· Dear Frankie (West)
· One Missed Call 2 (Cinema Without Frontiers)
· Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Central Partnership)
· Mysterious Skin (Carmen Film)
· Ze Film (Paradis)
2004 STATS
Top film: Night Watch (Gemini Films, $16 million)
Top indie: Van Helsing (Central Partnership, $8.2 million)
Total B.O.: $268 million (including CIS territories)
Total Releases: 286
Total Screens: 750

MOSCOW — As it the best of times or the worst of times for Russian indie distribution? In a sharply segmented market, opinions vary.

At the top end, indie players like West (handling Miramax) or Central Partnership (with 2004’s big hit “The Passion of the Christ” at $3.4 million) are competing on a level with the studios — with leeway to take on smaller pics with less obvious potential. CP came in at No. 4 in last year in total local B.O.

Either owning or having close relations with a cinema certainly helps — West runs two venues, while CP programs at a Moscow location.

Same is true at Paradis, which runs the high-profile Rolan two-screener as well as three five-screeners in Moscow, offering ideal opportunities for limited release patterns.

Those ties also have helped ensure loyalty from sellers for some bigger-name indie directors. Buying at script stage is also now well established.

“The indie-film market is really growing up now in Russia. Competition is growing, too,” says Mark Lolo, head of theatrical distribution at CP. But CP is developing in other directions, with an emphasis on local production. In post is Nikolai Lebedev’s “Wolfhound,” its biggest-budgeted pic yet.

Meanwhile, top pic of the year with $16 million B.O., Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch,” financed by Russia’s Channel 1, went out through Fox’s local distrib in the territory, Gemini Film (and was subsequently picked up for U.S. distribution by Fox Searchlight).

The local pic phenomenon is certainly hitting smaller companies — and rapid growth of multiplexes isn’t helping. “The situation when the number of films in a multiplex is less than half the number of screens is becoming normal,” says Sam Klebanov, topper at Cinema Without Frontiers. “On the other hand, optimistic reports in the press about the rapid growth of the Russian market drive asking prices to completely unrealistic highs.”

With homevid sales — even for arthouse fare — attracting pirates, a major hope remains TV. But it’s a risky business, says Mila Rosanova, VP at Carmen Film. “Concentrated on primetime series, stations simply do not have much time for this slot. It’s not that easy to sneak in there. Nevertheless, a TV sale is guaranteed money and sometimes can bring about twice the results of an unlucky theatrical distribution — but it’s a total risk.”