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Russia on the rise

A string of hits opens doors to local producers after a decade of delcine

MOSCOW — There’s a palpable sense that a decade of decline, or struggling to stay afloat, is over. More than 10 years after the end of perestroika, the predicted “new wave” of talent may finally be emerging.

The optimism can be traced to two landmark happenings: Andrei Zvaginstev’s “The Return” nabbing the Venice fest’s Golden Lion in 2003, and Timur Bekhmambetov’s “Night Watch” earning boffo B.O. last summer.

The dramatic recent growth in the local exhibition arena has made a big impact. Works actually can be seen by a wider public, and, at the same time, that public’s spending power has increased to make a night out a reality again after the lean 1990s.

Another factor is that Russia is eager to support local players. Cultural sensitivities run as strong as in France (giving rise to calls for quotas). It’s no accident that “Night Watch” was saluted as Russia’s answer to Hollywood.

The $2 million “Night Watch” box office opening was unprecedented — probably even for producers Konstantin Ernst and Anatoly Maximov at Russian web Channel One. Pic cumed north of $16 million on theatrical alone, topping “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” That excludes ancillary and a lucrative Fox acquisition-remake deal. Any producer in the world would be opening the champagne.

With two more “Watches” in the pipeline — including a big-budget, English-language collab with Fox — that franchise has legs.

Indie growth

The entry of TV stations into serious production has been an undeniably positive trend. Channel One has a slate of five pics for next year. Youth-oriented CTC partly backed the comedy “Don’t Even Think: Independence Play” this year, and will continue to support local pics, according to topper Alexander Rodnyansky.

Pubcaster Rossia, where vet helmer Valery Todorovsky heads production, invested in his “My Step-Brother Frankenstein,” but so far has concentrated more on TV adaptations, including Vladimir Bortko’s version of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.”

More important is the growth of independent production companies.

Sergei Selyanov’s dominant CTB continues to be strong; it now runs distrib Nashe Kino, which pairs Selyanov with another strong producer, Igor Tolstunov. Selyanov is working with Sergei Chilyants on a sequel to Chiltyant’s “Boomer,” the top Russian grosser of 2003. He is also teaming with Sergei Bodrov (“Prisoner of the Mountains”) on at least two pics: Bodrov’s own “Mongol,” with a $12 million budget and Central Asian shoot prepped for next year, and drama “Last Train From Roppongi,” a co-prod with Japan. Big slate

Over at Central Partnership (CP), previously a TV producer and arthouse distrib, director Ruben Dishdishyan has ambitious plans: a slate of four pics, with a combined budget of $15 million, targeted at the 2005 Cannes market, and 12 pics the year after.

A major change, he says, has been the reality of receiving bank credits — from solid local financial institutions — evident over the last year.

Topping CP’s list is Nikolai Lebedev’s “Wolfhound,” an $8 million to $10 million “Slavic fantasy” actioner, exploiting the largest sets that studio Mosfilm has seen in 25 years: Dishdishyan is confident it will repeat the B.O. success of “Night Watch.”

Then there’s Alexei Sidorov’s “Shadow Box,” a love story-actioner, and “Flight” by Egor Konchalovsky (whose two “Anti-Killer” pics were hits).

On the arthouse front, Bakhtiar Khudonazarov is prepping “Tanker Tango”; CP was a co-producer of helmer’s last pic, “The Suit.”

There’s similar variety with producer Elena Yatsura, working in and around Mosfilm affiliate Slovo. She’s prepping Dmitri Meskhiyev’s “Our Own” and Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Ninth Regiment,” a $4 million-plus Afghan war story that just completed shooting in Crimea.

Yatsura has also started her own distrib outfit Kinobureau No. 1, which also handles international sales of Russian pics.

At Sergei Gribkov’s shingle Top Line, there’s a more obvious commercial bent, following the success of the slick “Don’t Even Think” and its sequel. Slate may be dominated by thrillers and actioners, but with “Count Down,” a $7 million pic co-starring Louise Lombard (“Hidalgo”), the international angle is strong. Pic concerns terrorism and is being shot in the Caucasus, Moscow, Italy and Tunis.

But despite the gains, state funding systems remain flawed: Veteran Soviet directors still use their past reputations to get money for projects that have neither commercial potential or quality — leading one forthright critic to call for their “honorable retirements.” Funding head Alexander Golutva is introducing an anonymous submission clause to remedy the problem.

But the main thing, for CP’s Dishdishyan, is the change of generations.

“The older generation remains, and some like Alexander Proshkin (currently shooting a “Doctor Zhivago” adaptation for CP) are working strongly. But now there’s a 35- to-40-year-old generation, often coming out of ad and musicvid worlds, that feels the rhythms of contemporary life. And I also see a 28- to 30-year-old generation, out of film school.”

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