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Toons tempt Russian tykes

Local kidpix help heat up holiday B.O.

MOSCOW — School holidays in Russia have always been a good time for releasing children’s films. But their scale was unprecedented during October’s half-term vacations.

No less than seven kid-oriented animated pics launched Oct. 28. Stateside presence came with Disney’s “Home on the Range” and Dream Works’ “Shark Tale,” while Euro studios provided three smaller pics. And two full-length Russian films highlighted a return to production in the local industry.

Scale of release was impressive, too. “Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” from local studio Argus Intl., went out on 190 prints from Gemini Film (which scored with the summer’s record-breaking “Night Watch” on 307). “Neznaika and Barrabass,” distribbed by arthouse crossover label Panterra, was released with 100 copies.

“Neznaika” was budgeted at $3.5 million, with a quarter drawn from private studio sources, another quarter from national broadcaster Channel Oneand half from federal funding.

“Nutcracker” came in at $4 million, with Argus providing production facilities in a deal with Germany’s MC One studio — the largest international animation cooperation to date for Russia.

Relationship between Argus and MC One went wrong, however, as the two sides disputed details of production contracts.

When the pic was originally completed, Argus DG Vladimir Repin told Variety, “It’s a shame that viewers will not see ‘Nutcracker’ (in 2003, when original release was scheduled), while our animators have learned a bitter lesson about trying to enter the world market with a competitive product.”

Argus had originally looked for foreign backing for the project in 1999 after a pilot picked up a prize at the New York Film Fest.

“The final agreement with MC One was a compromise achieved after long and difficult discussions, but we managed to avoid legal action,” Repin added recently.

For “Nutcracker” director Tatiana Ilina, the result was unsatisfactory for creative reasons: The international version will differ from her Russian edit, as she did not approve post-production work and music on the international version.

The 85-minute pic combines elements of the fairy tale by German writer ETA Hoffmann with elements from Tchaikovsky’s ballet in a story updated to turn-of-the-20th century St Petersburg.

“Neznaika” set local precedent by screening the pic to young focus groups, which directors Svetlana Grossu and Vladimir Gagurin say resulted in a change of final edit rhythm.

With a follow-up already planned and TV spinoffs in discussion, “Neznaika” producer Sergei Zernov hopes he’s launched a long-term franchise. However, merchandising possibilities are still limited: “The brand market is not wide in Russia at the moment,” he says.

Argus’ Repin agrees, for the most part. Production of printed material in Russian has become easier in recent years, he points out, with the number of specialist branding companies increasing from a handful to several dozen. Ordering toys and other souvenir products from China remains complicated, but even the local chocolate industry is now receptive to tie-in proposals.

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