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Les Arcs Industry Village Case Study: "Explanation for Everything"

by Viktor Tóth

Winner at the Venice Film Festival in the Horizons section, the Hungarian-Slovak co-production Explanation for Everything is now screening in the Official Competition at Les Arcs Film Festival. The movie directed by Gábor Reisz (For Some Inexplicable Reason) is an intimate game of perspectives, built around a scandal that shakes the divided Hungarian society – a kind of film that has not been made in the country for several years. The backstory of how such a potentially divisive film was made is perhaps even more exciting, as it was told by producer Júlia Berkes and sales agent Gabor Greiner of Germany’s Films Boutique, at a case study presentation in Les Arcs Film Festival’s Industry Village programme of conferences. 

“After pitching one film with some political content [to the National Film Institute of Hungary], we sent in something that wasn’t political at all just to test the system if it goes through, but it didn’t,” Berkes recalled. “It was the end of November 2021 when we decided that four years have passed since our last film and that it was time to make more movies, but clearly they didn’t want to support us.” 

The climate in the Hungarian film industry partly stems from the protests that took place in 2020 when the government replaced the directorship of the National Film School in Budapest and made it impossible for a wider range of filmmakers to be accepted. This is the same film school that Berkes and Reisz attended, and where their professional relationship started, and it was this very protest that prompted the director to write the screenplay for a more socially engaged work than his earlier comedies which were warmly received by Hungarian audiences. Yet, for their new feature, the initial budget was just around €50,000.

Creative solutions

The micro-budget prompted the crew to find some creative solutions. While Explanation for Everything mostly features recurring interiors and medium or close-up shots, there are a few scenes which normally would be made with a dolly or a crane. Berkes shared some behind-the-scenes photos featuring a bike that was used in lieu of a camera car, a small boat for the scene set at Lake Balaton, and even the wheelchair of the grandmother of a crew member to replace a dolly. “The drone for the final shot was the fanciest thing we had,” joked Berkes. 

The crew was also very small, consisting of only 17 people in total. As she explained, “We needed a DoP who’s used to documentary film shooting […] and a good sound guy. Other than that, everybody else was a first-time filmmaker”. 

Eventually, the entire budget of the film, including the funds from the Slovak company MPhilms that joined during post-production, was roughly €137,000. This is low even for the Hungarian film industry, where consistent state funds are available but mostly allocated to films with more “patriotic” leanings. 

If the low-budget production was not enough of a challenge, the first cut of the film, three hours and twenty minutes long, proved to be extremely hard to reduce. “At the First Cut Lab in Budapest, they said it was the best first cut they have ever seen,” Greiner said. Berkes recalled the cutting process which was painful to Reisz. “At 150 minutes, I still wanted to cut some more, but he said no.”

Marketing and distribution

On top of it all, the distribution process of the film makes Explanation for Everything a true rags-to-riches story. On paper, a 150-minute film that is built around social-political divisions in a small Eastern European country – even if Hungarian cinema is not exactly obscure – is not something that can be easily marketed.

“We tried at first to present it as a love story,” said Greiner. Explanation for Everything has a complex enough structure that allows it to be positioned in various ways: a classic coming-of-age story, a teenage romance, a socio-political drama, a family tragedy, even a satire, given that several scenes are comical to Hungarian speakers. Eventually, the social scandal aspect of the story is what resonated most in the sales campaign, and also it was highlighted during the Venice Film Festival’s selection press conference.

“We were not sure about this choice […], we worried that it would get lost. We pushed for an early screening date in hope that word of mouth would spread about the movie,” Greiner explained. Indeed, for those who attended the Venice Film Festival, the general perception was very favourable for the film, standing out even among films showing in the main competition around the same few days. After winning the Best Film Award in Horizons, the appeal of Explanation for Everything skyrocketed: distribution was secured in more than twenty countries and it was selected by countless festivals. 

This enthusiastic international reaction has likely influenced the reception in Hungary: before the Venice win, the biggest multiplex chain in Hungary was undecided about showing the film, one of Budapest's most prestigious arthouse cinemas refused to screen it, and generally the chances of reaching a wide audience were grim. This, according to Berkes, was motivated both by the perceived political nature of the film and its length – the latter especially in the case of the cinema chain. Eventually, however, thanks to the Venice award, the overwhelmingly positive reviews by virtually every liberal outlet, and even some of the government-aligned ones, the film received a wide theatrical distribution. Berkes also mentioned a specific case in which a big right- wing outlet published a very positive review and removed it a few hours later.

The production of Explanation of Everything is a story of success: with a micro-budget, a barebone crew, no government endorsement and a topic and length that seemed unmarketable, the film has been almost everywhere across the globe, and is still set to continue its journey in the next year. 

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