Black Nights Film Festival: Tallinn Is Open for Business

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The Estonian capital offers producers and distributors a key link between East and West (and it’s also stunningly beautiful).

Estonia, the tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million inhabitants, has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. In response to Russian military maneuvers, including battleships in the Baltic Sea and bombers invading Estonian airspace, NATO nations, including the U.S., have sent thousands of troops, tanks and military hardware to the region. It’s the West’s biggest show of force since the end of the Cold War and has put many on edge.

But not Marge Liiske. “Living next to a neighbor who has been really aggressive for centuries, really being in between the East and West, makes you a bit, well, fatalistic,” says Liiske, the head of industry programs at Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival, which runs Nov. 11-27. “It hasn’t changed what we do here, which is, aside from whatever politics are there, to try and connect the East with the West.”

Now in its 20th year, the Tallinn festival remains an insiders tip — the fairytale-like streets of the Estonia capital and the laid-back atmosphere of Black Nights is, almost literally, a world away from the crazed bustle of Cannes and Berlin. But, by playing to its strengths as a rich, tech-savvy country with a history of accommodating bigger powers, Estonia is emerging as a nation the indie industry needs to pay attention to.

This year also marks the fifth anniversary of the Baltic Event co-production market, which runs alongside the Black Nights festival. The event specializes in introducing producers and distributors to opportunities they might have missed, exploring funding systems in lesser-known regions (Luxembourg and Ukraine are two of the countries in focus this year) and providing a platform for bodies like Eye on Films, a French-based group that supplies distribution assistance for first and second feature films; and the European Genre Forum, a joint venture between Black Nights and several European festivals, which provides training and pitching sessions for directors and producers looking to make genre films in Europe.

Estonia itself this year introduced a new support scheme, providing a 20-30 percent tax rebate for foreign productions that shoot in the region. “Producers know about the Czech Republic, they know about Bulgaria, but most don’t know anything about Estonia, about what’s possible here,” says Edith Sepp, CEO of Estonian Film Institute. “The tax incentives come on top of the advantages we already have,” she adds, “including having everything from mountains to oceanfront to medieval cityscapes within a couple hours’ drive and having one of the fastest internet systems in the world, so you can easily upload dailies into the cloud to be edited on the go from elsewhere.”

The only thing missing is a soundstage, but plans are already underway to build a three-stage studio near the Tallinn city center. If all goes as planned, Tallinn Film Wonderland will be open for business by 2018. “It’s the one thing holding the industry back,” says Tallinn Film Wonderland CEO Liina Maria Lepik. “We know there is demand both from the local and international industries to shoot here.”

Estonia itself produces around 10 films a year. This year’s highlights included Kadri Kousaar’s Mother, which premiered at Tribeca and is the country’s foreign-language Oscar submission. Estonia got its first Oscar nomination in 2014 for Zaza Urushadze’s war drama Tangerines.

Ivo Felt, who produced Tangerines, has teamed up with first-time filmmaker Tanel Toom for the most ambitious Estonian film of all time: the $2.2 million historic epic Truth and Justice, based on the five-part novel of the same name by Anton Hansen Tammsaare, which is considered the founding work of Estonian literature. Currently in production, Truth and Justice is set to be delivered in 2019 in time for Estonia’s centenary celebrations. When it does, it could have its premiere at the Black Nights festival, either in finished form or as one of the many works-in-progress the event screens for international buyers.

This year, Tallinn will feature 26 works-in-progress from as far away as India (Rima Das’ Village Rockstars) and Thailand (Anucha Boonyawatana’s Malila: The Farewell Flower) and as close as neighboring Russia, with Fedor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures Studio giving buyers a sneak peek at four new titles, including Pavel Lungin’s thriller Queen of Spades, teen sex comedy Good Boy from Oksana Karas, Bondarchuk’s sci-fi epic Attraction and figure-skating drama Ice from Oleg Trofim.

Noting the growing political tensions along Estonia’s tiny border, Tallinn festival director Tiina Lokk said she was proud to be a bridge, not a barrier, between East and West: “The festival is the place where the Americans, the Russians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the French, Ukrainian and many others meet. I sincerely believe that art can make the world a better place, and when the politicians can’t seem to find the right words and communicate with each other anymore, then art is what builds the bridges.”


Three (Business) Reasons to Visit Tallinn

The medieval charm and snow-covered streets of the Estonian capital sell themselves, but here are a trio of excuses in case accounting questions your Black Nights expenses:

New Locations
Tallinn’s co-production market has made undiscovered and untapped territories its specialty. The Black Nights event will include spotlights on tiny Luxembourg and not-so-tiny but often overlooked Ukraine. “We want to attract attention to countries that have a lot to offer but that producers might not think of when it comes to co-productions,” says Liiske.

New Films
Tallinn is no Toronto, but the Black Nights festival does offer up a number of interesting art house titles for specialty distributors. This year’s competition lineup includes sci-fi drama The White King, starring Olivia Williams and Jonathan Pryce; and Queen of Spades, a thriller from Lungin, winner of Cannes’ best director honor for Taxi Blues.

New Models
Estonia is a world leader in digital technology — it was an Estonian tech team that developed Skype — and the Tallinn festival has become a prime meeting place for forward-thinking execs looking to find new digital models for the industry. Highlights this year include a talk with crowdfunding guru Justin Giddings and the Breaking Windows conference, in which leading reps from streaming companies, telcos and tech startups discuss how to better squeeze value out of film content in an increasingly multiplatform world.