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Could Greece’s ancient treasures help to rescue its economy

Despite the dire state of Greece’s economy, one of its biggest tourist draws & most recognisable assets is its ancient heritage. Plans to try & monetise these site with commercial filming charges [1] have however met with mixed reviews.

Kathimerini (English Edition) [2]

Thursday February 9, 2012 (18:32)
Ancient treasures to the rescue of Greece’s ruined economy?
By Margarita Pournara

Greece’s Culture and Tourism Ministry last month said it would slash the cost of permits for filming and photographic shoots at more than 100 of the country’s ancient monuments, including the world-famous Parthenon in Athens.

Some foreign reports reacted to the news by saying the Greek government was putting the Parthenon under the hammer. Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos tweeted that speculation that the sites would be “rented out” was totally unfounded.

Fees for utilizing ancient monuments for commercial purposes were first introduced in 2005, but the government has decided to lower the prices. The announcement has brought some tricky questions, and some taboo subjects, into the spotlight: How can Greece promote its cultural sites in a smart way without disrespecting its historical legacy and, at the same time, make money from it? What should be the role of the Central Archaeological Council (KAS), the highest advisory body on all matters pertaining to the protection of ancient monuments? Can the revenue be used to aid the debt-ridden economy? Who should set the fees? And what should the fees be? Many people, for example, questioned whether 6,000 euros for a commercial shoot on the Acropolis is the right amount.

In “Rush Hour 3,” actor Jackie Chan is seen performing a daredevil stunt on the Eiffel Tower. Harvey Keitel was filmed at Rome’s Colosseum for the needs of a whiskey commercial. Could a similar TV spot be shot at one of Greece’s world-famous monuments, like the Theater of Epidaurus? When French film director Jean-Luc Godard asked the Greek authorities’ permission to shoot at the ancient theater, KAS officials demanded that they first take a look at the script of “Film Socialisme.” Talks came to an impasse after that.

During the 1960s, Greece became popular among foreign film crews thanks to its natural beauty, monuments and low prices. Some steps have been made since then in an effort to lure foreign productions. One of the most significant came in 2007 with the foundation of the Hellenic Film Commission. It was a pilot project aimed at facilitating foreigners who wished to hold photo and video sessions at the country’s museums, monuments and other sites.

In an interview with Kathimerini, former HFC director Markos Holevas said that the film commission has done some good work but needs more funds and staff. “More important, we need a fast-track treatment so that interested parties do not have to wait for months for a response from KAS officials,” he said. His successor, Grigoris Karantinakis, says one of the problems is that the institution is part of the Greek Film Center, therefore any filming request has to go through the various offices of the center.

People from the film and advertising industry say the situation can be quite chaotic for applicants. The criteria for granting a permission are quite fuzzy and often subjected to political influence. The makeup of KAS, they say, can also affect decision-making.

KAS recently gave Vodafone permission to shoot a commercial at the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora, but went on to turn down a request by BMW to photograph its new models next to the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio. In the past, the archaeologists gave the Andreas Papandreou Foundation, a nongovernment entity, the green light to use the same site for a speech by then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and a concert. No fee was requested. In 1998, American fashion designer Calvin Klein was denied permission to use the Herod Atticus Theater. Meanwhile, pundits disagree on things like whether pop singers should be allowed to hold concerts at the site or if spectators should be allowed to visit the theater in high heels. A few years ago maintenance crews found and removed no less than 17 kilos of chewing gum which had accumulated under the marble seats.

More controversial decisions followed. Greek-Canadian actress and scriptwriter Nia Vardalos got permission to use the Parthenon as a backdrop for her 2009 romantic comedy “My Life in Ruins” — a film which admittedly did not cast Greece in the most favorable of light. However KAS said no to a photo shoot at Crete’s Knossos Palace for the participants of “America’s Next Top Model.”

“We had to build ancient [ruins] out of styrofoam,” said Angelo Venetis, managing director of Boo Productions, who was in charge of the project.

“When the French, who have a very strict cultural policy on issues of historical legacy, invite Woody Allen to make a movie in Paris we still fail to tackle the simplest requests, then it’s only natural that the foreigners will turn their backs on us,” said Kyriakos Angelakos, a movie director. “Why should they come here and wait forever for a response from KAS, when they can find immediate service and better prices in countries such as Malta, the Czech Republic or Portugal?”

In European countries that make their sacred sites available to foreign film crews, advertising firms and publishing houses, local government has a positive role to play. Meanwhile, the City of Athens charges 1,800 euros per square meter for a single shoot. “You often pay this money and get a big space without any security,” Angelakos said. The Athens Film Office, which was established by the municipality to address with these problems, is no match for its foreign counterparts.

George Tsokopoulos of production company Avion Films knows firsthand what foreign crews have to put up with in Greece. “We are discouraging foreign clients from using our monuments to make movies or TV spots,” he said, giving the example of a big air carrier that made a commercial featuring a children’s choir at major monuments around the world. The production company asked permission to film at Cape Sounio. After a long delay, KAS officials said the site would be made available for an astronomical 300,000 euros. Following pressure from the production company, and a meeting with the then culture minister, the price tag dropped at 10,000 euros, he said.

Producer Yiannis Koutsomitis points out another issue that needs to be addressed. “Everyone respects the work of archaeologists, but it is unacceptable that KAS has a say on the artistic and aesthetic value of a script,” he said, recalling a frustrated Francis Ford Coppola who had to spit blood to get permission to shoot a scene in front of the Acropolis. That does not mean, he says, that all iconic monuments should be surrendered to commerce. “Greece has many archaeological sites and needs to have a clear list of what can be used, by who, and for what purpose,” he said.

Architecture historian Charalambos Bouras agrees with the idea. “[Such lists] are used around the world and need to be introduced here as well. To date, KAS has held all the responsibility, including pricing. Now things have started to fall into place,” he said.

Senior ministry archaeologist Maria Vlazaki says that on the one hand the state is under pressure to be more flexible with filming rights and, on the other, foreigners say we are “renting out” our monuments. “It’s a delicate issue that affects the image of the country abroad and much more,” she said.