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Viсtor Mirsky: “If We Don’t Find Our Audience, We’ll Lose”

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• 23.03.2016

We met Viсtor Mirsky at FILM.UA facilities before the presentation ofFILM.UAFaculty. Lecture Notes 2014/2015”; the general producer of the film company is its co-author. We had a conversation about books, the difficult present of commercial film industry in Ukraine and the movies FILM.UA Group is working on at the moment.

Viсtor, could you please tell us about “FILM.UA Faculty. Lecture Notes 2014/2015”? Who in the media and film must read this book?

I don’t feel that I have the right to tell the readers what and when they should read. I can only note that people interested in contemporary film and television will find many useful things in this book. Reading some advice from Roman Balayan or Oksana Bayrak surely won’t hurt, because these people are successful and have achieved a lot in their field. Practicians actively working in the industry were really open in sharing their experiences, they talked not just about their successes but also about failures, which is especially interesting. The decision of my colleagues to put all workshops at FILM.UA Faculty on paper and publish them as a book is very wise.

Which trends have emerged at the series production market due to complicated Russian-Ukrainian relations?

First of all, economy has collapsed both here and in Russia, and it impacted the production budgets. We have faced the challenge of having less money and the need to provide the same quality we did in 2012 and 2013. It’s not that easy, actually. I’d even say it is very hard. The juxtaposition of economic crisis with the political one only exacerbated the situation, of course. As for trends at the Ukrainian market, it is apparent that all productions and TV channels try to make local product. Unfortunately, due to extremely low budgets this product doesn’t spur much interest, with rare exceptions. You can’t cheat the viewer. Especially in series.   

How low have the procurement budgets of TV channels sunk?

The procurement budgets of TV channels have dropped by about three times. Hryvnya has devalued, and the budgets have decreased. Before, the exchange rate to USD was 8 and now it is 27, so the procurement budgets have fallen proportionally. That is a lot.

How can TV content producers survive in such conditions?  

It is hard to survive. We try to continue the dialogue with our neighbors. We convince ourselves that our big neighbor is not just the authorities, it is also our partners we have known for many years. Many of them are our friends; mostly they do not share the government’s aggressive rhetoric, to put it mildly. We look for the ways of interaction because we understand that politicians come and go, and our countries will still have to live side by side. It has been so for hundreds of years and hundreds of years are yet ahead of us.  I can’t say that it’s easy but I don’t see another way for now.

What are the other countries you produce content for?

We try to work with the whole world. We are represented at almost every major television market. We have experience of content sales to over 100 territories. But I have to say that it is a difficult and expensive way. We must understand that each country has its own producers, its own “hungry mouths to feed”, so to say, and they are not in the least happy that some guys from Ukraine are going to come and take away a share of their budget. This is business. Not a single country, including Poland everyone has been talking so much about lately, is in a hurry to open up its markets for us. And the illusion that we are wanted everywhere has nothing in common with the reality. That is why the situation is not simple, but we are looking for ways, that’s for sure. We actively communicate with the Poles, but it is necessary to understand that cooperation with Poland won’t make it to major volumes in the nearest years. We won’t start producing hundreds of hours of video products with Poland tomorrow – all because we have different languages, we have little money, and Poles are interested in us as partners only in a very narrow segment, in the projects concerning Ukraine at least in some way. But such stories are not going to be numerous. I hope that one, two or three projects with Poland will happen, but there won’t be 50 or 100 projects. It is important to understand that.   

The Ukrainian viewer wants to see a new national character, a new archetype, a new image. Do you have any projects in plans or in development where we’ll be able to see such character?

Who told you that? Neither you nor I know what the Ukrainian viewer wants. Believe me, your or my friends in social networks are not the whole Ukraine. And we’ll never cater to everyone’s wishes. We are trying to make projects which, in our opinion, are interesting for a large number of viewers. And thank God, if we have been for 10 years already, this means that we have succeeded in most cases. This means that we meet the expectations of a sufficient number of viewers. But I won’t be so bold as to claim I know who or what is expected by Ukrainians.   

The Law “On Making Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine on Protection of Ukrainian Informational TV and Radio Area”,  which bans Russian films and series for demonstration in Ukraine, has spurred disputes among media experts, lawyers, and grassroots citizens. Do you believe that such bans on the legislative level are substantiated?

My opinion about this issue hasn’t changed during the last two years. I never believed and I don’t believe now that Russian authorities equal Russian people. Yes, the situation is complicated, it is even tragic – I’m not afraid to use this word here. However, the absolute ban on all Russian content is a stupid decision; the “black lists” in the form they exist now are stupid; the “white lists” are not just stupid, they are clueless. We claim that unlike our neighbor we are a democratic country respecting European liberal values. So let us behave this way, even if it is extremely difficult and even painful sometimes. Nobody said that democracy and human rights were easy. Now we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When I see Gaft blacklisted, I feel hurt and disgusted; you have to be totally ignorant about this person to include his name on any list. And besides, as far as I know, we still are not sure who are these “talented people” who have the right to decide for the whole country who is to be on those lists.   

