Is the financial crisis threatening culture?

Over the last few weeks, the general tone of most conversations about the financial crisis has changed; people no longer talk about whether it is possible to avoid. Now they are talking about how to minimize their losses. The crisis seems to have hit or is about to hit all areas of life in Russia, and the cultural domain is no exception.

A couple weeks ago, a major domestic producer of a TV series announced that he was putting some projects on hold and laying off more than one half of his staff. The reason? He feared that the financial crisis would hit TV advertisers, which, in turn would have a negative impact on his budget. In other words, the major domestic TV channels would not buy as many hours of TV content as they do now.

However, some played down the news, saying that the company itself is having problems and is facing tougher competition. But last week, Karen Shakhnazarov, the director of Mosfilm, the country's bigger studio complex, said that about 25 to 30 percent of all film projects that entered the production stage at the studio have been frozen due to investors' pulling out. Then, everyone realized that the crisis is going to hit the culture and entertainment industry just as hard as it is hitting the banks and major industrial groups.

Over the last few years or so, overall economic growth in the country has been largely responsible for a growth in the entertainment sector. It is highly doubtful that we would have witnessed 100 feature films being made in Russia (the same rate as produced in the Soviet times) on an annual basis had the economy been in desperate straits. The same applies to other areas of the entertainment industry.

But now it is clear that the period of relative prosperity and easy access to money is over. At this point, it is difficult to predict which segments of the culture and entertainment industry will be the hardest hit, but it is clear that there will be fewer movies and TV series produced, fewer new art galleries opened and fewer new book titles published. Many projects funded by large financial and industrial corporations will be put on hold.

However, is it really going to be that bad? The answer would largely depend upon what direction the situation takes. If we are looking at something similar to the 1998 financial meltdown, which many in Russia still remember quite well, with major decreases in people's incomes, deflated prices and many companies going out of business, changes will be really drastic and hardly predictable. But if what is happening is still a milder version of the situation ten years ago, there are hopes that reduced funding will help to single out most worthy - or the most commercially viable - projects, while there will be little regret about the rest.

It's common knowledge that at a time of a crisis, people often spend more of their hard earned cash on entertainment as a way to escape the harsh reality. And while currently most domestic movies released in theaters show lackluster performances, the crisis may push people to the theaters. Ironically, although there could be fewer movies released, attendance could be much higher.

Up to this point, quite a lot of filmmakers, musicians and artists were little concerned about the quality of their work, being sure that, with the economy booming, there will always be one source or another to finance their projects. But as the situation is changing, they'll have to start thinking more carefully about what they're doing. Quite a lot of cultural product produced in the country these days has neither commercial nor artistic value, and the current crisis situation is hopefully going to change that.

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