Azerbaijan is proud of the long tradition of its cinema, since Frenchman Alexandre Michon made the first film in Baku in 1898, only three years after the Lumiere brothers in Paris introduced “cinematograph”. This was soon followed by more cinematic activities in the first decade of 20th century, not only in terms of film making, but also building infrastructure of cinemas and mobile cinemas all over the country. In the Soviet era, the big state film studio Azerbaijanfilm was built as a part of centrally planned development, and, despite of ideological control, it laid a foundation for the development of professional cinema in the country.
“Towards the end of the Soviet era, Azerbaijanfilm, the country’s only studio, was turning out 7 or 8 films a year, commissioned by the State Cinema and the Central Soviet Television Service. Its annual output also included 20-25 documentaries and 2-3 animated films. From the earliest days, some 240 full-length features, over 50 short features, over 1,200 documentaries and about 100 animated films were made in our country.”
The centralized structure of the industry was applied not only in film production, but also in distribution, purchase of foreign films, maintaining the infrastructure of cinemas and all other parts of industrial cycle of cinema. For this reason, after the collapse of Soviet Union, the entire industry – similarly to the other sectors of the society – had to cope with the situation of difficult transition to democracy and market economy, which still continues until today. Obviously, in difficult first years of the transition, the cultural and creative industries were not the priority areas, which led to the rapid drop of film production.
The Azerbaijani film sector is centralized compared to other EU countries, which is apparent throughout the entire industry cycle – creative process, production cycle, distribution and sales. On the policy and regulation level, cinema is rarely understood as creative industry, i.e. an ecosystem, which combines artistic creation with commercial and business aspects. The role of state (performed via Ministry of Culture) is perceived as to organize and produce culture instead of creating conditions for free artistic expressions.
Difficult process of transformation of the society therefore brings challenges on many fronts - it is not only the role of culture and cultural policies in the democratic state, but also the role of culture and creative industries in economic development of the society.
The connections between cultural policies and economy, between creation and industry, and between favourable conditions for SMEs and flourishing of creative industries, specifically in film sector, need to be further explored and transformed to the policies on governmental level.
This current transformation is taking place at the same time as the global shift to the digital society, which has tremendous effect on the entire society, but specifically on film industry. The liberalization and democratization of creative means, which have made the film-making technologies and distribution accessible on totally new scale is changing the patterns of creation and consumption of audiovisual content. This means that Azerbaijan’s film sector faces several difficult transformational challenges at the same time, but on the other hand creates an opportunity window for paradigmatic upgrade of the entire industry.