$688 Million Deal Still Leaves Turkey No Country for Small Films

  • Mars Entertainment earns 50% of Turkey's film ticket revenue
  • Turkey cinema industry fastest growing in Europe after Russia

Kaan Mujdeci doesn’t think it’s OK that in the first weekend of December last year, three-quarters of Turkey’s cinema screens were showing just two movies: "Ali Baba and the 7 Dwarfs" and "Unconventional Circumcision."

The director is leading a group of Turkish filmmakers in challenging Turkey’s largest cinema chain, whose owners this week agreed to sell the company to South Korea’s CJ CGV and its partners for $688 million. They’re taking inspiration from the landmark Hollywood antitrust case of 1948, United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc.

Kaan Mujdeci holds the Special Jury Prize at the 71st Venice Film Festival.

Photographer: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Like the major Hollywood studios whose distribution practices were dismantled by the Paramount decree, Mars Cinema Group both produces and distributes its own films, as well as owning the theaters that show them. What irks these filmmakers particularly is that, at a time when Turkish cinema’s receiving unprecedented recognition abroad - the group of the aggrieved includes directors recently feted at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance - Mars is able, they say, to wield undue sway over their impact at home.

"The basic problem is that you’ve created something, and it needs to reach people," Mujdeci says, gesticulating, in an interview overlooking Istanbul’s Bosphorus straits. "This unchecked control of the supply chain wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry, and I don’t understand why it can be allowed to exist in film."

Industry Domination

Mars Cinema Group’s ticket revenue accounts for half of total receipts in Turkey, while the company has a 90 percent share of all cinema advertising, according to data on the website of Actera Group, a private-equity firm that agreed to sell its stake last week. It’s also Turkey’s leader in film distribution.

Calls and texts to Mars Chief Executive Officer Muzaffer Yildirim seeking comment weren’t returned, and a spokesman for CJ declined to comment. The competition board recently probed Mars’s market share on the back of complaints by rival operators and distributors, and said it found no evidence that Mars seeks to limit competition.

That the Turkish regulator, in a 126-page report, found nothing actionable in Mars’s swiftly ascending market share, leaves critics in the industry cold. They say they’re going try to challenge the decision in an appeal, as well as through the medium they know best. Mujdeci’s documentary "Only Blockbusters Left Alive," opens at the Istanbul Film Festival on Sunday and will be distributed online for free the next day.

‘Golden Age’

The movie takes a pop at what the 35-year-old director alleges to be Mars’s "monopolistic" practices and is peppered with statistics about the lopsided Turkish film industry, as well as humorous clips from the 1970s golden age of Turkish cinema.

Mujdeci’s contention is that Turkey’s now going through another golden age, yet viewers inside the country wouldn’t know it.

On the December weekend that Ali Baba, his dwarfs, and the circumcision party were blanketing multiplexes, Abluka, or "Frenzy," which centers on a paranoid sibling rivalry in a dystopian Turkish town and won Venice’s Special Jury Prize, was showing on just 25 screens. "Ivy," which takes place entirely on a tanker stranded in the Mediterranean, was in an even worse situation. The film had recently won a Golden Orange, the highest accolade in Turkish cinema, yet was showing on just 16 screens.

Sales Doubled

That kind of market dominance wouldn’t go unchecked elsewhere, Mujdeci argues. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" smashed box office records while being shown in only 1 out of 10 U.S. cinema screens on its December opening weekend.

Mujdeci’s documentary opens with figures that paint an industry in glowing health. Turkey’s ticket sales have more than doubled over the last decade to 60 million, it says, and the country has the second-fastest growing film industry in Europe after Russia.

In other words, the precise things that make Mars so attractive for Korea’s CJ Group are what raise the stakes in Turkey.

Distribution Alternatives

"These things are too important to be run according to whim -- these are everyone in the country’s common cultural property and the problem cuts across much more important subjects like freedom of thought and expression," says Mujdeci -- an argument that will be familiar to observers of 2015’s Istanbul Film Festival debacle.

The country’s main cinema showcase was aborted in its first few days after the government cited technical grounds to block the screening of a locally made documentary on Kurdish militants, who’ve been locked in a bloody 30-year battle with the state. It’s at festivals like this one that foreign distributors come and make deals with Turkish filmmakers - deals that will help the government reach its target of increasing film and television exports to $2 billion by 2023.

That independent cinema gets a fair shot at commercial distribution matters all the more when alternative avenues for showing movies are closing down, according to Mujdeci, who’s joined by the makers of "Ivy" and "Frenzy," as well as directors from the older generation in his fight.

"If you push talent to the margins this is what you end up with," Mujdeci said. "The whole system is very delicate."

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