Ukraine shakes off frost

Pic biz thawing amid growth in exhib'n, finance

KIEV, Ukraine — Though it’s running about five years behind its Eastern neighbor, Russia — and seeming light years behind its Western one, Poland — Ukraine’s film scene is at last showing some signs of emerging from a catastrophic decade.

The native pic industry was in such a state of stagnation that last year only one native feature was completed, and the annual Arsenal award for best local pic went unawarded for the second year in a row.

This year, while the score is no higher, with only Dmitry Tomashpolsky’s comedy “Hi, Everybody” finished, another two projects are actually in final stages of post-production. Of greater international significance is arthouser Kira Muratova’s “Second-Class People,” currently wrapping at her native Odessa studios and set for a Berlin bow if it’s ready in time.

Government backing

And after years of state neglect, changes in government ranks look set to bring a kinder climate.

That’s allowed Anna Chmil, who controls cinema financing, to at least lobby for 6 million gryvna ($1.1 million) for production funds toward a slate of six low-budget pics by young directors as well as another $200,000 for a program of debut shorts.

Funding will come partly from a proposed levy on ticket and cassette sales, which should come onto the statutes next year. Ukraine is also set to enter Euroimages in 2001, which Chmil hopes will give a boost to co-production activity.

On the legal front, the successful transfer of a share of Crimea’s Yalta studios into the hands of Russian investors has paved the way for future privatizations, with Odessa’s studio likely to be sold in a year’s time. Kiev’s Dovzhenko outfit, which boasts one of the world’s largest stages, will stay firmly in state hands, but is already benefiting from a $500,000 facility-upgrade grant that came through after new prime minister Victor Yushenko made a recent visit.

Screen count up

The local exhib scene is expanding as well, after Kiev’s Kinopalace group opened a 1,950-seat venue in February, the flagship in a chain that includes another 300-seater in Kiev and a couple of other regional cities.

Though Kinopalace director Anton Pugach is currently facing attention from anti-monopoly enforcers for the group’s 31% market share, such domination isn’t likely to continue for long. Alexander Rodnyansky, prexy of territory’s top commercial TV channel 1+1, is aiming to expand into exhibition and plans 10 screens around the country, while Finnish conglom FinnKino, which is busy in the Baltics, is also investigating Kiev development possibilities.

While exhib facilities may at last be approaching European standards, Kinopalace’s Pugach admits Kiev box office returns are more unpredictable. Patriotic hits from Russia (Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia”) and Poland (Jerzy Hoffman’s “With Fire and Sword,” which was exhibbed by 1+1) have topped recent box office, at least giving hope that the upcoming Ukrainian historical epic “The Black Council” will score with local auds.

Language barrier

However, acquisition deals so far are largely through Moscow, and low box office means they stick with Russian-language prints — a significant problem in western parts of the country, where Ukrainian-language activists are protesting what they see as continuing cultural domination of their one-time invader.

Kiev’s surprise mainstream hit was Luc Besson’s “The Messenger,” helped by strong local interest in star Milla Jovovich, who hails from the city.

Traditional full houses at Kiev’s annual Molodist fest, which ran its 30th edition in October, are at least one sign that local interest in the film scene hasn’t died. The event scrapes by on organizers’ enthusiasm plus pittance state support of $36,000, aided this year only by a last-minute sponsorship from Lucky Strike.

Fest’s finale looked more hopeful than usual, however. In a surprise move, Yushenko came by to present the main prize to “Stand-Bye,” a feature debut from French-Ukrainian helmer Roch Stefanik.