Has your attitude towards the participation in State Film Agency pitches changed? You have said before it wasn’t acceptable for you.  

I was saying that I didn’t participate in them when it was just a little thing between the officials. I have to admit that I see certain changes for the better during the recent years. I can’t say I am happy with everything, but the situation is changing, that is for sure. However, I still don’t like dealing with the money from the state, but that's another story…

Why don’t you like it?

Because all my activities for almost 20 years I’ve been in television are in business sector. In our Group, the reasoning is simple: we have to produce for 10 and sell for 12, in this case 2 is the profit we live off. The people who are used to working with state money normally don’t think about returning it. They base their activities on the principle that state money is not to be given back. When we launch the project, we depend on the final result; if we don’t find our audience, we’ll lose. Most producers working with state money don’t reason like that, with rare exceptions. We earn at the exit when we sell our product, and they earn at the entry when they receive money from the state. These are different models. I like ours better, it is more honest. But, I’ll repeat myself, everything I said above is not always true. Battle for Sevastopol, The Guide, Brothers, two or three other films are good examples of cooperation between the state and the producer. Unfortunately, such cases are exceptions for the time being.  

Which project of 2015 was the most successful for FILM.UA Group? Which one you didn’t manage to implement the way you wanted?

It depends on success criteria.

For example, The Sniffer is undoubtedly a successful project.

Yes, The Sniffer was successful. There was The Sniffer 2, a very complicated project, which raised the bar for production, it seems to us. Another successful project for us is The Red Queen – a big, high-quality and successful series. Just recently we’ve finished the production of Red Bracelets series; it hasn’t been anywhere yet, it’ll be broadcast only this year. I think it’s going to be a big event at the market, because we allowed ourselves to touch upon issues mostly avoided in series. That is why I would like to immediately thank STB channel, which risked and bought this series from us. By the way, it is ф Ukrainian-Russian coproduction, we started it in 2013, before all the events, and decided with our partners to complete the project whatever it takes. And we did. We filmed it jointly with AVK, a Moscow company, my co-producers are Elena Kotunova and Olga Volodina. I would like to express my deep gratitude to them, because it was a complicated, big and very unusual project. When it is released, I’m sure it’ll make a stir.

It is hard for me to talk about failures because, for example, we made 15 Vladimirskaya Street and Nikonov and Co exclusively for internal Ukrainian market. In my opinion, we still were larger than life, because the price-quality ratio was undoubtedly in favor of quality. We had little money but managed to make a solid product; I have to praise all my colleagues who worked on these stories. However, the rankings were average. Honestly, it’s a pity because we put enormous effort into that and nobody was thinking about profits, everyone simply wanted to make a high-quality local product. And we were devils for work. Because there was very little money, but we still wanted to make it good. In my opinion, it is a good product from the point of quality. But I wish we had better rankings.  

Which premieres will the audience see this year?

I’ve already mentioned Red Bracelets. They will be aired on STB channel. We made adventure melodramas Forget and Recall and The Past Is Yet To Come for Ukraina TV channel; The Favorite Teacher will be aired at 1+1; Major and Magic is to be broadcast at ICTV. We are expecting the premiere of our Ukrainian-language series Doctor on Call at Ukraina. Besides, a series about foundlings entitled Baby Boxes will also be aired at Ukraina, and there was already a premiere of four-episode film by Oksana Bayrak To See the Rainbow. The numbers were very good, we are happy with the results.  

But honestly, today I already live by new projects which are planned for filming this year. First of all, it is practically decided we’ll have The Sniffer 3. Artyom Litvinenko and Andrey Babik are finishing the script. We launched a new series In Search for Hope with our permanent authors, Maryana Bek and Elena Boyko (House With The Lilies, The Red Queen). This time we’ll try to touch upon the sensitive topic of religious sects. Sergey Krutin from Kyiv will be the director of this project. I have wanted to work with him for a long time, and now the opportunity has presented itself. We are preparing a project entitled Dad Dan on an interesting topic of a relationship between a 24-year-old guy and a 40-year-old woman. It is going to be a director’s debut for Kristina Sivolap. The Life of Another, a melodrama, will also be filmed by a Kyiv director Sasha Kiriyenko. The shooting will start in a month. An adventure story A Short Word No is our new joint project with our permanent partners from Intra-Film, just as the adventure series with a mystical touch The Contact. We’ll start the development of these two projects in May. We are also preparing to launch a new detective series Rabble. So as you see, in spite of all problems we are trying to work.