MOSCOW — Eastern Europe’s last Iron Curtain is beginning to look a little tattered: The isolation of Russian film from the world of international co-production is slowly receding as producers and studios begin to see beyond the current domestic boom.
While record-breaking oil prices keep the economy of this natural resource-rich country booming, and box office receipts continue to grow at 30% a year (Russia is on target to see $750 million in cinema ticket sales this year), most producers are content to tap local sources for funding the couple of hundred features made here each year.
But signs are emerging that some are looking beyond the boom to a more sustainable, international future.
Three of the 15 competition features screened at Russia’s Kinotavr national film festival, held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in early June, were co-productions and studio representatives and producers at the festival spoke of a growing interest in tapping foreign funds.
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Natasha Mokritskaya, general producer of “Yuri’s Day” — a film by last year’s Kinotavr-winning director Kirill Serebrennikov — says the participation of German co-producer Rohfilm made a significant difference to the project.
“The sound recording and editing was the responsibility of our German partners, and the difference that made is audible,” Mokritskaya says.
Benny Drechsel, a partner in Berlin-based Rohfilm, which co-produced war film “Polumgla” with St. Peterburg’s Nikola Film in 2005, says working with Russians was both challenging and exciting, particularly since the boom of recent years gave fresh energy and vibrancy to filmmakers here.
“Although Russian producers need to look at their content and consider whether it is strong enough for distribution in world markets, there is a lot of interesting talent in Russia that pushes cinema beyond its boundaries and changes the language of cinema in important ways,” Drechsel says.
“Yuri’s Day” — starring Ksenia Rappoport, (“The Unknown Woman”) who won best actress at Kinotavr this year, offered Rohfilm the chance to work with one of Russia’s top new wave directors, and the company is now talking about co-producing Serebrennikov’s next project.
“There is a younger generation of producers in their 30s with an absolutely international approach toward cinema,” Drechsel says, adding that this year should see the signing of a Russian-German co-production treaty that will significantly boost cooperation between producers in the two countries.
Service providers and studio chiefs in Russia are beginning to look beyond the domestic market.
Olga Sinelshchikova, VP of international for Russia World Studios (RWS), which is opening the country’s first purpose-built film studios in St. Petersburg this summer, says that although the business plan focuses mainly on servicing the booming domestic market, attracting international business is a longer-term aim.
Russia has suffered in the past with a reputation for poor budgetary control on film service deals, with foreign producers complaining of higher costs than in central Europe and opaque financial accounting, but Sinelshchikova says the studios will introduce Russian-language budgeting software that would give the studios a major competitive edge in this area.
Marina Reznik, marketing director of Solar Studio, a $30 million film complex being developed by private backers near Russia’s southern Black Sea port of Novorossisk, says Russia offers stunning locations that outside of Moscow and St Petersburg are rarely, if ever, used in European or international productions. Solar will initially target domestic customers, where demand for studio space is high, but attracting foreign coin is part of a longer-term strategy.
But not all in Russia are so gung-ho.
Raisa Fomina, founder of Moscow’s Intercinema distribution company and a well-known figure at international markets, noted that she participated in Vasily Pichul’s 1999 Russian-French coproduction “The Sky with Diamonds” that involved Arte and CNC, the French national cinematography fund, and was unimpressed.
“It was a disaster, because there was no equivalence in the legal and taxation issues and so much time was taken up on legal and bureaucratic issues,” Fomina says.
Most Russian producers still prefer to keep control of their projects and fear that co-productions mean both added complications and loss of creative freedom, she adds.
But it’s not only Russians who are eyeing international cooperation: Laima Freimane, a long-established Latvian producer, recently set up Riga-based Five Level Production to match underused studio facilities in Latvia with Russian producers.
“We are interested in co-producing films with Russians — we have a shared history of 50 years and we all speak Russian, which is a great advantage,” Freimane says.