Country demands that films have Ukrainian dub

MOSCOW — With a population of almost 50 million, Ukraine has long looked like the next rapidly developing film distribution market in Central Europe, set to follow the dramatic leaps that Russia has shown in the past five years.

But despite an improving economic environment, there’s a big problem in the works — local legislation that has restricted distribution of international product if it comes with a Russian-language dub, even if it has Ukrainian-language subtitles. Major studios still largely treat territory as if it is controlled by Moscow.

First casualty was local release of “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” which was due to go out on a 50-print subtitled release earlier this month, but did not receive a distribution license. The same fate hit release plans for “I Am Legend.”

These linguistic complications are angering local exhibs. Ukraine is an effectively bilingual country with Russian-language speakers concentrated in the most prosperous Eastern regions, and in Crimea in the south, while Ukrainian speakers are largely in the poorer western regions. Capital Kiev is perceived as a largely bilingual city, with a slight preference for Russian.

Legislation stated that beginning 2008 all prints in territory must be in Ukrainian, but doesn’t clarify why recent decisions from licenser the Ministry of Culture reject subtitled versions over a Russian-language dub. Apparently only subtitles dubbed over an original-language original will be accepted — which means extra internegative costs for international players, though apparently licenses for major Russian-language product will be passed.

Heading up opposition to new legal measures, originated in early 2006 but only now coming into force, is Anton Pugach, director of major exhibber Multiplex Holding.

Pugach is aiming to collect 100,000 signatures against the measures to present to Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. If that doesn’t bring results, he’s calling on fellow exhibitors to close down theaters for an indefinite period starting Feb. 27.

Pugach told Variety that players are against the move for three reasons. One, it’s against the country’s constitution, and goes against local court decisions of the past year. Second, it’s against commercial logic, given that main B.O. in territory comes from the country’s Eastern regions, where in centers like Donetsk protesters have been coming out on the streets in recent days. Effectively it’s an ultimatum to force the studios to reconsider their regional partners, he says. And that will only drive potential viewers toward the Russian-language pirate DVD market.

Most importantly, however, the facilities for local dubbing just aren’t in place, meaning that only major studio titles will be released, likely dubbed in Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where Ukrainian language talent is distinctly lacking.

“We just don’t have the resources, human or financial, to do the job properly,” Pugach says. That means that an annual release of around 200 films last year could likely drop to around only 30. Prime casualties will be mid-range studio product, as well as international indies, particularly from Europe. Concessions for arthouse fare may be on the Culture Ministry’s books, but no details are yet forthcoming.

“What would be my preferred method of resolving this conflict? Through the courts, the president, the prime minister, or that the Culture Minister revised the legislation — that’s obvious,” Pugach says.

Ukrainian culture minister Vasyl Vovkun says the language law was designed to support the home distribution market.

“The move to Ukrainian language films is part of a government project to develop a home-grown Ukrainian distribution industry,” Vovkun says.

Pugach argues that Ukraine’s best-known director, veteran auteur Kira Muratova, has for decades made her pics in the southern city of Odessa, always in the Russian language, and frequently as co-productions with Russia.

“How do we treat our prime director — by country, by the language she shoots in, or by what?” he says.

If the majority of territory’s screens indeed go dark this week, that’s a question that may look all too irrelevant.

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