confused as it was still early, and I knew she had been in a meeting. She just wanted to say hello and assure me that she would be out in a few minutes. I was not surprised at all by the bright eyes and beaming energy; this after all was the woman who emailed on a Sunday, apologizing for not getting back to me the previous day, Saturday. As CEO of HNFF, she is a key part of the driving force behind the huge growth in the Hungarian film industry.
“Filmmaking is how a culture
is able to speak to an audience.
Now we have a system to support this.”
The Hungarian National Film Fund was established in 2011 and provides support for script development, project development, and production as well as help with post-production, distribution, marketing, and international promotion. Over 20 of the 100 full-length feature films, animated movies, documentaries, and diploma films that HNFF has helped fund as of December, 2017 have also been co-productions with international partners, a further testament to the clout Hungarian talent pulls. And the Academy Award-winning Son of Saul was itself a product of HNFF funding awarded to the local Laokoon Filmgroup. The Film Fund's Training and Innovation division offers a full training center for up-and-coming film producers, graphic artists, script writers, actors, distributors, and other related talent via an extensive program free of charge. And HNFF's International division is in charge of festival management for Hungarian films and world-wide sales representation.
The Film Lab division of HNFF handles post-production work for current movies, and the Film Fund's Hungarian National Film Archive division works on restoring and making accessible archived films. Presently the Film Lab and the Film Archive are working jointly with a crew completely dedicated to renovating the rich and extensive library of old Hungarian movies spanning the past century. This project is part of a 10-year plan to digitize and re-release Hungary’s older films (evergreen classics) on DVD as well as some in the cinema, and around 30 to 50 movies are being restored every year. Agnes made it very clear that Hungary is as proud of its heritage in movie making as of the spike in international recognition for present-day films, and these Hungarian treasures are being highlighted at international film festivals' classic programs as well.
One of the most famous of these 20th century productions is Zoltán Fábri’s The Boys of Paul Street, based on Ferenc Molnár’s famous book and nominated for an Oscar back in 1969. HNFF is in fact re-releasing a whole collection of Fábri’s works for his 100th anniversary (he passed away back in 1994), and Cannes this year even screened Fábri's Merry Go Round from 1955. Last year at Cannes, Károly Makk's Love was screened, and Makk himself appeared in the same tuxedo that he had donned when the film was officially competing back in 1971.
So how does a filmmaker/group today apply for funding? HNFF uses an open application system, where production companies can apply with their film ideas (synopsis or treatment) all year long. A five-person board (on which Agnes sits) meets every two weeks to sift through and consider what films should get their financial support.
The fund is also dedicated to young students looking to learn the business and hone their craft via support for student projects, internships, high school competitions, and collaborations with universities such as the prestigious MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design). Agnes and her team are passionate about promoting filmmaking as a way to learn about music, history, and culture as well as be entertained, and there is no lack of interest by local institutions to take advantage of such programs. Furthermore, these youngsters are needed to meet the growing demand for crews due to a massive increase in local film production. HNFF even recently launched the Fast Forward Program with workshops for everything from script writing/supervision to film distribution. "Filmmaking is how a culture is able to speak to an audience," Agnes told me. "Now we have a system to support this."
For newbies to feature length productions, there is also a film “Incubator Program,” an idea conceived of by Agnes and which is near and dear to her heart as she had wanted a special vehicle to help filmmakers with their first feature-length project. This year, 71 hopefuls applied for the chance to win 60 million HUF (some $225k) each to produce their film as well as receive some much needed hand-holding, advice, and expertise throughout the process. In this program, an independent pro jury picks 10 projects which are then submitted to HNFF for funding to develop their scripts. At a subsequent pitching forum, a jury then picks three winners, and the audience picks another two, thus allowing for five total recipients of professional guidance and funds.
