By Thalia Vrettos
The Hellenic Film Society USA, presents The NY Film Expo which opens Friday, October 1st at the Director’s Guild Theater on West 57 Street with the movie screening of the critically acclaimed film, Tailor. The Greek film screenings will be held in theaters in Manhattan and at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, October 1-10. Selections include eight feature-length films and five film shorts, including award presentations and US premiers.
We met with James DeMetro who is the founding Director of the New York City Greek Film Expo and President of the Hellenic Film Society USA.
Thalia Vrettos: How did the Hellenic Film Society USA come about?
James DeMetro: I have been involved with Greek film festivals in New York and elsewhere since 2007.Over the years, I realized that the best way for such festivals not only to survive but to thrive was for them to be independent, non- profit organizations not exclusively devoted to promoting Greek cinema. So, in 2018, a number of like-minded colleagues and I created the Hellenic Film Society USA as a non-profit devoted to promoting Greek cinema to audiences in the USA.
TV: What are the main characteristics of Greek Cinema? How do Greek films compare to European films?
JD: Greek cinema is European cinema. The Greeks don’t make American movies. There are no robots, no super heroes, no comic book figures. Even car chases are at a minimum. The Greeks tend to make movies about how real people live their lives.
TV: Do Greek films have international appeal? Can they enter the sphere of international recognition?
JD: Absolutely. Greek films have found a global audience. Major festivals all over the world feature Greek films, and many times these films come away with major prizes. Even in the US, arguably the world’s most coveted market, Greek films are beginning to establish a vibrant presence.
It’s no secret that the US film industry is in the midst of reshaping, the changes hastened by the pandemic. Independent and art cinemas are closing. The foreign language film market here is in crisis mode. As theaters close, fewer and fewer foreign films are finding theatrical bookings. The market is turning more and more to on-demand viewings. In the last seven or eight years, there have been more than 14 Greek films sold to streaming services in the US alone. That’s a pretty high number. That’s many more than the European countries have sold.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still serious hurdles to overcome. The American critical establishment knows next to nothing about what is happening in Greek cinema. Except for Yorgos Lanthimos, most Greek filmmakers remain unknown – or worse, ignored by the critics. The release of quality product from Greece will change this eventually, but the pace is slow.
AV: Is making cinema in Greece just about making art or is it an act of political, social and/or moral survival?
JM: We can argue that all cinema is political. To give a simple answer to your complex question, I will say that there is definitely a range in subject matter and target audience. There are commercial films aimed at a mass audience as well as more challenging fare, ranging from social to esoteric. There are films that challenge the social order as well as films that exploit it. I would add here that many times I have the feeling that many Greek filmmakers make their films because they have a personal statement to make. There are many filmmakers who make the movies they want to make without seemingly any regard to what the audience wants to see or is ready to accept.
AV: How has the economic crisis affected the film industry?
JD: There’s no doubt that the economic crisis has impacted the film industry. Financing films is always difficult in every country. The crisis made it even more so in Greece. Also, theater attendance is down. Interestingly, even though theater tickets are more expensive than movie tickets, the drop in movie attendance was more precipitous.
It is very very difficult for a Greek film to recoup its production costs unless it finds bookings beyond the Greek borders. There are exceptions, but generally Greeks don’t support their own films. They prefer films from other countries. However perverse this is going to sound, there is a positive to this. Hacks, those in the industry for money, are fewer and fewer. There isn’t much money for them to make. The people left working in the industry tend to be devoted to their art. The true artist, if he has something to say, will find a way to say it.
TV: Is there a Renaissance? Are you optimistic about the future?
JD: Yes on both of those questions. What is very exciting right now is the fact that there are major producers working in Greece, and they are moving the industry in the right direction. These are serious professionals who are setting high standards for their products. There are choosing the good scripts and hiring the right people.
Another positive sign is the proliferation of co-productions that we are noticing in recent years: Greece working with one or two other countries on a film. This makes funding a little easier and, importantly, co-productions broaden the potential audience base for a film. A film mad in conjunction with two or three countries is guaranteed distribution in those countries.
TV: What is causing the new-found interest in Greece as the right place to shoot a film?
JD: After years of failing to act and allowing bureaucracy to wreak havoc with foreign producers who wanted to shoot a film in Greece, the Greek government has taken corrective action. Greece is now offering substantial tax savings and financing assistance to outside filmmakers, and that is changing things in a positive way. There is no question that Greece is a beautiful country with a good climate -all of which draws producers if the conditions are right.
Also, Greece offers world class technicians who know their jobs and do them well. The production cost of a typical Greek film is just about equal to what the catering bill is for a week’s worth of food on the set of an American film. Yet, the films look terrific. The finished product looks like it cost three or four times more than it actually did. That’s a credit to the creative people making movies in Greece.