Bulgaria’s Parliament voted on February 17 to approve the second and final reading of amendments to the Film Industry Act, boosting funding for film-making, including provisions for partial reimbursements for foreign producers of movies shot in Bulgaria.
Changes to the amendments between the first and second readings have caused controversy, leading several Bulgarian film industry associations to publish an open letter calling for these changes to be scrapped, and if not, for head of state President Roumen Radev to veto them.
In contrast, the amendments have been backed by United States ambassador to Bulgaria Herro Mustafa and Nu Boyana chief executive Yariv Lerner.
In a consensus unusually broad for Bulgaria’s Parliament, the amendments were supported by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the National Assembly’s smallest group, Volya.
Speaking in debate in the House on February 17, Vezhdi Rashidov, head of the parliamentary committee on culture and media, described the amendments as unprecedented in the past 30 years.
Rashidov said that the amendments would mean 41 million leva (about 20.96 million euro) for cinema, in a new form that would represent more funds for film production and more transparent reporting of the use of the money.
The annual amount of funds for state aid for film production may not be less than the sum of the average budgets for the previous year, meaning funding for 12 feature films, 22 feature documentaries and 250 minutes of animated films. Until now, the state aid was for seven feature films, 14 documentaries and 160 minutes of animated films.
One of the provisions of the amendments is that 25 per cent of the costs of work done within Bulgaria for foreign productions may be reimbursed. Fifteen million leva is envisaged for this part of the scheme.
Television series will be subsidised via a new, separate state aid scheme, of which the European Commission will be notified.
Bulgarian films must be shown six per cent of the total time of showings a year in a cinema, with a minimum 15 per cent showings during the times the cinema is most visited.
GERB MP Evgeni Budinov, an actor, told Parliament that the amendments provide that under three different schemes, the annual budget for Bulgarian cinema will be more than 40 million leva. The amendments guaranteed more work for talented Bulgarian artists and more and better Bulgarian films, he said.
In January, after the changes to the initial version of the amendments – which were approved in December – several Bulgarian associations of film-makers, producers, directors, screenwriters and cinematographers released an open letter attacking the new amendments.
The letter said that significant public funds, which according to the original version of the bill would have gone to support Bulgarian cinema, would go to finance television content, mainly for major television stations.
They said that this was apparent from a requirement that producers would be allowed to apply for funding only if they had concluded a contract with a large media service provider – one with a million active users or with an annual average audience share in prime time of at least 10 per cent.
The Bulgarian film industry organisations said that this would mean a reduction in funds for Bulgarian cinema, for the sake of financing content for the programmes of the big television stations.
“A retreat from the protection of our national film production has already been carried out with the introduction of the scheme of state aid through cost recovery, where the main beneficiaries again will be foreign companies,” the letter said.
It said that the amendments violated the spirit of the Film Industry Act and EU rules on state aid in the field of culture.
The January 23 letter was followed five days later by a meeting between the Bulgarian film industry associations and Culture Minister Boil Banov, which ended without a result. A brief statement by the Culture Ministry after the meeting said “the arguments of all interested parties were heard during the conversation”.
Some days ago, in an interview with Bloomberg Bulgaria TV, director Iglika Trifonova said that the new amendments were a mistake.
“The latest proposals for changes to the Film Industry Act have a single purpose – to adopt a scheme to reimburse the costs of foreign cinema shot here,” she said.
“Foreign cinema gives bread to many people and we do not mind it existing. But if it is so important to the country’s economy, then it should be supported by other economy laws,” Trifonova said.
It was short-sighted to “take money from the Bulgarian taxpayer to reimburse the ticket costs of a superstar who comes to shoot here,” she said.
On February 10, interviewed by Bulgarian National Radio, film director and producer Lyubomir Halachev predicted that provisions in the amendments would end in court disputes.
“This is a financial stimulus mechanism. It has nothing to do with making Bulgarian cinema,” he said, adding that it was no coincidence that US ambassador Mustafa had welcomed the amendments.
Reports five days earlier, on February 5, said that at an online meeting, Mustafa had congratulated Rashidov and the parliamentary committee on the refinement of the amendments between the first and second reading.
“Congratulations on Bulgaria’s ambition to have a law on cinema, which will provide new opportunities for Bulgarian film production and the film industry. The adoption of this law is a historic moment,” Mustafa was quoted as saying.
She said that the new law met all the standards for modern film production, and the consensus within the committee was a model of how to work.
In a February 10 interview with Bloomberg Bulgarian TV, Nu Boyana’s Yariv Lerner said that objections to the amendments were the result of misunderstanding.
The Union of Bulgarian Film-makers feared that their money would be taken away from them “but these are completely different programmes,” he said.
The purpose of the changes to the amendments was to make the law workable, he said.
The programme would lead to investment in the country, Lerner said. “Many people fail to present arguments why they are against.”
He said that there was another misunderstanding, that Nu Boyana would get the money, but this was not the case. It was the investor or producer who brought the project that would get the tax rebate. “This is a way to attract them to work in the country,” he said.
The money would return to the economy, not be exported from the country, Lerner said.