Heavyweights hit Moscow meeting

MOSCOW — Russia’s film industry is going through changing times and one of the key topics it’s debating is the level of involvement with international partners.

That brought up all sorts of issues at Friday’s Film Finance Forum, a talking-shop presented by Winston Baker in association with Variety, the first major industry gathering at the Moscow Film Festival, which started in the Russian capital on Thursday.

It brought as heavy-hitting a group of foreign film folk into Moscow as has been seen in many a year.

Clear results weren’t obvious and both sides debated working practices — with Russian players admitting that the structure of local production still remains considerably different from European and U.S. models.

Chris Curling of the U.K.’s Zephyr Films, called the forum “a small step,” adding that more co-production deals are inevitable. Zephyr co-produced last year’s Leo Tolstoy biopic “The Last Station,” starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, with, among others, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Moscow-based Production Center. Curling said he was more than happy with the way that the co-operation had worked.

At the very least, Russia is now a real presence on the international scene because of its growing box office revenue.

“Russia was an after-thought five or six years ago — now it’s become a major market,” said producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, prexy of Di Bonaventura Pictures.

The third pic in his “Transformers” franchise, “Transformer: Dark of the Moon” opened the Moscow fest on Thursday.

General opinion among both international and domestic guests was that Russia is still making up its film strategies, and that integration with the rest of the world is a going to be a long, tough process — though its recent accession to Eurimages, the Council of Europe fund for the co-production, distribution, exhibition and digitisation of European film can only help.

Equity financing from Russia state banks to projects from brothers Konchalovsky (tooner “The Nutcracker”) and Nikita Mikhalkov (two “Burnt by the Sun” sequels), were held up as flops in which the bankers lost at least 90% of their multi-million dollar backing.

Some recent developments look hopeful, though.

On June 22, at the St. Petersburg Intl. Economic Forum, a pioneering completion bond agreement for Russia was signed between European Films Bonds, Russia’s Sistema Mass-media and the country’s Federal Fund for Social and Economic Support for Cinema. The initiative aims to formally launch towards the end of 2011.

The Russian fund’s director Sergei Tolstikov has spoken of an annual $8 million state funding budget to facilitate international work.

“Building a fully fledged film production infrastructure that will create the circumstances for an increase in many significant productions, including international ones, is something the state will play a big part in,” he said.

However, as often happens in Russia, the devil will likely be in the details, and there was a healthy amount of scepticism among forum participants — and not only from foreign visitors.

Nikita Trynkin, CEO of Timur Bekmambetov’s Bazelevs Holding, which has brought most of Russia’s blockbusters to local screens over the past eight years, said that the industry was not mature enough and that a crisis of ideas was as evident as a crisis of financing.

Vanity funding, which was very evident before the financial crisis, has dried up, and local oligarchs are more directed towards international opportunities.

For Trynkin, though, there’s hope of a new birth for the industry, partly stimulated by state money and partly privately financed.

He should know: Bazelevs recently completed a deal with Russian investment bank Troika Dialogue on funding for around 10-15 films a year.

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