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Russian Cinema: Local Pics Up VFX Ante

Producers raise tentpole stakes

Russian audiences have an enthusiasm for 3D, large formats and visual effects, says Paul Heth, CEO of leading Russian exhibition chain Karo.

That lines up Russians with audiences in much of the world, where such spectacle films lead the box office.

But their hunger for such films has forced Russian producers and visual effects companies to step up or risk losing out to Hollywood imports.

While other territories are lagging in that area, Russian companies are stepping up. It’s not just Hollywood’s big-budget, 3D, vfx-heavy tentpoles thriving at the box office, but Russian spectacles as well.

Some of the biggest Russian box office hits in the past year have been 3D vfx pics with budgets far above average for local productions. World War II epic “Stalingrad 3D,” for example, grossed 1.66 billion rubles ($45.8 million) in Russia, and fantasy horror “Viy 3D” took $33.2 million.

“The visual effects (on ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Viy 3D’) were fantastic and contributed to these films being successful,” says Heth. “The local production values have come a long way.”

Heth says “3D is being used more and more to accentuate the storytelling, and as an essential component of the film, and I mean even for the film to get financed.”

Heth, an American who set up shop in Russia in the early 1990s, has seen a steady improvement in the Russian exhibition market in the post-communist era, with audience expectations rising and local filmmakers having to match those expectations.

He and his producing partner Michael Schlicht were among the producers of “Stalingrad,” which was directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, and liked the helmer’s work — especially his mastery of 3D shooting — enough to back his first Hollywood film, “Odysseus,” which Bondarchuk is directing for Warner Bros.

Arman Yahin’s vfx studio Main Road Post contributed 250 shots, which formed 31 minutes of footage in “Stalingrad.”
He says the main challenge was to achieve the desired photorealistic physical effects, especially those shots featuring fire, water and explosions.

The company has also worked on Hollywood pics, including Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted,” and Yahin sees no difference between the standards and aesthetics of those films and Russian movies.

Buoyed by the success of Oleg Stepchenko’s “Viy 3D,” its producer Alexey A. Petrukhin is already working on the sequel, “Viy 2: Journey to China.”

The pic will be a Russian-Chinese co-production, which will allow it to circumvent China’s foreign pic quotas. Post-production is expected to wrap in early 2016. As with the first pic, the sequel will be an unapologetic crowd-pleaser.

Petrukhin sees shooting in 3D as integral to that mission.

“It is not enough to just make a cool picture with great sound and brilliant performances. I strongly believe that 3D is a necessity, not just a marketing gimmick,” he says.

“We were hoping to make a film that would be able to compete with the best Hollywood productions.”

Although “Viy” is a Russian production, it features international talent, including British actors Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance; Dutch thesp Rutger Hauer; Florian Maier (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”) of Germany’s Stereotec, who created the 3D; and American sound mixer Bob Beemer, who has won four Oscars, including for “Gladiator.”

It was shot at Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic.

Petrukhin also pays credit to the work of the team at Universal Pictures Intl., led by president of distribution Duncan Clark U. will also release the sequel.

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