Hot Russian biz conquers box office

'Genghis Khan' reflects confidence in local films

MOSCOW — Genghis Khan has a new lease on life as a national role model in Russia, where the film industry is in a conquering mood and its long-running boom continues, like the infamous Mongol warrior, to scale new heights.

“Chingiz Khaan,” a $10 million Siberian-financed epic currently in production in Russia’s remote semiautonomous eastern region of Yakutia, is the latest signal that confidence remains high in a country that has experienced little or no sign yet of the credit crunch sweeping America and other parts of the Western world.

“Chingiz Khaan” (English title: “By the Will of Genghis Khan”) — a Russian, Mongolian and American (Brown Wolf Prods.) co-production made with the backing of regional and federal funds and diamond industry sponsorship — is typical of the times.

Like Sergei Bodrov Sr.’s Oscar-nominated “Mongol,” this 140-minute film — which gets an exclusive promo showreel screening courtesy of Russian movie agent and promoter Raisa Fomina at Cannes May 21-22 — recasts Khan as a hero rather than the horror he is known as to Western history.

“Not long ago, Genghis Khan evoked only unpleasant memories; he was thought of as a tyrant,” producer Vladimir Ivanov says. “The film will strike a wide audience with its honesty about complex historical facts.”

With a budget four or five times higher than average Russian films — and a subject virtually identical to that of Bodrov’s film — “By the Will of Genghis Khan” reflects the confidence in local product.

Distributor Caro Premier has Russian rights and plans a wide domestic release for the film this fall.

But to make any money, the film must sell overseas — hence the key Cannes promotion.

“The producers have not yet found a world sales agent, but my role is to introduce it to international players at Cannes,” says Fomina, founder of Moscow’s Intercinema and a well-known figure at international markets and festivals.

Current enthusiasm for local fare saw Russian films take 26% of last year’s record-breaking $565 million national box office.

Alexander Rodnyansky, head of Russia’s top commercial TV network CTC and who is also a producer (“The Sun,” “9th Company”), is bullish about the strength of the boom.

“We see no direct and immediate impact on the Russian economy of the credit crunch crisis because Russia is driven by oil and gas, which drives other industries. The economy is in good shape; the government is socially oriented and taking care of inflation. We do not have any financial problems right now,” says Rodnyansky, who predicts box office growth of some 30% to around $700 million this year.

Critics might legitimately say Rodnyansky should be making bullish noises — “Inhabited Island,” his megabudget (for Russia) $40 million sci-fi epic will rely on making significant returns internationally despite a $16 million upfront payment from local distrib Caro Premier.

Standing on the shoulders of Russia’s recent string of phenomenally successful fantasy and family films (“Night Watch,” “Day Watch,” “The Irony of Fate: Continuation”), “Inhabited Island” — likely to be released in December on 1,000-plus prints — is designed as a mega-event.

But Rodnyansky is a realist who knows that even in a market that is flooded with some 200 domestic productions a year (most of which go straight to DVD), only a handful of top-quality local movies make big money.

“Russian share of the market is growing, but still only five or six titles will take the lion’s share of local box office this year,” he observes “The industry looks very sexy, and investors are keen to be part of it, but most producers are not professionals.”

Cost inflation for crews and services as well as other indicators of unchecked industry growth, such as debut directors handling films with budgets of $5 million or more without proving themselves on low-budget pics first, are likely to force a shakeout, although Rodnyansky thinks the Russian film industry’s own “subprime” crisis is still at least 18 months away.

Of greater current concern is the lack of available screens to cope with the rush of films.

“There is a flood of Hollywood blockbusters and sequels that will be out of the gate soon and only some 1,400 modern screens across the country. We need at least twice that number to cope with demand,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Armen Dishdishian, executive VP of international for Moscow’s independent production and distribution shingle Central Partnership, who thinks that without the development of a secondary string of screens, domestic films will soon risk being strangled in their opening weekends.

“Although the number of screens is still growing, most are in big-city multiplexes, and when they open they tend to squeeze out smaller local indie screens,” Dishdishian says.

In a market where theatrical releases typically earn around half of a film’s total return, extending runs and attracting older audiences are key business targets.

To tap into older auds, Dishdishian’s company recently launched the CP Classics label, which will release Russian and international independent fare that has niche appeal beyond the 14-25 age group that makes up the core of multiplex audiences.

“Our plan is to build this niche market share through specific screens and theaters with what we call ‘smart’ films,” Dishdishian says, adding that exhibition network Cinema Park was the first to sign up as a partner for the new venture.

Creating a brand that appeals to older — and more affluent — audiences is a formula that offers room for cross-promotional deals with luxury brands and can be a profitable additional business for underused smaller screens in multiplexes or existing local independents, Dishdishian says.

It is not only local industry movers and shakers who see niche potential in Russia.

With the financial credit crunch circling Hollywood producers, the canny are already moving into the Russian market: Last year, Disney said it would begin making local-language films for Russian release, and Rodnyansky is in production on two projects with Sony: a teen musical and the romantic comedy “The Governess,” which stars Nastya Zavorotnyuk, known to Russian audiences for her role in the CTC’s local adaptation of “The Nanny.”

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