Film, TV: Comrades in creativity

Russian networks behind B.O. hits

Behind every successful Russian film seems to be a Russian TV net.

Domestic box office champs such as “Day Watch,” “Night Watch” and “9th Company” have all received significant coin from the likes of Channel 1 and the Nasdaq-quoted CTC-Media.

Other nets such as the state-owned Russia TV Channel, TNT and NTV are also playing significant roles as film buyers and occasional investors.

The importance of the Russian TV biz to the film industry can be traced back to the mid-’90s, when Russian film production slumped to a handful of features in 1997 in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union and loss of state funding that ensued following the chaotic switch from communism to capitalism.

A generation of aspiring film talent migrated to the TV sector, which was conversely benefiting from the liberalization and privatization of the media industry.

The watershed moment came with the 2004 release of Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch.” Originally envisioned as a four-part TV skein for Channel 1 — the descendant of Soviet state-owned pubcaster RTO — the project was upgraded into a feature after the net’s topper, Konstantin Ernst, was impressed by the rushes.

“Channel 1 is the largest and most powerful TV network in Russia today, but its audience doesn’t go to the cinema,” Bekmambetov says.

“But the person who runs the company, Konstantin Ernst, is very creative and ambitious. He has used the resources of his channel to create public awareness of the importance of the new Russian film industry. The buzz he created became the foundation for contemporary filmmakers.”

“Night Watch,” a sci-fi actioner taking place in the streets of Moscow and featuring the battling forces of Light and Dark, became a sensation in Russia, grossing $18 million to become the country’s biggest-grosser of all time.

The expansion into film by Channel 1 — which is still 38% state-owned — was soon followed by rival net CTC-Media, which bankrolled Fyodor Bondarchuk’s “9th Company” which, at nearly $10 million, was the most expensive Russian pic ever at the time.

The epic war drama, about a platoon of Soviet troops during the 1980s Afghan war, was lapped up by Russian auds, and grossed $26 million to temporarily claim the all-time box office crown.

“In Russia, there are no major studios and no place for filmmakers to go, pitch their projects and get financial support,” explains CTC-Media topper Alexander Rodnyansky. “The major broadcasters play the role of the Hollywood majors in terms of having distribution and promotion vehicles.”

Channel 1, for example, trailed Bekmambetov’s sequel “Day Watch” for months on the channel, to the point that when the film was finally released Jan. 1, 2006, it had become an event of national significance. The film grossed a new box office high of $30 million.

CTC, which in November announced a partnership with Sony’s Russian film affiliate Monumental Pictures to increase its production plans over the next two years, is striking back with a new big-budget project of its own — Fyodor Bondarchuk’s $26 million sci-fi epic “The Inhabited Island.”

“Island” is about a space traveller who finds himself on an alien planet run by a totalitarian regime. CTC execs are splitting the film into two parts, with the first episode set to bow in December next year.

But the major TV nets are only part of the story behind the boom in Russian film production, which is also benefiting from private investors being more ready than ever to put their coin into the film biz.

The Russian state is also playing a big role, with the government’s Agency for Culture & Cinematography ponying up close to $100 million in production grants this year alone, according to producer Yelena Yatsura, who made “9th Company.”

The increase in government coin comes on the back of Putin slamming local TV stations in May for not doing enough to promote Russian culture among the country’s youth. It is also in line with his attempts to re-install Russian patriotism and cultural values across the board.

Still, considering the abundance of films produced, only about half will actually make it into theaters, with fewer than a dozen turning a profit.

With independent producers struggling to compete against the virtually unlimited marketing budgets of the major broadcasters, the lion’s share of box office is still likely to find its way back into the coffers of the TV nets.

The relationship between the state and the media is, as with most things in Russia, complex. Recent months have seen increased criticism from certain sectors over the tightening of press freedoms, a factor seemingly contradictory to the opening-up of the film biz.

“There is no contradiction,” says Raisa Fomina, director general at Russian sales and distribution company Intercinema. “These films all support Russian culture. ‘9th Company’ is very patriotic. These are films the government can support.”

The Russian film biz has given itself a fighting chance of developing into a sustainable industry. But a period of consolidation in the coming years appears likely.

“At the moment, it doesn’t feel like such a healthy industry, because there are so many films and the quality is not always good, but we have a strong possibility,” Rodnyansky says.

“While there are new companies being born every day, CTC will remain focused on event movies. More and more the future of the industry will be about quality. Quality will be the deciding factor (as to what gets produced).”