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‘Pirates’ set for first Russian bow

Depp, Cruz, Bruckheimer confirmed for premiere

Russia has evolved into an increasingly important pit stop for studios as they premiere tentpoles around the world, with Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise the latest to drop anchor in the region.

Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and producer Jerry Bruckheimer will walk the red carpet in Moscow on May 11 to promote “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” before the film sails off to the Cannes Film Festival on May 14.

Appearance will be the first time Depp has made the trip to Russia to tubthump. Studio will still host the world premiere at Disneyland on May 7, ahead of its May 20 release.

Russia has grown into an important source of box office revenue in recent years thanks to a rise in moviegoing attendance boosted by the construction of new multiplexes and the growth of a middle class that’s willing to pay premium prices for 3D screenings, especially of animated fare. It’s one of the so-called BRIC nations — encompassing Brazil, Russia, India and China — whose burgeoning economies are expected to provide major growth prospects for Hollywood.

Hollywood films accounted for 83% of Russia’s total box office last year, with Disney enjoying huge success with “Alice in Wonderland” and “Tangled.” Last summer’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” also premiered there.

Homegrown Russian films accounted for just 17% of B.O. receipts in 2010, the lowest in five years.

“Russia has become such a thriving entertainment market, and with the recent successes of ‘Tangled’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ audiences there have shown incredible enthusiasm for our films,” said Rich Ross, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. “As Captain Jack Sparrow embarks on a brand new adventure in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,’ we’re very excited to be able to premiere the film in such an exciting new locale.”

Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” was the top B.O. draw in the country last year, while “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” was the tops in 2007. Disney has also been increasing the number of films it produces specifically for Russian auds after its first, the adventure comedy “Book of Masters” performed well in 2009.

Although ticket sales dropped slightly in 2009 to $736 million vs. $830 million in 2008, forecasts are for a return to rising figures in 2011 after last year’s tally broke the billion-dollar barrier.

Moscow-based analysts Movie Research Co. predicts a 70% jolt in box office grosses in the next five years as some 600 new screens are added to Russia’s exhibition network, bringing the country’s total to about 3,000.

According to the company’s latest report, ticket prices are also likely to grow by about 45%, from a current average of $6 to $9.

Admissions in Russia exceeded the total population for the first time last year, when 160 million tickets sold to a population of some 140 million.

But the market remains mostly reliant on moviegoers aged 17-25, which is good news for kid-skewing Hollywood fare. That should benefit Paramount-DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda 2,” Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet 2” and Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 2” this year.

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