Berlin Daily Spotlight: Russian Cinema

Back in the USSR, the film industry’s chief export was propaganda — a rousing celebration of the achievements of the first socialist state. Nowadays, the Russian industry’s chief export seems to be money. And, where once the Soviet frontier was firmly closed to all but a handful of Western films, now the crossborder traffic is mainly incoming.

Russia is edging into the first division of film markets. It is a vast country boasting 11 cities with more than a million inhabitants; and its movie theaters are being modernized, digitized and made ready for the next dimension. At last count, there were around 1,000 3D screens.

But the traffic isn’t always two-way: Russian films often are a hard sell, even for the majors, as Fox learned in 2006 when it tested the water with helmer Timur Bekmambetov’s “Day Watch.” The effects-laden sci-fi sequel, which had notched up nearly $32 million in the CIS (a lot, given ticket prices at the time) struggled to reach $500,000 in the U.S.

So Hollywood did what it does best with foreign filmmakers who have had some success back home: it brought Bekmambetov Stateside. He is now in post-production on “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” produced by Tim Burton and partly funded by Bekmambetov’s Russian company, Bazelevs.

All of which points to an obvious conclusion: once isolated, Russia is now an integral part of the international film business.

This year’s Berlinale will celebrate Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein with a special screening of his revolutionary masterpiece “October.” Another sidebar fetes the extraordinary career of a German-Soviet studio, known as the Red Dream Factory, funded by communist media entrepreneur Willi Muenzenberg, which lasted from 1922 to 1936.

Media entrepreneurs are still involved in the Russian film business but their aims are rather different now. The main backer of Billy Bob Thornton’s Berlinale competition entry “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is Russian billionaire Alexander Rodnyansky’s AR Films, giving the country a foothold in the main lineup.

Rodnyansky himself is emblematic of the new Russian film business: he also controls A-Company, which dominates the film-licensing business in Central and Eastern Europe; runs leading Russian shingle Non-Stop Prods.; owns distributor Cinema Without Frontiers and runs the Kinotavr Film Festival. Clearly, he needs no lessons in how to be a movie mogul.

Meanwhile, the Russian domestic market is looking strong as well. With the box office total edging past $1 billion for the first time last year, foreign producers and sales agents are vying for a slice of a pie that’s bigger than the B.O. in most European countries including Spain and Italy.

But arthouse titles still struggle for screen space, while Hollywood tentpoles rule the charts. Only one of last year’s top 10 films was Russian.

As in Hollywood, Russian producers are playing it safe, going for comedies, thrillers and other crowd-pleasers. No one wants to repeat the experience of sci-fi epic “The Inhabited Island,” which, in 2007, created a financial feeding frenzy reminiscent of the dotcom boom. Investors poured money into what was to be the biggest Russian film ever. Except it wasn’t.

Costing a reported $40 million and finally released in two parts in 2008-09, it grossed just $28 million, with the first part accounting for three-quarters of the total. Shirts were lost and lessons learned.

The European Film Market at the Berlinale is screening 10 Russian titles, with sales agent-cum-distributor Intercinema handling half of them. Bazelevs has two, while newcomer Organic Films is fielding one. Bidding for the big bucks, meanwhile, is Central Partnership, the Russian movie powerhouse that releases Paramount titles in the CIS, boasts an annual market share of around 15% and is active in production and distribution.

Central Partnership’s big EFM title is “Shadowboxing 3D: Final Round,” the best performer of the trilogy on the home market, grossing $13.2 million in its November release. It concerns a retired kick boxer forced back into the ring for one last fight.

“The trilogy was a phenomenon in Russia,” says Central Partnership sales exec Olga Zemlyakova, “and the last part was the most successful action film in Russian history.”

Target territories for the film are Asia, Germany, Spain, Latin America and the U.S., says Zemlyakova.

All of which is a world away from the Berlinale’s other Russian entries, Andrey Gryazev’s “Zavtra” (Tomorrow), a documentary about anti-Vladimir Putin street theater Voina Group, which screens in Forum; and Alexei Mizgirev’s Panorama player “The Convoy,” an apocalyptic portrait of the police and army in Russia today.

But the recent political upheavals in Russia have had an unexpected ripple effect for indies. “Russian people, especially the younger ones, have become very active in social networking,” says producer Anna Katchko, whose recent productions include the big-budget Kazakh production “Myn bala.” “A lot of that has to do with the political situation, where social networking was very important. And it really has helped us with viral promotion of movies.”

Berlin Daily Spotlight: Russian Cinema
Rouble rising in film biz | Buyers keeping minds open, but wallets shut | Russian evolution | Eastern promise

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