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Russian Cinema: Searching for Homegrown Hits

Russia’s box office potential is huge, but local producers are looking for ways to unlock it

While the Russian box office has been exploding over the past few years, some see growth in different terms.

The Russian market is still at an embryonic stage, in the sense that it was still evolving from an industry dependent on state aid to one shaped by the entrepreneurial skills of independent producers, says Alexander Rodnyansky, Russia’s leading film producer, at an event in July to promote his book “The Producer Is Out.”

If that is the case, then the potential for the local biz, once it is fully developed, is enormous.

According to Joel Chapron, Unifrance’s expert on Eastern Europe, Russia, with 94.4 million admissions, almost drew level with France in with 95.5 million. That’s a 0.4% rise over the first half of 2012. The Russian box office grew by 4.7% in the first half of this year to $696 million.

The room for growth is huge. There are 3,220 modern screens in Russia, compared with 5,545 in France. Russia has a population of 143 million, compared with France’s 64 million. Some 40% of the population in Russia does not have access to a theater, Chapron says.

But Hollywood dominates the Russian box office, with local films in 2012 taking just 15% of the total $1.24 billion in grosses, compared with France, where the share for Gallic pics was 40%. In the first half of this year, only one Russian film earned a place in the top 20 — ice hockey player biopic “The Legend of No. 17.”

The poor showing at the box office was one reason for a shakeup in public funding for filmmaking in the past year, when the Ministry of Culture took direct control of the Russian Cinema Fund, and replaced its head, Sergei Tolstikov, with Anton Malyshev, who has close ties with the Kremlin.

There followed a realignment of the division of labor between the Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Fund, with the former taking over funding of “cultural” and “socially significant” pics, and the latter focusing on movies of a purely commercial nature.

The government budget for the film biz, totaling 5.3 billion rubles ($160 million), was recalibrated, with the Cinema Fund receiving $90 million and the ministry getting $70 million.

There are strings attached to the ministry’s money: it won’t give coin to pics that portray Russia in an overly negative light. “If you want to make a film that says that Russia is a horrible place to live, and the only option is to fly away, don’t ask the state for money,” says Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture. “It is impossible to prevent people from feeling this way and making films about it, but the Culture Ministry will no longer offer money for this.”

Another development was the shuttering of the Cinema Fund’s international department, which had looked after the international promotion of Russian films and co-productions. Roskino, headed by Catherine Mtsitouridze, is now in sole charge of international promotion, and has a stand at the Venice Film Market.

“I believe that Russian cinema is in good shape today, but the road to establishing cinema as an industry is still a bumpy one,” Mtsitouridze says.

As well as underperforming on the commercial level, the Russian biz has had mixed fortunes on the festival circuit as well. No Russian films were selected at Venice, although three Russian filmmakers contributed to Future Reloaded, the compilation of shorts that mark the fest’s 70th anni: Aleksey Fedorchenko, Melvin Khutsiev and Aleksei German Jr., who is on the fest jury deciding the award for debut film.

Ilya Bachurin, CEO of Glavkino, which runs a growing production facility in Moscow and a production company, says the Russian film industry is in crisis. “The main concern is that the audience — the new generation of viewers — has lost the habit of going to see Russian cinema,” he says.

He says most film biz figures support the government’s efforts to build up the local industry, but more state coin is needed. “Private investment in the film industry is low because of the high risks,” he says.

If Russian pics are to grab a healthier share of the local B.O. and travel, it’s more likely to be due to the efforts of enterprising producers like Rodnyansky than state action alone.

But Rodnyansky isn’t the only game in town.

The other colossus of the Russian movie scene is sometime-Hollywood filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who runs Moscow-based Bazelevs, which produces and distribs within Russia.

Bazelevs will be repped at Toronto Film Fest by Aleksei Uchitel’s “Break Loose,” (pictured) which will be handled in international markets by Roskino. Uchitel had a hand in another Toronto film — crooked cop drama “The Major,” which Uchitel produced for Rock Films. Other Bazelevs productions include comedy drama “The Game of Truth.”

Fedor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures is producing his 3D World War II epic “Stalingrad” with Rodnyansky. Bondarchuk is also a partner in Glavkino, which announced its first production slate at Cannes, including action adventure “Aqua Vitae” and comedy drama “Buoy,” which will be helmed by Taisia Igumentseva, whose feature debut “Bite the Dust” grabbed a special screening slot at Cannes.

But for Russia’s biz to realize its full potential, the second tier of producers and directors need to break out.

A few Russian pics have won fest kudos recently: Fedorchenko’s “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” picked up prizes at Polish fest New Horizons and Russia’s national fest Kinotavr, and has been selected for Toronto, while other have nabbed regional fest kudos. “Mari” is repped in international markets by new Russian sales company Antipode Sales and Distribution, which launched at Cannes.

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