Cinema of the Month: Festival and Congress Centre Varna

    Cinema of the Month: Festival and Congress Centre Varna Festival and Congress Centre Varna

    We spoke to Toshko Gyaurov, the manager of the Festival and Congress Centre Varna, and with Rumyana Popova, manager of the International and Cultural Department of the centre.

    They told us what it means to run a cinema located in one of the most prestigious cultural complexes in Bulgaria, and also about the hope to digitalize their cinema soon, as the application for Media program (http://ec.europa.eu/culture/media/index_en.htm) support for digital equipment was approved this year.

    Built in 1986, Festival and Congress Centre Varna has 11 halls of which three are equipped for cinema with some 1,295 total seats. The complex has been part of Europa Cinemas since 2003.

    FNE: What is the biggest challenge in running a cinema such as yours?

    Festival and Congress Centre is not just an ordinary cinema. With its 11 multifunctional halls, three equipped for film screenings, and more than 1,000 square meters of exhibition area, this is one of the most prestigious cultural complexes not only in Varna, but in Bulgaria as well, where theatre, opera and dance performances, concerts in all genres, festivals of different kinds, art and photo exhibitions are held, plus there one can find the biggest bookshop in northeastern Bulgaria. So, in this situation, the biggest challenge when doing the film programming of the centre is that it should without question keep up the level, as high as the level of its other programs. And it should keep its spirit too, the spirit of culture. We believe that here the audience should come to the cinema as to a cultural event, and probably that is what marks our special image and makes us different from the other cinemas in the town, two multiplexes.

    What kinds of films do you prefer to screen and why?

    Continuing the previous answer, we may say: Films that carry the spirit of culture. And after years of such policy, we cannot fail to notice that our audience prefers thoughtful films embracing human nature, analyzing the problems of contemporary society, asking questions about moral categories or the future of our civilization. And also ones that do all this in an interesting film language. So the best film to be programmed is this kind. And as often European films are more concentrated on the inner world of man and deal traditionally and respectfully with societal problems, we have noticed that a lot of them have better box office in Festival and Congress Centre than some heavily advertised American action films. Films that have received awards at famous international festivals are also always in demand because they most clearly show the trends in cinema today. Let's say that if in the multiplexes one can see films in fashion, we prefer to show modern cinema in its whole range. And not only that, several times a year we screen cycles of classic titles, so that people could make their own comparisons and draw conclusions about the development of cinema. This practice has proven to be really successful, so the standards for comparison in cinema of nowadays are the works of Fellini, Bergman or Truffaut.

    The cinema is home to many festivals, events and film weeks. Why are these important and what do they achieve?

    Festival and Congress Centre was built 27 years ago aiming to be home of the three Varna film festivals at the time, so that the question should we have festivals or not has never confronted us. The challenge came few years later, at the beginning of the democratic changes in the country, when the social and economic situation in Bulgaria was so complicated that no one, at least no one in a leading position in the state, thought of culture. As a result world renowned festivals such as the International Festival of the Red Cross and Health Films and the World Festival of Animated Films just disappeared, together with the Festival of Bulgarian Feature Films, which was not officially closed, but did not have an edition for about five years.

    This was the time when the members of the team at the Festival and Congress Centre asked themselves about the significance of festivals, and we decided that yes, festivals are very important. First of all, they are of course important for the professionals, who gather, see what they have done in a given period of time, exchange not only opinions on their work, but ideas. Then, they are no less important for the audience, at least because of the same exchange of ideas and the information people receive, even apart from people developing good taste by seeing examples of the best work done throughout the world in recent years. We knew this was theory, but we knew very well from our own experience too, that it was the truth.
    So we decided that Varna needs its film festivals, and if the state is not in a position to organize them, we can do our best and organize another one. This was how in 1993 the International Film Festival Love is Folly (http://loveisfolly.ida.bg/), organized by the Festival and Congress Centre Varna, was given its start. Its 21st edition is going to be held from 30 August to 5 September this year, this making it the oldest international film festival now in Bulgaria. Three years ago, with our active help, the World Festival of Animated Films (http://www.varnafest.org/?lang=en) was restored as well. The Festival and Congress Centre is the host and co-organizer of the Festival of Bulgarian Feature Films Golden Rose and of the Varna editions of Sofia Film Fest (http://siff.bg/) and Kinomania (http://www.kinomania.bg).
    But besides these five so-called big film festivals, we keep organizing throughout the year a lot of smaller events such as weeks of different national cinematography, cycles of classic films, reviews, thematic festivals, of ecological films or of Bulgarian film actors, for example. And we really consider them to be very important in our program because nowadays, when practically everybody has at every moment more than 100 TV channels at his disposal and can find on the Internet any film, the only reason to go to the cinema is for the event taking place there. And, of course, the chance this event is offering to have real live communication, either meeting famous or interesting people taking part or sharing experiences with the others in the audience, equally moved by the significance of the event. The proof that this works is the fact that the same film programmed within the framework of an event and outside of it results in absolutely different box office: Ten or more times higher during an event, even if it is organized after the other screenings. 