Liza, the Fox-Fairy, directed by Károly Ujj Mészáros, is a stellar example of just how successful a first feature film can be. The dark comedy from 2015 became an audience hit and critics’ darling in Hungary, has been released worldwide, and has won numerous awards around the world, including a Best Film and Best Actress award at the Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles and the Grand Jury Prize for New Directors at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Today, Hungary’s success in film pertains not just to movies made by Hungarians in their native land but also to the ever-growing number of foreign films being filmed and edited here. Aside from the bevy of private production crews that are in demand, there are also full studio lots, such as Korda Studios, that are catering to any and every need of international productions. Korda boasts a full medieval village along with a Renaissance backlot and a mock-up of the streets of New York as well as six high-tech sound stages, one of which is a whopping 6,000 square meters large. Films such as Blade Runner 2049, Marco Polo Season 2, and Robin Hood: Origins have been filmed there.
Origo Film Group created its own super studio in partnership with Hollywood-based Raleigh Studios and has hosted films such as Inferno, Spy, and Monte Carlo. And HNFF itself features the division Mafilm, offering full sound stages at its Budapest location along with an entire backlot, medieval castle, Western village, and “WWII concentration camp” nearby in Fót, where a couple of movies are filmed each year.
Dozens of other movies have been shot on location in Budapest, including World War Z, Spy Game, The Martian, Atomic Blonde, and Grand Budapest Hotel, and there have been a slew of TV series and music videos filmed in the city as well, most famously Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Presently, National Geographic’s ‘Genius’ Season 2, starring Antonio Banderas as Picasso, is also being shot in Budapest.
Additionally, the country of Hungary is full of historical sites and settings to replicate everything from a Parisian café to a corner in Berlin to a rustic village that could be just about anywhere. The Hungarian prairies, or pusztas, look just like the grasslands of Wyoming, and numerous varieties of architecture abound throughout the country. The possibilities are simply endless.
"This is what it takes. This is what we do."
Lower costs of production also make Hungary incredibly attractive along with enviable talent for all stages of filmmaking, including actors/actresses for small roles (not to mention plenty of willing extras), all of whom speak English.
Then, there is the massive tax rebate for production here with companies receiving back 25% of their total expenditures while on the ground. These factors have made Hungary the go-to place for international film companies to make their magic, movie magic that is. And in the past year, over 130 billion HUF (or some $500 million) has been spent by film production companies (both domestic and foreign) who have taken advantage of this rebate.
In the meantime, Hungary’s own filmmakers continue to thrive. All eyes are on On Body and Soul and whether it is nominated for an Academy Award, and then the Hungarian Film Awards will take place here in Budapest on March 11th, 2018 as well. By then, it would seem there will be plenty to celebrate and promote with this and many other of the country’s award-winning films, such as Kincsem, Budapest Noir, 1945, Aurora Borealis, and Jupiter’s Moon to name just a few. (http://mnf.hu/hu has all movie listings in English, and all films can be seen with English subtitles.)
Hungarians are certainly happy to share their talent with the world and proud to be a part of international productions, especially as it contributes to the national GDP and promotes beautiful Budapest. But, they are quite obviously even more thrilled that their own filmmakers are taking the world by storm. Agnes made no secret of this. After having given me far too much of her time, we were interrupted by someone informing her that the TV crews had been waiting. We finished up, and she politely, albeit hurriedly, took her leave, although not before I took the opportunity to commend her on the energy, follow-through, and attentiveness she and her team had afforded me. She thanked me for stating this, again beaming, and said simply, "This is what it takes. This is what we do."
Yes, quite clearly, this is what Agnes and the Hungarian National Film Fund do. I gathered my things and made my way out the door. In the hallway, I was blinded by lights in front of me, and looking ahead, wincing, I could see cameras and a small gathering in the hall. There in front of them, smack in the middle of one of the frames of film the floor was mocked up to look like, stood Agnes, readying herself for her TV interview to promote a local school program.
I quietly pushed my way through just as she was to go on the air. Agnes didn’t even notice me squeezing by. She was focused on the moment and the duty at hand, because, after all, that is what she does. And Hungary’s film industry has benefited greatly.
Copyright Liz Frommer