Scouting former U.S.S.R.

If Raymond Burr gets his way, Perry Mason could soon be cracking cases around Gorky Park, not Park La Brea. And he won’t be alone.

The former Soviet Union may be in social and political turmoil, but the land known for its killer winters has become the hottest location shoot since Hollywood discovered the streets of San Francisco.

Producers and directors are braving Russia’s bad hotels, food shortages and currency chaos at least partly in order to take advantage of low production costs. But a slew of Western projects lensing there are not just being shot in Russia — they are about Russia, suggesting that Western fascination with the new democracy and its hidden stories (especially crime tales) is really driving the boom.

“Anyone who isn’t excited by what’s going on in Russia at the moment must be brain dead,” says director Ken Russell, who recently directed a segment on Russian arts for a docu series called “Momentous Events: Russia in the ’90 s.””It’s the most exciting place in the world at the moment.”

German helmer Werner Herzog, who also worked on the series, says he was so stimulated by what he found during the project that he wanted to shoot his next feature film and another docu there.

The docu series was launched by Worldvision at last week’s MIP-TV market here on the French Riviera, which seemed more like Moscow on the Med as Russian soldiers came ashore from the cruiser Khasan anchored in the bay.

The ship was there courtesy of Central Television Enterprises, Maryland Public Television and the East-West Creative Assn. to hype yet another six-part docu, “Seapower: A Global Journey,” which includes an episode shot on a Russian nuclear submarine.

Everyone has his price

The Russian naval presence illustrated one reason why Russia is suddenly so popular with international program-makers: Amid the chaos and poverty of the former Soviet Union, everything can be bought, at the right price — including the army, for mass battle scenes, and confidential police files, for producers seeking sexy crime stories.

Lizbeth Hasse, an Americanlawyer who works with a number of Russian companies , observed, “Everything is for sale: People are selling the archives, there are lots of soldiers who will sell you their belt on the street. The saying is, ‘There’s nothing in Moscow, but you can buy anything.’ ”

U.S. TV star Burr arrived in Cannes enthused from a visit to the former Soviet Union, saying he was trying to persuade Viacom and NBC to let him shoot a Russian story in Russia for his next “Perry Mason” series.

The BBC and indie producer Mark Forstater unveiled a new three-part detective drama to be shot in modern St. Petersburg, titled “Grushko.” The show, which is intended to become a long-running series, is a co-production with Germany’s Telepool and is based on real stories from the St. Petersburg Investigating Bureau, a specialist unit fighting organized crime. It will be shot with the full support of the city’s state police.

New stories

Forstater observed that Russia contains a huge pool of stories that were long hidden from the West, but had now become accessible.

One hot topic is the story of Ukrainian mass murderer Andrei Chikatilo, which has received much press in the West. Central TV and L.A.-based Sur La Plage is producing “Citizen Ch,” a telefilm about the investigator who cracked the case. United British Artists also is developing a feature about the killer. Both would shoot in the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Showtime, Central TV and Telemunchen are planning a telepic about Rasputin, also to shoot in the former Soviet Union.

Richard Creasey, chairman of London-based East-West Creative Assn., suggested that the former Soviet Union, by virtue of its sheer size, offers as rich and compelling a theme to filmmakers as America has done throughout this century.

“Russia is so big; by definition that makes it more interesting, because there is massive variety there,” he said. “People will continue to go back there for the same reason they continue to go back to the U.S. I’m convinced Russia won’t be quickly exhausted as a subject.”

The East-West Creative Assn., a joint venture between Britain’s Central TV and three Russian media companies, is the leading facilitator of Western production in the former Soviet Union and was responsible for bringing the Khasan to Cannes. It is also the theatrical distributor of movies from Paramount , Universal and MGM in Russia.

Its latest epic project, unveiled at Cannes, is “The Big Race,” a Central production for Meridien Broadcasting, also involving Independent Television News and Royal Geographical Society Films. It will cover two celebrity teams racing between London and New York, overland across Russia and Canada.

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