Tensions Rise as Hungary Heats Up

Two years ago, Hungarian producer Mónika Mécs had a banner year, bowing Bence Fliegauf’s “Forest — I See You Everywhere” in competition at the Berlin Film Festival before walking the red carpet in Cannes, where Oscar nominee Ildikó Enyedi’s “The Story of My Wife” competed for the Palme d’Or.

The world — and the global film industry — was still learning to live with the coronavirus pandemic; “Forest” premiered online in the Berlinale’s virtual edition, and Cannes attendees spent dry-mouthed mornings spitting into test tubes. But the economic impact of the pandemic had only begun to make itself felt, as production costs spiked and reached heights that are yet to return to pre-pandemic levels in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

Hungarian filmmakers are feeling the pinch. “Prices are going higher and higher. We need more financing,” Mécs tells Variety. “The whole market is changing. Raising funds takes longer. It’s not as easy as it was [before COVID].”

Two years after her twin competition premieres, Mécs is financing Enyedi’s next feature, “Silent Friend,” as well as Fliegauf’s follow-up, “Bonefever.” Both films are multi-country co-productions with budgets pegged between €5-9 million ($5.5-9.9 million), money that’s become all that much harder to raise as funding bodies across Europe tighten their purse strings in the wake of runaway inflation.

Nowhere on the continent is that inflation higher than in Hungary. Yet the Magyar screen industry is marching on, as foreign productions continue to punch their tickets to buzzy Budapest, and cameras roll on big-budget local titles such as “Rise of the Raven,” an anticipated epic drama series produced by Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films (“Crimes of the Future”) and Beta Film (“Gomorrah”).

Last year, the state-backed National Film Institute (NFI) ponied up $60 million to support the development and production of more than 100 projects. “Thanks to the government’s supportive attitude the Hungarian screen sector remains a [priority] despite the global economic situation facing huge challenges in recent years,” says film commissioner Csaba Káel.

“The Lefkovicses Are in Mourning” (Courtesy of ULab)

Among the NFI-backed titles slated to be delivered this year are “Semmelweis,” a period biopic from Oscar-nominated cinematographer and director Lajos Koltai (“Fateless,” “Malena”); “The Lefkovicses Are in Mourning,” a dramedy from first-time director Ádám Breier; “Cat Call,” a debut romantic comedy from Rozália Szeleczki; and “I Accidentally Wrote a Book,” from Nóra Lakos, which is based on the multi-award-winning children’s book by Dutch writer Annet Huizing.

Headlining the Cannes Market slate for the institute’s sales arm are “Hadik,” a historical adventure from director János Szikora about the eponymous Hungarian general; “Four Souls of Coyote,” the latest animated feature from Annecy Cristal Award winner Aron Gauder; and “Six Weeks,” debutante director Noemi Szakonyi Veronika’s Tallinn prize winner.

Meanwhile, work continues apace to expand the state-owned NFI Studios (formerly known as Mafilm) outside Budapest, which will boost its studio space five-fold when it becomes fully operational in 2024. That will bring some much-needed additional capacity to an industry that hosted more than 300 productions last year, generating a record-breaking $690 million in total value for the country — a 20% jump from 2021.

After a slow start to this year, “it just exploded, to the point where we had to make some difficult decisions about what we do and what we don’t do,” says Adam Goodman of Mid Atlantic Films, which is servicing the upcoming, yet-to-be-titled “Alien” movie, and recently wrapped production on Season 2 of Showtime’s “Halo,” and the Netflix limited series “Eric,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in season 1 of “Halo,” streaming on Paramount+.Adrienn Szabo/Paramount+

But while Hungary is holding strong as Europe’s second largest production hub after the U.K., with international productions lured by highly skilled English-speaking crews, competitive costs and a 30% cash rebate, many local filmmakers say the space for independent cinema is shrinking.

The country’s rightward turn under hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who won a fourth consecutive term last year, has pushed patriotic and nationalistic movies to the fore, as witnessed by a surge in the production of historical dramas. “Critical films are not very welcome,” says producer Julianna Ugrin, whose credits include the 2017 IDFA and Sundance selection “A Woman Captured,” and last year’s HBO Max original “Holy Dilemma.”

Critics say the shifting political winds have impacted funding decisions at the NFI, although few are willing to speak out for fear of reprisal from the industry’s main funding body. “We don’t really submit applications anymore,” says one veteran producer. “You see it’s just a waste of your time.”

Emerging voices are still breaking through, such as Hajni Kis, whose debut “Wild Roots” was well-received after its Karlovy Vary premiere, and is now at work on her sophomore feature, “Ich bin Marika”; and Dorka Vermes, whose debut “Árni” is currently in production with the support of Venice’s Biennale College Cinema.

Another encouraging sign, says Ugrin, is the growing strength of the country’s documentary community, which was galvanized in 2019 with the formation of the Hungarian Documentary Assn. Advocating on behalf of Hungarian docmakers, the organization has signed up more than 150 members since its launch — and even opened a dialogue with the NFI about how to better support the industry.

“I think it’s a very good way of starting some collaboration and involving filmmakers close to the decision-makers,” says Ugrin. “We’ll see whether they’ll be open to support [more critical] films.”

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