After just five weeks on release, a low-budget Hungarian comedy has out-performed all of last year's local films at the box office. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ukraine, a local production outfit is preparing to release the most expensive film in the country's history.
Made with a largely unknown cast and crew on a budget of just $670,000, Hungarian title A Kind Of America (Valami Amerika) (pictured), the directorial debut of Gabor Herendi, has grossed $310,000 (HuF 86.7m) from 25 prints to date. This puts it ahead of last year's most successful local production Sacra Corona, directed by Gabor Koltay, which grossed a total of $300,000 (HuF 83.97m). Both films were distributed by Budapest Film.
A Kind Of America tells the story of a Hungarian-born American who returns to his homeland as a film producer and meets a young commercials director who wants to win him over to be a partner in his film. Herendi's film is a light-hearted comedy, a rarity from Hungarian filmmakers, it has appealed to local audiences way beyond its modest expectations.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ukraine, Kiev-based production outfit, Rodovid is pursuing almost exactly the opposite route in an attempt to revive the local film industry. Inspired by the commercial success of another neighbour - Poland's big-budget blockbusters, Ukraine is setting out to follow the same formula.
Rodovid, headed by producer Ihor Didkovsky, is currently gearing up to release A Prayer For Hetman Mazepa (Molitva Za Getmana Mazepu), which at a cost of $2.5m, is the most expensive film ever produced in the country.
The film, which screened out of competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, is a historical epic directed by veteran local director Yuri Illienko, and the first major Ukrainian production in ten years.
Mazepa is due for a local release in September on 100 prints, supported by a massive promotional campaign, the first of its kind in the country. Even more ambitiously, the producers plan to distribute the film themselves and remain confident of success despite the critical bashing that Mazepa received in Berlin. That has left it with bleak prospects for any international sales.
Its producers admit they were influenced by the success of Polish big budget epic dramas like Jerzy Hoffman's With Fire And Sword (which cost $8m and grossed $26m) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo Vadis (which cost $18m and so far has taken $15m).
Furthermore, it is probably no coincidence that former Ukrainian minister for culture and popular actor Bohdan Stupka who stars in Mazepa also played a major role in With Fire And Sword. "I know the Poland example and we were encouraged by it. Kredyt Bank invested $7m in With Fire And Sword and we hoped private Ukrainian sponsors would also be found."
In the end 70 % of Mazepa's budget came from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture with the remaining 30% from private sponsors.
"This is a film about Ukrainian national identity, about understanding who we are as a nation since independence," said Ihor Didkovsky, who came on board as producer six months ago after the film began shooting. "Of course it is a big risk but I did it more for philosophical than financial reasons."
He admitted that it would be tough to break-even, but added that five years ago it would have been impossible. There are now about 40 decent screens in the Ukraine - which has a population of 50m - and a 12 screen multiplex is planned for Kiev in 2003. Ticket prices range from nine dollars in a first class venue to one dollar in an old state cinema. In Soviet times there were 200 screens in Kiev alone.