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THE RUSSIAN INVASION

Former Soviets swarm on AFM for vid titles

It’s all but official: The 1997 American Film Market has been named the year of the Russian.

After seeing the South Korean buyers consolidate and last year’s Brazil boom collapse, the hottest camp in the corridors of Loews Santa Monica has been the nearly 50 moneyed and zealous buyers from the former Soviet Union, repping more than 20 companies.

“This seems to be the second invasion,” joked Lloyd Simandl, who fled his native Czechoslovakia in 1968 and now tops Vancouver-based production company North American Group. “For years, I refused to sell (to the Russian market, which includes the former Soviet Republics). The money wasn’t good, but now it’s starting to make a significant difference.”

New law

The reason is a new anti-piracy law signed Jan. 1 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, making video bootlegging a crime punishable by two years in prison. Exhibitors said that, unlike China, Russia has begun serious enforcement of the law, confiscating videos and closing stores peddling fakes.

Russian theatrical business is practically nil and without video rental availability, the sell-through market, in which consumers typically pay $3 to $5 for a film, thrives, but many of the pics are dated.

At AFM, the deals are almost exclusively buys for video sell-through. For pics budgeted in the $2 million to $4 million range, many Russian buyers are ready to sign checks for more than $20,000 — double or triple what they were offering last year at the Cannes market.

Smaller sales companies are gleefully talking of selling packages, the prices of which have hit six figures, to first-time Russian clients.

Showcase deal

In one such deal, Woodland Hills-based Showcase Entertainment struck an all-rights deal with the Russian company MGN/Paradise for Showcase’s entire 39-film catalog. According to Showcase prexy David Jackson, the deal could bring up to $500,000 to the company’s coffers.

Larger companies such as Largo Entertainment and Miramax, however, are sticking with one or two usual clients and execs say they see no change in business.

“It’s kind of difficult for the younger companies,” said Vartan Dokhalov, head of Moscow-based West Video, one of the more well-established Russian players, which closed on 60 titles at this year’s AFM.

Togetherness

“They are trying to Westernize their theatrical industry, but they are still selling ‘The Godfather,’ ” said Marina Cordini, VP, international, of Toronto-based Norstar, which expects to close at least one Russian deal at AFM.

Sellers say the Russians are going to great lengths to be professional.

“There are tons of (Russian market) buyers, but they are trying to be as polite as possible,” said Talaat Captan, who heads Green Communications in Burbank. “The market has become very mature.”

Los Angeles-based Promark Entertainment VP David Carson added that the Russians “seem eager to play by the rules and give the impression they want to be accepted.”

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