The Cabinet of Ministers decree demanding enforcement of the national film law (passed in 1998 by parliament), which requires Ukrainian language dubbing of films, is both good and just. The Constitutional Court recently determined it is also constitutional. Now it needs to be enforced.
The battle to overturn it is a deliberate political provocation. As the debate escalates, numerous arguments have been presented to undermine the government’s position. All of them are false.
That the Constitutional Court’s ruling did not specify the Ukrainian language for films is specious – there is only one official language in Ukraine and the Court, by definition, refers to that language.
Otherwise, it would have to list every language known to man. It’s nonsense.
That the ruling will create huge losses for Ukrainian distributors is also nonsense.
It requires them to do business the same as distributors in other countries around the world, where movies are routinely dubbed into the official language, at the local distributors’ cost.
The average cost of dubbing a film in Ukraine is around $35,000. A major studio film can gross in the millions – “Pirates of the Caribbean” took in over $2 million – while the average is around $500,000. Subtitling costs even less, averaging around $1,000 per film print (one print is distributed to each cinema that will show the film). These numbers are hardly deal breakers.
Distributors in Ukraine are now getting a free ride by simply running old prints (and advertising) left over from the Russian market.
This is common practice for Third World backwaters, where old American prints are often dumped.
Ukraine, however, is not a backwater country and it is time for Ukrainian distributors to earn their keep, just like other distributors do around the world.
That people do not want to watch movies in Ukrainian is also nonsense.
Surveys and the market itself have supported the opposite conclusion. Ukrainianlanguage screenings of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” for example, grossed more than their Russianlanguage counterparts, even in Donetsk.
That the exhibitors are so endangered that they have gone out on strike is silly. It is not a strike. It is a lockout.
Since it is a political action, these exhibitors have no choice but to lockout. If they open their theaters and run films dubbed in Ukrainian, the people will come anyway. Then what will they do?
An even more specious claim is that the major studios do not want to distribute in Ukrainian. The opposite is true.
For the studios, Ukrainian creates an additional market – more profit, not less.
It is the Russian middlemen – what I call the RosUkrKino cartel – whose profit, influence and control will disappear as Ukrainian distributors deal directly with studios around the world.
That there are not enough dubbing studios is pure chutzpah. All the distributors had the same decade of lead time to prepare. Only one (B&H) set up a stateoftheart dubbing studio. The others ignored the law, confident they had enough political juice to overturn it. Well, they didn’t.
But even now, any of them can have their own dubbing studios for a relatively modest investment and a bit of setup time. Any income lost in the interim is just penalty for their arrogance and not getting with the program in time.
The manner in which the current crisis was raised is also telling. The battle began over the film “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” a French film starring Gerard Depardieu.
It should have been released either in French with Ukrainian subtitles or dubbed into Ukrainian. Instead, it was presented dubbed in Russian, just as it ran in Russia.
When the Ministry of Culture refused to grant the necessary exhibition license, Vasyl Vovkun, the culture minister, and Hanna Chmil, the ministry’s film authority, were viciously attacked in public and private meetings, as well as in the media.
Leading the charge was my old friend Sasha Tkachenko, head of Odessa Studios and Cinergy UA, the distribution company for “Asterix.”
I suspect Tkachenko was relying on the fact that the film stars one of the First Couple’s favorite actors (Depardieu) when he chose it to try to bully the Ministry into granting a license to a noncomplying film and thus render stillborn the Constitutional Court’s ruling upholding the law. Instead, he put a lot of very nice and important people in very awkward positions.
Tkachenko appeared with the First Lady of Ukraine at the Berlinale Film Festival the same week he pressed for the unlawful release of “Asterix.”
While the First Lady was receiving dignitaries from the film world, Tkachenko was publicly trampling the Court’s ruling the First Lady’s husband is sworn to enforce. I can’t imagine the First Lady was pleased.
Cinergy UA is reportedly owned by Serhiy Taruta, a Ukrainian oligarch often closely associated with the president and an avowed supporter of Ukrainian culture. One must wonder if Tkachenko’s actions had his boss’ blessings.
And, there’s Matthieu Ardin, the French diplomat who runs the French Cultural Center in Kyiv, whose letter put him in the awkward position of seeming to support the release of a French film in Russian instead of French (with Ukrainian subtitles). Isn’t his job to promote French culture and language, not Russian?
The attacks on Vovkun and Chmil have been relentless. If the RosUkrKino cartel succeeds in replacing Vovkun or Chmil, it may well be the death knell for Ukrainianlanguage film.
Both Vovkun and Chmil are excellent and dedicated professionals who must remain and be supported by the government. And the law – which is both good and just – needs to be enforced.
The law effectively breaks the stranglehold Russian distributors currently hold over the Ukrainian market.
It empowers Ukrainians to make their own decisions as to what they will see and how they will see it.
Breaking the RosUkrKino cartel will provide Ukrainians with real freedom of choice, open the world of film and television to them directly and open the world to Ukrainian film.
This is not a battle over profit or local language preference. This is a battle over who will control the content of film and television in Ukraine – newly independent Ukrainians or their former colonial masters who still believe they have some divinely ordained right to rule Ukraine.
Peter Borisow is president of the Hollywood Trident Foundation and has been in the film business since 1979. His company specializes in analysis and management of financial risk in film investment. Borisow lives in Los Angeles and is a frequent visitor to Ukraine and its film sector.