Biz plots o'seas invasion

Hollywood studios are finally focusing on Russia: The hottest theatrical market in Europe is growing at a 30% annual clip.

Both Sony and Fox have plans to play a more active role in the country and surrounding territories, with the former already in startup mode.

Sony Pictures Entertainment is partnering with Patton Media — in which Viacom’s Shari Redstone is involved — to operate a joint venture called Monumental Pictures. Idea here is to concentrate on film production in the Russian language, aimed at the mother country, the former satellite territories of the USSR and even Mongolia.

Patton brings together prominent players already involved in the Russian exhibition and distribution scene, including Paul Heth, head of National Amusements’ local exhib offshoot Rising Star Media, and Michael Schlicht, prexy of local distrib Gemini.

Sony’s involvement will be run through its subsid Columbia Pictures.

“I believe that we can bring a dynamically developing industry to an absolutely new level in coming months and years. There’s a huge opportunity for growth, and we’re ready to follow the increasing demands for quality film product in Russia and the CIS,” said SPE chief exec Michael Lynton.

Redstone, who is prexy of Viacom’s National Amusements and chair of Rising Star Media, sees the venture as a logical extension of her work in Russia over the past five years with Heth.

Through RSM, Redstone and Heth have pioneered luxury multiplex theaters under the Kinostar brand. Today, Kinostar is arguably the country’s leading exhibitor, with plans for continuing expansion at key sites in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Heth said Monumental has substantial funding commitments to make a number of films over several years, working with established Russian commercial filmmakers. “After our years of involvement in Russia, both Michael Schlicht and I are excited to get involved with Russian filmmakers who are at the cutting edge of the business,” he added.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox will be the next major to enter direct distribution in Russia, per reports Thursday in local business daily Kommersant. According to that paper, Fox will open its own office in Moscow in April, working with its current local partner, which happens to be Gemini.

Reps for Fox’s international theatrical division in Los Angeles said it would be premature to comment on developments in the Russian market.

Kommersant said that Gemini’s Schlicht would head Fox’s local representation.

Local industry sources have long expected further moves by the Hollywood contingent to set up direct representation in the rapidly growing market, both on the movie and the TV fronts. First to take that step was the Paramount-Universal joint distrib UIP, which has been operating its own local outfit for two years.

On the TV side, all the U.S. majors are actively looking at format possibilities in Russia and in some cases the option of opening up an office. Prices paid to Hollywood suppliers for TV rights to movies and series in that territory have more than doubled in the last three years.

Fox and Gemini may initially share Fox theatrical product in European and Asian areas of Russia. As well as offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Gemini is repped in Novosibirsk, covering Siberia, the Russian Far East and Central Asian submarkets, as well as Kiev in the Ukraine.

Gemini was the top Russian distributor in 2005, with rentals of $77 million, according to local trade publication Russian Film Business Today.

Almost one-third of that figure came from distribution of Fox titles, the remainder from stellar results for local product, including the recent Afghan war drama “Ninth Company” and spy costumer “Turkish Gambit.”

Whatever future relationship may develop with Fox, Gemini leads the field among local players in pumping local Russian fare.

Among its other successes are Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch,” which was 2004’s top box office earner, and its follow-up, “Day Watch,” which is currently wowing the wickets.

Heth and Schlicht were the two people who brokered the sale of “Night Watch” to Fox Searchlight last year — a fact that may have led to further discussions with Fox chieftains about a more ambitious relationship.

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