    What is the role of Europa Cinemas for cinemas such as yours and why is it important?

    In one word, immense. As we say, being a part of Europa Cinemas is already an event. Or at least this is an excellent basis upon which a cinema can build its event policy. We believe we need not even say something that's so common knowledge,  that without the policy of supporting European cinema on such a large scale, it would be impossible for a cinema such as ours, in a country like ours, to screen so many European films, no matter how much we like them. Luckily, being part of Europa Cinemas, and receiving financial support for that, gives us the possibility not only to program good European titles, but to also create the appropriate conditions so that they can reach a large audience, to reduce their ticket price, for example, which is extremely important in a time of total economic crisis, such as we now face in Bulgaria.

    How does a cinema like yours serve the local community?

    Ever since the opening of the Festival and Congress Centre, its work has been directed at one main aim: to serve the public interest. It is our deep conviction that, when talking about a cultural institution, a high level of programming is just the right standard for this purpose. That is why we have done our best to maintain such a standard even in the most difficult times for culture in Bulgaria. The result is that in return the Varna community has learned to believe in us, making thus possible not one public project. For the last few years the Varna municipality has financially supported all the big festivals taking place in the Festival and Congress Centre, and this cooperation has helped us to organize a lot of festival screenings with free entry, something very important for the public for at least two reasons: first, welcoming social groups not able to buy cinema tickets, such as pensioners or unemployed people, and secondly, allowing us to draw the public's attention to some significant works. And we must clearly state here that without the trust of the Varna community, our most cherished project, the International Film Festival Love is Folly, would have been practically impossible because it is entirely financed by sponsorship. As for us, we have done all we can to make Love is Folly the favorite festival in Varna.

    Can you say something about your work with young audiences?

    There is no doubt that attracting a young audience to the cinema is one of our most important tasks. This is our future audience so educating it to love European cinema is part of a greater aim: To help it love the idea of Europe as a whole. So the endeavors of the Festival and Congress Centre are in both directions. Reduced ticket prices for children and students is a really efficient step in the first direction, especially in a country with great economic and financial difficulties such as Bulgaria. So we have free screenings for appropriate films. Secondly, we do our best to guarantee European titles for our regular weekend children 's screenings, knowing how important it is to make youngsters at the earliest age acquainted with their values.
    And we are convinced that the best lessons are learned not in school, where to see a  film is a requirement, and as a consequence is often unwillingly done, but when the child is freely choosing to go with a parent or a friend. The children's sections of two of our festivals, Kinomania and the World Festival of Animated Films, are organized to serve exactly this idea in the best way, by creating a special event. And in the World Festival of Animated Films, together with our co-organizers, we go even further; it features a workshop teaching children how to do animated films, together with another one gathering students from specialized schools all over the world to create their own common work for the festival week. For a young audience with a deeper interest in film art, we have organized over the last three years a special program, The Other Cinema, showing different cycles of masterpieces of the 20th century with commentary from a well-known Bulgarian film critic before each screening, helping young people to understand both the ideas and the language of the film classics.
    As for school screenings, we prefer to offer a really interesting approach too, so that they can also turn into an event; for example, last year we invited together with the Varna municipality more than 1,000 children to see Konferenz der Tiere, and after the screenings, in their classes, children organized “conferences” for themselves on ecological themes such as the wild animals in the film.          

    What about the digitalization of cinemas? How will it affect your work and your cinema?

    We don't need to say how important digitalization is because it seems obvious. Its role in film distribution and exhibition, which directly affects us, is enormous. No more expensive transport of 35mm prints, except in special cases, and you get the same quality with proper equipment. That looks like a technical revolution. Of course, nowadays, with the fast development of technologies and the technical onslaught we live in, the quality of the equipment is decisive. Especially for young people. Screening films in brilliant quality is a major precondition for attracting them to the cinema. Well, we applied at the beginning of this year the Media program (http://ec.europa.eu/culture/media/index_en.htm) for the support of digital equipment and our application was approved. So, there is hope for us, we believe.

    Toshko Gyaurov graduated from the University of Economics and Varna Free University. He has been director of the Balchik Palace Cultural Complex for 10 years. Since 2011 he is manager of the Festival and Congress Centre Varna.
    Rumyana Popova graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Cinema (Sofia) with a specialty in History and Theory of Cinema. She is a member of the Union of Bulgarian Journalists. Since 1987 she is responsible for film programming at the Festival and Congress Centre Varna and she has been manager of its International and Cultural Department since 2001.

    Festival and Congress Centre Varna:
    2, Slivnitsa Blvd 9000 Varna, Bulgaria
    +359 52 685 251

    Fax : +359 52 608 446


    National Palace of Culture - Congress Centre Sofia JSC
    Varna Branch
2, Slivnitza Blvd 9000 Varna,
Phone : +359 52 685 000

    Fax : +359 52 608 446