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Russian money fuels ambitious films

Producers gamble on bigger budgets, higher quality

It’s Russia’s most ambitious movie project ever: a $40 million sci-fi epic based on a legendary Soviet-era novel.

“The Inhabited Island” — directed by and starring Fedor Bondarchuk, son of director Sergei of Oscar-winning “War and Peace” fame — is banking on becoming an international crossover that showcases the cool style and stellar production values of which Russian moviemakers are now capable.

Alexander Rodnyansky, a Renaissance man of Russian filmmaking whose talents span television (until recently he ran top-ranking entertainment TV channel CTC), film production and festival management (he is co-owner of the annual Russian film festival Kinotavr), is confident about the chance he is taking.

“It is a very risky project, but we took this risk intentionally to make a movie that will be successful not just in Russia and the region but internationally, too,” he says. “We see it as a sci-fi epic that is a contemporary story of a totalitarian regime, where personal freedom is limited, that will touch people around the world today.”

Slated for release in Russia as two movies, an international version — the sale of which is still the subject of hush-hush talks with Hollywood studios — will be a single, shorter version.

Due for release on New Year’s Eve, a key date in the Russian moviegoing calendar when families throng cinemas, “The Inhabited Island” is the most obvious example of the most notable trend in Russian cinema in recent years: the tendency toward making bigger, more expensive and increasingly ambitious projects.

Russian films have been getting more sophisticated ever since the first post-Soviet blockbuster, “Night Watch” — which made $16 million domestically and the same amount internationally — hit screens in summer 2004.

All-time box office record breaker, “Irony of Fate — The Sequel,” produced by state broadcaster the First Channel, had a modest $5 million budget but took in more than $50 million domestically.

“The Inhabited Island,” with its massive budget, is in a different league, although Rodnyansky is quick to point out that $16 million is already covered by a presale deal with Russian distributor Caro and that investors expect the two-movie Russian release to make between $60 million and $80 million.

But with just five or six local productions accounting for some 75% of the Russian share of the overall box office every year, the days of local mega-movies may be numbered.

“We’re watching the economy very closely right now,” notes Armen Dishdishian, executive VP, international, for Central Partnership, Russia’s leading independent distribution and production shingle.

“The economy is having a cold shower right now, and for those who have been too bold, it is a dangerous time,” he says, adding that since few Russian movies make more than $12 million at the box office, any project with a budget bigger than $6 million is moving into risky territory.

His recipe for risk management is to share the burden, which is one of the driving forces behind Central Partnership’s recent strategic alliance with Paramount Pictures Intl.

Although it is a pact based on a distribution alliance, the two companies are already sifting through scripts for possible co-productions with Russian, and perhaps international, appeal.

In a country with the size and character of Russia, big, bold projects will never entirely disappear; the First Channel’s epic costume drama “Admiral,” made on a $20 million budget, went out on 1,250 copies, and Nikita Mikhalkov is about to wrap shooting on the wartime sequel to “Burnt by the Sun” — his film that won the 1994 Oscar for foreign-language pic, although part two, set in 1943, won’t be ready before 2010.