Who is Ismail S. Tagi-Zade the mysterious Azerbaijani moneyman who caused such a stir at the recent AFM, and will he bring hard currency to Cannes?
The story begins in the chaos of the post-perestroika Soviet film industry, where there have been losers as well as winners. The old centralized distribution system is among the former.
In the old days (a few years ago), films were produced by the studios against money issued through the state film committee, Goskino. These pictures were handed over to a network of film distributors around the vast U.S.S.R. The distributors, in turn, dealt the films out to exhibitors, who showed their appreciation with substantial gifts.
When the system was reformed in the late ’80s, the rich and powerful distributors noticed they were in danger of becoming redundant. Major film producers like Mosfilm and Lenfilm studios and their affiliates, who produce 70% of all Soviet film product, started making deals directly with the exhibitors.
The distributors counterattacked. They collected a sum of hard currency which industry insiders believe was in the range of $4 million and earmarked it to buy U.S. films. The Soviet Union already is flooded with American pictures, but often in eyesightruining prints blown up from pirated videos. By buying highly desirable 35m prints, the distribs hope to get a new hold on the overly independent exhibitors.
New on the scene
Thus it came to pass that a hitherto unknown figure, Ismail S. Tagi-Zade, appeared on the scene at February’s AFM in Santa Monica as the elected president of a hitherto unknown company, Askin (National Film and Video Distributors Assn.)
He did not go unnoticed. Arriving by private plane with a 60-person entourage of Soviet distribs and several regional ministers of culture, Tagi-Zade threw a memorable bash at the Armand Hammer Museum, supplementing Westwood catering with 90 bottles of vodka and numerous pounds of caviar flown in from back home.
Sporting snazzy suits produced in co-op factories in the Muslim republic of Azerbaijan, the 39-year-old Tagi-Zade exuded the rough-and-tumble charm of a swaggering Jean-Paul Belmondo. He even brought his own bodyguards.
Tagi-Zade made it clear he had money to spend and was in the market for American pictures. Yet by market’s end, strangely, there were few reports of companies that had made sales to Askin (although Tagi- Zade later claimed Askin bought 158 foreign titles). The Soviets are believed to have made mostly a reconnaissance mission, and are saving their checkbooks for Cannes.
Though to all appearances Tagi-Zade is the latest Soviet paradox, a millionaire entrepreneur in a country without private business, he is believed by some insiders to be just a figurehead representing very powerful interests – i.e., the distributors.
By his own admission, he is a very controversial man in the U.S.S.R. “I am a capitalist and a communist,” he asserts, proud to add he joined Gorbachev’s Communist Party “when everybody else was leaving.”
But after leaping to the public eye with a famous byliner in a national magazine entitled, “Who Am I? An Opportunist, a Businessman, or a Boss,?” Tagi-Zade has been regularly and emphatically attacked by the national press and the Soviet Filmmakers Union for being anti-government and anti-Soviet.
“They accuse me of trying to Americanize the Soviet film market,” shrugs Tagi-Zade. “I’m just a businessman.”
It’s a family trait: before the sovietization of Azerbaijan, both his grandfathers earned millions in Baku’s textile industry.
Soviet producers are not keen on the Askin association, whose members, according to Tagi-Zade, include 300,000 of the country’s 350,000 theater employees. “Askin works with the country’s 4,800 film theaters, which belong to regional governments. They’re trying to prevent theaters from being in direct contact with producers,” explains one industry source who, like everyone else, asked not to be quoted on the subject of Tagi-Zade.
For Mosfilm, Lenfilm, Sovexport and other production groups, Askin has become an obstacle to be circumvented to get domestic product on screens where profits are made only foreign imports.
Askin’s distribs do not release Soviet films.
In addition to the giant distrib co-op, Tagi-Zade is president of a number of other companies/coops, or what passes as private business in the U.S.S.R.
Tiskino, a Moscow-based production association. Its first film is now wrapping in Moscow, a 5 million ruble version of “Ivan The Terrible.” Post-production and Dolby soundtrack are to be done in London. Planned to start this summer is a $4 million picture to be lensed entirely in New York, in English, by director Alia Surikova.
Right now, money seems to be no object for the Azerbaijani financier. In the last two years, the Tis group has bought four clothing factories and opened its own bank (Tiskino Bank) and insurance company (Tisgarant).
Where did the money come from? Simple, explains chairman Tagi-Zade. In 1987, when perestroika permitted the first co-operative ventures to open, he organized Moscow subway workers in a new business: selling flowers underground. In place of their 110 ruble government salaries, the co-op paid its vendors 500 rubles a month.
The flower business flourished.
Next, Tagi-Zade bought 40 Ara-4 bian horses of the akhal-tekin breed and began raising them in the Caucasus for Swiss and German fanciers.
This business, too, made good. The co-op bought a clothing plant in Baku with 1,700 employees, and followed it up with three more in the next 20 months.
Tagi-Zade says AFM was just a warm-up: He’s coming to Cannes with more hard currency (which can be legally purchased in the Soviet Union at a cut-throat exchange rate). And he’s bringing over a hundred distribs, who will be roaming the market in search of Yank product with local appeal. Don’t miss the party.