Turkey's thriving film industry has been crippled by the coronavirus

Turkey's cinema industry has been hit hard by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures designed to curb the spread of the virus.   

The Turkish government shut down cinemas along with universities, schools, mosques, bars, concert halls, and gyms on March 19 as part of its anti-virus measures

When the pandemic hit, the Turkish cinema industry was thriving. Last year, the cinema industry in Turkey enjoyed record-breaking box office returns, with over 59 million viewers and revenue of 981 million liras ($144 million). Around 600 million liras ($88.2 million) of the revenue was for Turkish movies.

As 143 domestic and 216 foreign movies screened in Turkey’s cinemas put a smile on filmmakers' faces last year, nearly 7,000 employees of the sector in Turkey have also benefited from the vibrant market.

Meanwhile, foreign film productions in Turkey surged by nearly 70 percent in the same year, after a new cinema law offering incentives to film in the country spurred enthusiasm among filmmakers for shooting in Turkey.

Record-breaking revenues that whetted the appetite of the sector enabled many production companies to expand their productions. Last year, more than 90 local films announced screening dates for 2020. 

Until the middle of March, domestic films in particular reached large audiences and the revenues for 2020 had been expected to surpass last year’s following a strong performance in the first quarter.

Some 16.4 million viewers and 281 million liras ($41.3 million) in revenue recorded up to the date that the government shut down cinemas was an important indicator of the cinema sector exceeding the one-billion-lira threshold.

But the pandemic turned everything upside-down. Revenues fell 59 percent in March. Thousands of people working in the cinema industry have suffered severely from the shutdown. The closures have turned into a nightmare for film and television sector employees due to insufficient support by the state or from non-governmental organisations.

"COVID-19 has also hit the cinema and television sectors in Turkey. Sector employees, most of whom are freelancers, are under great stress due to this uncertain period," Damla Kırkalı, a board member of Turkey's Cinema-Television Union, said.

The suspension or cancellation of most new productions caused some 3,000 people working at film sets to lost their jobs during the coronavirus period, and thousands of sector workers were placed on compulsory unpaid leave.

Turkey’s parliament on April 16 ratified a bill drafted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that bans employee layoffs from the workplace for a period of three months. However, the same bill also allows employers to place their workers on unpaid leave. 

Although Netflix, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), and the Cinema-Television union have provided 4 million liras ($590,000) of financial support to the sector, this figure is inadequate.

While cinemas are set to reopen in Turkey from 1 July, industry representatives say that it will not help to dress the wounds, because the main problem is a lack of movies to screen since the whole sector has been frozen due to the pandemic. 

"For the full reopening, we think that October will be more suitable than July. Even if movie theatres will be reopened in July, we do not know which films we will be able to display," said İrfan Demirkol, the head of the Association of Cinema Hall Investors.

Muzaffer Yıldırım, the founder of Mars Entertainment Group, said it would be very difficult for small businesses and cinemas to survive through the pandemic.

"When even Hollywood is saving their films for next year or even the year after that, where will cinemas find a movie to screen?"

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.