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Film and TV pioneer thinks ahead and thinks big

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In a man of vision, THEO PANAYIDES meets someone who is detail oriented and cerebral from his days filming the invasion as a teenager to backing the production of Jiu Jitsu, balancing the life of an artist and a workhorse

Chris Economides has many talents – but the most casual is perhaps the most striking. Sitting in a cluttered studio in the listed 13th-century building he calls home, on a currently dug-up street in old Nicosia, he takes out a pen and borrows one of mine, as well as my notepad – then holds a pen in each hand and writes the same words with both, simultaneously and entirely legibly. Being ambidextrous is rare enough (only about one per cent of the population, apparently) but this extra skill is a whole other level of mental multi-tasking. “So when you ask which side of my brain is doing what…” he concludes – and chuckles, letting the sentence trail off. “Don’t ask me which is which!”

I only asked because he seems to be many things. He’s always been creative – “I wanted to make movies from a young age; I had my own studio when I was 12 years old” – but has spent most of his career as an executive, heading a pay-TV business with 1,000 employees and an annual turnover of 150 million euros in Greece in the 90s and 00s. He’s structured, detail-oriented, cerebral – but also emotional, indeed we’re only four minutes into the interview before he breaks down in actual sobs. “After so many years… sorry…” he offers brokenly, struggling to collect himself.

profile the invasion of famagusta in 1974
The invasion of Famagusta in 1974

The tears come from a very specific memory – filming in Famagusta during the invasion, as a boy of 16 (he’s now 64), and witnessing what became a famous photo from that time, a lifeless young man hanging upside-down in the ruins of the Salamis Hotel. Chris was a curious teen with a Super 8 camera and had nearly been killed himself a few minutes earlier, going on the roof of the building where his family were staying to film the approaching planes; one plane dived in his direction – “You could see the vibration of the pilot’s helmet as he was diving” – and fired at him, the bullets lodging in the wall of the lift shaft behind him. The boy went downstairs, unfazed, and ventured outside once the planes had gone, filming whatever he saw (he still has the footage from that time; he’s never shown it) – but in fact that might’ve been it for him, dead at 16. Or else he might’ve died in 2002, in his mid-40s, when he developed an infection from appendicitis and actually had a near-death experience, shuffling off this mortal coil for about three minutes. So much to talk about.

The tears come from a specific memory – but in fact they might’ve been prompted by other memories. There’s a lot to say, and a lot of pent-up emotion. There’s an elephant in the room, amid the posters and musical instruments and paraphernalia – an elephant we don’t ignore, necessarily, but treat with judicious restraint, because we know it’ll trample the whole conversation if allowed to run free. The elephant is Chris’ experience of the past two years, as one of the producers of Jiu Jitsu – a film made under the cash-rebate scheme he himself developed years before. Suffice to say it ended badly, and the parties (including the Cyprus government and the Auditor-General) are now in court.

profile filming of jiu jitsu in nicosia
Filming of Jiu Jitsu in Nicosia

Let’s not talk about that – though it colours the mood in the little room, nor is it the only painful memory. Chris’ achievements have been epic, but his disappointments have also been epic. He married late, on purpose (his wife Eliza is an opera singer; they have a 12-year-old son), wanting to make enough money first so he could dedicate himself to his family – and “I did it,” he recalls. “I was successful. I made my money – but I was haircutted. I was ripped off by my country”. Then there’s the fact that, despite having always wanted to make films, he’s never quite managed to fulfil that dream: he spent two years, on and off, in LA (“153 days in total,” he says precisely) looking for funding in the early 00s, having first made positive contact with some big names – “It was Anthony Hopkins, Monica Bellucci and Jeremy Irons” – but it never quite happened. Then there’s his recent disappointment, the aforementioned elephant.

He’s always, I suspect, been ‘too much’ – too ambitious, too laser-focused, too… well, ambidextrous. He’s an artist, but also a workhorse. He’s a visionary, always ahead of the curve – but “also OCD, when it comes to detail”. The roadworks outside his home are one obsession; the house itself – prowled by three housecats named Pikachu, Muffin and Mew – seems about to burst at the seams with a lifetime’s detritus. Chris talks endlessly (“I don’t know where to stop”), works endlessly; these days he’s working with Americans, so he goes to bed around 4am – and often wakes up three hours later, to take his son to school. He’s more highly-strung than the average person; he notices stuff. He and his wife watch Survivor on TV – and sometimes the vote isn’t shown, he says (meaning the bit where contestants vote someone out), but he’ll stun Eliza by guessing who it is anyway. “You hear them scratching on the notebook,” he explains – and he’ll notice the length of the sound, whether the strokes sound straight or rounded, and connect that to a name. So much for reality TV being mindless.

It must take a toll, being always ‘on’ like that.

“No, it’s a habit. Actually it takes a toll to control myself to be less talkative, less detailed. Because some people say to me, ‘You lose your point, Chris, you talk too much, you stretch the issue too much, make your letters shorter’.” His original plan on how to develop the film industry in Cyprus (written at the invitation of then-president Papadopoulos) took two years and came in at 20,000 pages. He’s always worked crazy hours: “I have records – like, three days with no sleep. I have 38 hours, I have 42 hours, I have 70 hours on the go… And then – this happened also in Filmnet in Greece – I had also the opposite: sleeping for three days with no food, just a bit of water, just to recover.”

