MOSCOW — Russia’s film industry may have had little presence on the international front to date, but Michael Dounaev is well on the way to changing that.
The 38-year-old producer, who since February has been heading up local outfit Sistema Mass Media, a subsid of a major Russian industrial and telecom group, comes with impeccable credentials: education in Japan and work with NHK, a Swiss business degree and experience with Bertelsmann.
Film credits come from his Luxemburg-based Thema Prods., set up in 2003 along with European producer Jimmy de Brabant, which has so far co-produced 12 pics, including Woody Allen’s “Match Point” and Oscar Wilde adaptation “A Good Woman.”
With 75% of Thema now owned by Sistema, he’s bringing his Euro experience back into the Russian industry.
First major local production came last year with Olivier Bonas’ “Payback,” the first Russian pic to succeed in tapping into European Union film funds, which brought an 18% rebate from the Russian state.
Last month saw shooting completed on Thema’s more ambitious follow-up, “In Transit,” a 1946 post-WWII drama on the fate of German prisoners who end up in a Russian camp guarded by women whose own lives have been affected by the recent conflict.
The E6 million ($7.6 million) pic, made in English, nabbed some major stars, including John Malkovich (as a Soviet security service colonel) and Germany’s Thomas Kretschmann and Daniel Bruehl.
For the future Thema envisages an annual investment of E20 million ($25 million), split between a likely seven to nine international co-prods— funded to around 30% of budget — and two to three Russian pics.
First Russian-language project likely will be “Lilacs,” about a major cultural figure, rumored to be composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s a script about Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on the table, too, as well as international scripts — a U.K. teen comedy and an apartheid drama.
Dounaev is honest about the limitations of the current Russian production scene, for all its recent box office success. “In a way, there’s too much money here at the moment, so less homework. But we’re in no hurry, and we’ll make Russian films when they’re ready. The biggest problem is with the scripts,” he said — and one way to correct that flaw is to bring in Euro scenarists to fine-tune potential projects, as Thema has been doing.
Catching local directors who are ready to move toward a producer-driven industry isn’t easy, either — although Dounaev has his eye on Dmitry Meskhiev (“Our Own”) and Alexander Rogozhkin (“The Cuckoo”).
Thema is aiming more toward commercial rather than arthouse projects, and is on the lookout for projects with foreign remake potential.
Pics are planned in the $3 million-$5 million range, Dounaev told Variety. “Webelieve that we have to establish ourselves on the basis of high quality — not small budgets or undeveloped scripts.”
For now, Dounaev’s main problem looks like time. His duties at Sistema include overseeing its other media holdings — likely hiving off some press assets, and growing its cable TV stakes, currently at around 30% of national market and expanding at a healthy rate. Six dedicated channels are aimed at special-interest auds.
And then there’s Sistema’s new studio in St. Petersburg, slated for a late-fall opening, and certainly somewhat directed toward international co-productions. But that doesn’t look like the only reason future foreign partners will be in touch with Dounaev.