Moscow — Competition in the world’s fastest-growing exhibition market is creating significant business for independent product — whether it’s from the U.S. or elsewhere around the world.

2003 STATS
Top film: “Terminator 3” (Cascad; $12.8 million)
Top indie: “Spy Kids 3” (West; $6.3 million)
Total B.O.: $190 million
Indie B.O.: $49.1 million
Total releases: 271
Indie releases: 205
“American Splendor” (Kamer-ton)
“Crimson Rivers 2” (Central)
“Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights” (West)
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Paradis)
“Last Life in the Universe” (Intercinema)
“Zatoichi” (Film Without Frontiers)

The main driving factor is the rapid expansion of multiplex screens in the region. “In the past, independent films were released direct-to-video and sold to TV. Now, there is a real chance to show these films in theaters — and the audiences react very well to this,” says Natalia Lazareva, director of distribution at the KinoPlex network, one of Russia’s fastest-growing chains.

A local trade publication ranks indie distrib West, which reps Miramax as well as other distribs, in third place in the winter box office results. West was bested only by studio pic distribs Karo (which also releases New Line titles) and Kaskad.

While West and Karo handle more of the commercial U.S. indie fare, there’s plenty of competition for European and quality Asian pics. Long-standing distrib players such as Paradis have established relations with producers behind Euro masters including Pedro Almodovar and Emil Kusturica, acquiring their films at the script stage. With seven elite Moscow screens at two venues in their direct control, Paradis can make sure that their films get the necessary attention.

Local distrib Central Partnership is the main buyer of French films, which have become very popular in Russia. Last year, Gallic imports numbered 92 titles — though not all were released theatrically.

The distribution of foreign arthouse fare is more complicated, as auds, especially outside Moscow, are reluctant to view subtitled product. Gothenburg-based Maywin Media topper Sam Klebanov, who operates Russian label Films Without Frontiers, laments that the expected growth for indies hasn’t materialized in the seven years he’s been in the market.

However, there are some breakout arthouse successes. Takeshi Kitano’s “Dolls” hauled in more than $200,000 on just two subtitled copies. Kitano’s latest pic, “Zatoichi,” went out on 12 prints — two subtitled for Moscow and St. Petersburg, the rest dubbed for Russia’s various other regions, which now return more than half of the territory’s box office.