Country's biggest budget film opens strongly

Russia’s biggest-budget movie ever, the nearly $40 million sci-fi actioner “Obitaemyi ostrov” (Inhabited Island), opened with a bang, taking in more than $15 million locally in its first weekend.

Based on a 1968 Soviet novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film — directed by Fedor Bondarchuk — tells the story of a joy-riding young space traveler from Earth who crash lands onto a distant planet far in the future, where a vicious junta of five sadistic leaders keeps the population subjugated through fear and mind control.

Shot on location in the Crimea, Ukraine, with lavish attention to crowded city scenes, costumes, technology and weaponry reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner” and Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis,” “Inhabited Island” took 401 million rubles ($14 million) from 932 prints released in Russia Jan. 1-4, and around $1 million from 125 prints in Ukraine, producer Alexander Rodnyansky told Daily Variety.

“First weekend figures turned out pretty good,” said Rodnyansky, who acknowledged that the size of the budget (nearly twice that of last year’s historic costume drama “Admiral”) and nature of the material (a futuristic world of terror and totalitarianism) make “Inhabited Island” a risky project.

But opening weekend receipts made him confident in the future of a film that lacks many of the “comfortable and popular” aspects of recent big Russian hits such as last year’s nostalgia-heavy “Irony of Fate — Continuation.” That film, a sequel to a hugely popular Soviet movie that still frequently airs on Russian TV, particular on New Year’s Eve, was the biggest-ever box office hit in the territory, taking in nearly $50 million after its release Dec. 31, 2007.

“Audience reaction to ‘Inhabited Island’ has been very polarized,” said Rodnyansky. “Around two-thirds love it, the rest hate it, but no one is indifferent. Everyone is talking about it — it has been the top topic of the Russian Internet the past week, more popular than any other subject, including the ‘gas war.’ “

Viral marketing was strong, Rodnyansky added, with evidence that the polarized audience reaction was fueling boxoffice.

The fact that the film is based on a sci-fi novel that many viewers have read — audience research shows 25% of viewers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev are familiar with the book — and that the one living Strugatsky brother, Boris, has gone public with his view that it is the best film adaptation of any of their novels, suggests that “Inhabited Island” has a healthy future, Rodnyansky said.

“We foresee a five or six week cinema run and strong DVD potential after that; we have already sold it to Rossiya, the second-biggest national television broadcaster,” he said.

He declined to say how much Rossiya had paid, but said the channel admitted it was “the biggest figure paid by a Russian TV channel for a Russian movie.”

A second part of the film is due to be released in October with talent agency William Morris engaged to explore its worldwide potential.

“William Morris will be meeting with Hollywood studios to discuss its international prospects, but given the strength of its opening it looks like ‘Inhabited Island’ is set to cover costs domestically anyway,” Rodnyansky said.

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