Filmnet was part of the Netmed and Multichoice empire, his heady corporate days of the early 00s. Earlier, back in Cyprus, his great achievement was Lumiere – first as a photo studio, then a production company, then pay-TV pioneer LTV with its own studio complex (designed by Chris himself) and 66,000 subscribers. Earlier still, he studied Accounting in the UK with the idea of taking over his father’s business as a commission agent – but “foresaw very early that his job had no future”, and instead moved to bolder pursuits; “I foresaw that this was the future,” he says again later, speaking of the Betacam format that did indeed become a video-production standard in the 80s. Chris’ story is of always thinking ahead, thinking big – and invariably having to convince, or charm, or just work around, those who couldn’t see it. His motto might’ve been Paul Newman’s in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals”.

Sounds a bit presumptuous – and maybe it is, but so what? There’s no room for false modesty in this cluttered little studio. “I’m not professing to be an expert – but I’m a great lateral thinker, that I can say.” This, incidentally, is where it all began – this very room, where he set up as a commercial fashion advertising photographer (the first incarnation of Lumiere) in 1981. He’d always been creative, always loved photography and film (music too; he played violin, guitar and saxophone in bands and orchestras) – and he had big plans, but of course there was nothing here yet. “That was very hurtful, because I was alone. Very alone. No-one could understand,” he recalls – and his voice wavers briefly, on the brink of tears again.

Chris was an instant success – or not really instant, since the ad agencies were initially suspicious of this accountant who fancied himself a photographer, but it wasn’t long before he’d captured 60 per cent of the local market; “I had clients like Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Yves Saint Laurent…” In 1987 he was named among the top 40 Young European photographers under 30 – yet, in Cyprus itself, his youth was more of an obstacle than a selling point. “I had a vision,” he repeats, a vision of a local production company with its own studio; he’d drawn up a business plan, and even found partners – but the banks didn’t trust him, didn’t understand, refused to lend him money. Finally, after seven years of hassle, he managed to get a meeting with the general manager of the Bank of Cyprus, who listened to his pitch and had only one question: “Whose son are you?”. Chris’ dad was known to the bank – Chris had neglected to mention this, believing it to be irrelevant – and of course that changed everything: “Bring your father to sign a guarantee, and it’s okay”. It’s tough being an ambitious fish in a small pond.

His 30s and 40s were high-achieving years, the years of working those crazy hours – he recalls his eyes literally bleeding after 18 hours on a computer with unsuitable broadcast monitors, in the days before computers had their own monitors – and heading those profitable companies. The past two decades have been more of a mixed bag – starting with his health scare, then the failed bid to make a movie; he went back to Athens, “I got married, and I changed life”. Pushing 50 and financially secure, he jumped at the chance to prepare the study for the Cyprus film industry – and his 20,000 pages laid out “a holistic approach” which would create 2,000 jobs and “increase the GDP of Cyprus 2.2 per cent above pre-agreed Maastricht levels”; there would be film studios, a film school, a festival. It was probably his grandest vision yet. It didn’t happen.

Actually, it’s worse – because it almost happened. In 2013, after the betrayal of the haircut, he received “an instruction from the president” to come back to Cyprus and resurrect a new, pared-down version of the plan, now primarily a cash-rebate scheme to attract foreign filmmakers. He also returned, depressingly, to Lumiere, overseeing the death throes of the company he’d founded, now bankrupted by what he calls illegal competition (Cytavision, run by semi-governmental Cyta, had been allowed to work without a permit for years, using public money to poach subscribers) – another great disappointment. Then came Jiu Jitsu, the elephant in the room, not just wrong but “so embarrassing,” he sighs, as a Cypriot. Chris shakes his head: “Why? Why should it be so?”.

Maybe that’s the crux of looking back and growing older, for a thrusting ambitious type. You start off thinking ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ – What shall I accomplish? How shall I do it? – then, as time goes on and the texture of life warps and wears, the mind turns to ‘Why?’. His three minutes of death, back in the day, didn’t help much: “There is no tunnel. There is no light. There is nothing. There is no music, there is nobody waiting for you, there’s nothing”. Chris shrugs: “Maybe I wasn’t dead long enough to start seeing things”. What keeps him going is a strong belief in karma – that, if you “give out positive energy”, positive energy will come back to you – and, even more, a desire to help “the followers, the next generation”, based on the memory of how he himself lacked support, as a young man. His many grand visions – of a local production company, later on a studio, later on a holistic film industry – were meant as a kind of legacy “for others to follow… and not to feel so alone, as I was”.

In the end, there’s too much to talk about. The old house is bursting at the seams – and our conversation, too, can’t contain all his exploits and vicissitudes and bursts of emotion. (He could probably use a memoirist, rather than an interviewer.) Chris Economides appears to have worked twice as long, dreamed twice as hard, and done twice as much as most people – which of course is no surprise for a man who can write with both hands simultaneously, instead of just one. It’s the least of his talents.

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