Russian World Studios builds on empire

Topper looks beyond coin crisis to biz's future

Yuri Sapronov, co-founder of Russian World Studios (RWS), is not a man given to panic.

Ten years after the company was set up — in 1998, a year when the Russian economy crashed and the ruble went into a nosedive against foreign currencies after Boris Yeltsin’s administration defaulted on government bonds — he is overseeing a major expansion just as the global financial markets are in a frenzy.

The first $100 million stage of a new $250 million studio in St. Petersburg — Russia’s first purpose-built moviemaking complex in 60 years — has opened for business and been graced by a visit by the former president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Film and television production at RWS locations in Moscow, Anapa on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia and the new studios in St. Petersburg will reach 500 hours by the end of the year — nearly double that of last year.

Current bookings include 60-episode telenovela “Women’s Word,” pre-production on a local feature film and preparatory work for state broadcaster Rossiya’s New Year’s Eve show.

And RWS plans to attract foreign producers to its new studios with traditional offers of excellent crews, equipment, facilities and competitive prices plus the possibility of co-financing projects as co-productions.

“The current financial crisis should contribute to lowering film industry prices in Russia, which have risen sharply in the past three to five years and often bear no relation to quality,” Sapronov says.

Clearly a man who enjoys hedging his bets — thrown casually over the back of his office chair in Moscow are two football scarves, the red of Britain’s Manchester United and the blue of St. Petersburg’s Zenit — Sapronov (who like another Zenit support, Putin, is a native of Russia’s “northern capital”) boldly dismisses the panic selling that brought trading at the Russian stock exchange to an enforced halt on the day of an interview for this story and declares that “now is not a time to sell; it is a time to buy. The man who buys wins.”

Deep-pocketed partner

The big bet RWS had made in St. Petersburg is backed by the joint venture it set up earlier this year with JFSC Sistema, Russia’s biggest consumer-oriented private-sector company, which believes the new studios can generate between $200 million and $300 million in annual revenues.

Meanwhile, plans to expand studio and backlot facilities at three locations near Anapa have been put on hold — not because of the world credit crunch, Sapronov hastens to say, but because of land price speculation connected with the development of sports facilities in nearby Sochi, which is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“We don’t want to pay ‘Sochi’ prices,” Sapronov says succinctly.

What RWS does want is for international producers to come to St. Petersburg to make movies, and it plans to roll out an additional $150 million for studio expansion in the next two to three years to help ensure that happens.

Sapronov dismisses Russia’s reputation as a costly production location where red tape and opaque business practices plague foreign filmmakers.

“Our pricing policy is clear and open. As a business, we are transparent, legal and pay our taxes. That allows us to offer a completion bond guarantee on all projects we work on,” he says.

Although he declines to specify prices, Sapronov suggests they are in line with those charged by Bulgarian studios.

The company has forged closed links with the St. Petersburg city government and has access to a large pool of experienced crews in Russia, but can also draw on talent from the Baltics and Eastern Europe, when size of projects demand more crew.

What’s more, Sistema’s interests include Intourist, the hotel and tourism business with roots that go back to Soviet times. This gives access to reasonably priced accommodation when additional crews need to be brought in for projects.

Also, like many studios worldwide, RWS is keen to offer finance to attract business and is in talks with a number of “renowned international producers” about setting up a joint venture to fund co-productions.

International experience

The move builds on earlier experience in working on international productions (via Sistema’s Thema Prods.) that have included Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” “Goodbye Bafana,” St Petersburg-shot war film “In Tranzit” and comedy “I Want Candy.”

“We understand that international companies worry about filming in Russia, about the costs and other issues, but we hope that we shall be able to soothe their concerns about being involved in big projects in Russia,” Sapronov says.

“We can offer the ‘personal touch’ — the governor of St. Petersburg region, Valentina Matvienko, is very interested in the studio, and we have excellent connections with the city government, which treats the film industry specially and means there is an additional guarantee that shooting on location will be problem-free.”

Although comparable in total area — 118,400 square feet — to its Moscow studios, the St. Petersburg facilities do not yet have as many soundstages: six (four of 8,073 square feet, two 3,767 square feet) compared with Moscow’s seven comprising around 75,350 square feet.

But with Moscow busy with RWS television projects, such as 19th-century costume drama “Poor Anastasya,” and other independent productions, St. Petersburg — with new equipment that includes an “ingest server” that allows for online video and sound digitizing and the company’s own design of soundproof “elephant doors” — offers much-needed new space for cinematic productions.


  • State-of-the-art equipment

  • Reliable, professional and transparent business model

  • Completion bond guarantees; pledge to “produce in agreed time at agreed prices”

  • Finance available for co-productions

  • Excellent city, regional and federal government connections

  • Wealth of locations in St. Petersburg and Gulf of Finland

  • Stages soundproofed along walls and ceilings to absorb up to 120dB

  • Unique-to-Russia soundproof “elephant doors”

  • Top life hoist systems in all stages

  • Polymeric-covered floors

  • Ingest server, allowing for online video and sound digitizing

  • Dolby Premier

  • Wi-Fi connection throughout the studio campus