Russia looks east for location shoots

Route into country may start in Asia, not Europe

MOSCOW — Why isn’t Russia cultivating more international location shoots? It’s a question local observers have been asking long and hard.

With Eastern European countries aggressively courting foreign shoots, and given Russia’s solid level of technical skills and potentially reasonable pricing, the answer looks like a mystery.

Just outside the country, there’s plenty of development going on. Lithuania is completing construction on a Vilnius lot to appeal to foreign players, while Latvia’s Cinevilla, a 450-acre facility is running successfully under founder Andrejs Ekis, topper at territory’s No. 1 commercial channel LNT.

Expect renewed interest in Ukraine, too, buoyed by a currently positive political stance and pending visa regulation relaxation. The action in the Ukraine isn’t necessarily from capital Kiev and its massive Dovzhenko studios (though they’re an often preferred location for some Russian producers), but from Odessa, a location that can stand in for Paris street scenes.

“The problem with Moscow starts with its main airport, which remains a shambles, although others are better,” says one industry insider, who points out that visa problems can be a huge hurdle for foreign crews.

Russia’s northern capital St. Petersburg, with its beautiful period architecture, looked like it could become a viable location venue. It didn’t happen, however: Martha Fiennes’ “Onegin” shot a few scenes there, before returning to re-create the Neva River at a U.K. studio. Another recent U.K. docu-drama about Empress Catherine the Great was distinctly unimpressed by local facilities and prices and went directly to Romania.

But there’s another way into Russia — not from Europe, but from Asia. Key to this plan is the recent establishment of a film commission in Vladivostok, the main city on territory’s Pacific coast.

According to Alexander Doluda, topper of the org, who is also director of the city’s international film fest, Russia’s Far East offers a great deal — from 19th century European-style streets, including some impressive czarist naval forts, to subtropic landscapes that can stand in for both hemispheres. The commission claims crews, visas and red tape are no problem.

Spectacular volcano environments on Kamchatka are nearby, while Siberia and Lake Baikal remain unexploited, and are closer to Vladivostok than to Moscow.

Already a member of the Asian Film Commissions Network (AFCNet), Vladivostok’s Film Commission will start its first production over summer with the $13 million “Typhoon” from helmer Kyung Taek Kwak for South Korea’s Zininsa Film. Though only about a 10th of the story takes place in Russia, it’s a start.

Doluda admits some limitations — absence of local equipment means that cameras have to be brought in (but at least customs officials know what to expect), while processing is in Seoul — but that’s only an hour’s flight away.

With major film industries in China or India closer to the Pacific than they are to Europe, it may just be that the way into Russia is not from the West — but from the East.