Thanks to legislation enacted in 1987, aspiring movie moguls are setting up shop across the USSR. Unhindered by the apparatus of the staterun industry, they are making significant advances in the way production, distribution and exhibition operate.
Minsk businessman Valeri Krechetov is typical of the new indies. Young, dynamic and with a strikingly Western attitude, the former computer engineer founded the Byelorussian Independent Studio NS in 1989 after looking around for a private business venture. He fell into the film business “by accident,” after being approached by a group of directors. With a bankroll of 20,000 rubles, which Krechetov says was then the equivalent of $100,000, he opened shop.
With a staff of five, the studio operates computerized offices in the new Cinematographers Union Building in the heart of Minsk. Studio’s main source of revenue is the distribution of eight features in the Byelorussian republic. It licenses the pics to distribs elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The biggest moneymakers are four Yank titles bought from U.S. sources – for rubles.
When asked why Yanks would hand over product for non-convertible coin, Krechetov’s foreign relations manager Valentin Rybakov shrugs. “Because of video pirates, the film will get here one way or another. They may as well get something for it.”
Distrib chief Nikolai Chuprynikov says that despite those kinds of snags, he operates so much more efficiently than the state distribbery that the company needs only one-third as many prints for a release. Deals are made with exhibs directly, be they state hardtops or emerging independents. BIS plans to build its own hardtop soon in Minsk.
Pics are acquired with the help of L.A.-based joint venture partner Michael Belenky, a Minsk native. During the April 21 to 28 film market, Krechetov was less interested in market screenings than in viewing 20 Cannon vids Belenky had flown in from the States.
Krechetov also is making inroads in production. His two docus already have been sold to companies in France and Germany. A series of docus on artists hailing from Byelorussia is in the works. A feature is also planned, skedded to be directed by the studio’s artistic director Mikhail Ptashuk, who decamped from the staterun studio to join BIS.
Ptashuk, whose films have picked up awards at international fests and who holds the USSR’s highest artistic honor, says he got fed up with the state system, although he had total artistic freedom. But going indie has its drawbacks.
His new pic already has gotten financing from a private bank and would be ready to roll except for one hitch: Film stock is next to impossible to come by these days, even on the black market. The situation is so desperate that Ptashuk and other Soviet helmers say they would gladly sell Western rights to their films for the stock to shoot with.
Finding Western co-prod partners is the goal of BIS and all of the other Soviet indies. Their dream is to convince producers to invest in local production.
Krechetov says a 2 million ruble investment is equal to $15 million for a Western producer working with Russian independents. The difference, he says, between working with him and a staterun operation is that the state pockets up to 87% of the coin invested by foreigners for co-prods working with the state studios.
The advantage of working with indies, he says, is that they can motivate a crew by paying them up to three times scale and access any studio source in the USSR without having to go through government channels.
In fact, the indies may keep the state studios running in Russia in the future. Eight percent of the business at the Byeloruss State Studio, one of the USSR’s biggest, comes from independent productions. The important element for avoiding conflicts and shortages when lensing here are detailed contracts, Krechetov stresses. Horror stories of productions being suspended for days on end or halted entirely for want of something like nails are common, but avoidable if partners agree in advance who supplies what.
Krechetov’s foreign revenues currently account for 15% of his biz and, while he would like more participation from the West says that he can go it along. The obstacles and shortages faced by the indies are immense, but he says that waiting for changes in his country is pointless. “We are the mechanism responsible for making the changes. We are the first generation here with a desire to work. The Soviet system has collapsed. We will work out situations as they arise, and stay away from the state.”