Lumière Festival: Mosfilm’s Karen Shakhnazarov Talks Economic Challenges of Film Restoration

Ville Zero
Courtesy of Lumiere Festival

One of the world’s oldest and largest film production companies, Russian studio Mosfilm, set up in 1923, was the powerhouse of film production during the Soviet Union era, producing more than 3,000 films. It continues to be a major film producer, with over 1,200 employees. Leveraging the company’s extensive film library, Mosfilm has been a pioneer in the field of restoration of classic films, restoring around 7-8 titles per year, using intensive frame-by-frame restoration.

In 2010, the company launched a partner channel with Youtube featuring a large number of Soviet-era films, many of which were unknown in the West, including a substantial number with English-language subtitles.

Titles available on the Youtube channel include well-known films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein and lesser-known titles such as “Zerograd,” (Gorod City), directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, who has served as Mosfilm’s General Director and Chairman since 1998.

In last year’s Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, Mosfilm unveiled the restored versions of Sergey Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible.” At this year’s fest it will be screening Shakhnazarov’s “Zerograd” (pictured).

Shakhnazarov spoke exclusively to Variety about Mosfilm’s current film restoration plans.

What are the main objectives associated to your film restoration strategy?

To begin with, restoration of heritage films for us is primarily a cultural policy rather than a commercial project. Mosfilm invests considerable amounts in film restoration and we believe that it’s absolutely necessary to restore heritage films. We have begun with films that have great artistic value, such as the films by Eisenstein and Tarkovsky.

What are the main distribution channels you use for restored films?

Of course we’re always pleased to present these restored films in different film festivals. And of course on TV, when channels want them. We also upload our films onto the Internet, in particular via our partner channel with Youtube. Many of our restored films can be viewed free of charge on this channel.  In general, we are always happy to collaborate with anyone willing to present our restored films.

Has the Mosfilm Youtube channel been a success?

We are very happy with our viewers on Youtube. We have recorded many millions of viewers and the statistics show that they are from all over world — Latin America, North America, Europe, Asia. At present the Mosfilm Youtube channel, has about 300 films, of which 50-60 have subtitles. Once we provide English language subtitles, the Youtube technology provides an automatic translation into other languages.

What are the most popular titles on your Youtube channel?

I don’t have a precise statistic immediately available to tell you, but the most popular are probably old Soviet comedies from the 1960s and 1970s, because of course many of the films on this channel are viewed in Russia and by Russian viewers living abroad, who enjoy these films.

Do you generate any revenues from restored films?

DVD and the theatrical market bring in some income. But nothing compared to the investment. We don’t just scan the source materials. We do frame by frame deep restoration, which is very expensive.

Does having films available for free on Youtube have a negative impact on DVD, Bluray, VOD sales?

It does have some effect. But on the other hand some people who have watched films on Youtube also go out and buy the films. Our Youtube partner channel also brings in some revenues because it is ad-supported. The revenues are not very large. But it does bring in some revenues.

Do you collaborate with other studios in restoration activities?

We are in contact and exchange ideas and experience with other countries involved in restoration, but in practice we do everything in house. We have acquired state of the art equipment. Our specialists are very well trained. Everything is done in house. We do however restore films for other companies – until now essentially with Russian companies. We have done some small restoration jobs for foreign companies, for example Italian firms, but this has been very marginal. In Russia we have provided restoration services to the Russian state film archive and to the Gorky Film Studio, which also has a large library

What are the main priorities in terms of film restoration?

The first important priority were the classic titles by well-known directors such as Eisenstein and Tarkovsky but most of these films have now been restored. Restoration is a long-term project. We restore 7-8 films per year

Mosfilm’s full library has around 1500 titles and so it will take a lot of time to restore all the films. Only about 70-100 titles in our full library have been restored so far. Some of the films available on Youtube have not yet been restored.

Which titles are currently being restored?

Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” is currently being restored it will probably be finished by the end of this year. This is the only Tarkovsky film in our library which hasn’t yet undergone deep restoration. We have already restored Tarkovsky’s  “Mirror”, “Andrei Rubhlev”, “Solaris”, and “Stalker.” For “Nostalghia” we only had rights for the Russian territory and for “Sacrifice” we had no rights. We are also in the process of restoring Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” which should also be ready by the end of this year. These are the most important titles at present. The problem is that when you start restoring a film, you never know how long it will take. For instance Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” took 8 months, because it was in very poor condition. For films in relatively good condition it can take around 2 months.

Do you acquire films for restoration?

Considering films that we have in our catalogue and the time it takes, our primary task is restore our own films – so we have our hands full. But if we are approached we can always consider acquisitions or joint restoration initiatives.

Is the audience for your restored films expanding?

Definitely. There is major interest. Over the last 2 years, we have presented restored films twice in Cannes and twice in Venice. The theatres were full. When we present these films in Russia, the cinemas are always full. I do believe that the interest for this kind of film heritage is growing very quickly. This shows that we are not working in vain.

Have you maintained the same level of investment in film restoration per year over recent years?

Generally the quantity of films per year has remained the same. The key factor is the number of film restoration experts who can work in the proper manner on each frame. We have three such specialists. It takes a lot of time and effort to train new specialists, and at present we have decided to remain with three, which determines the number of films we can work on each year. Of course there is software available which is steadily improving and for some projects can increase the speed, but for this kind of restoration, which is done frame by frame, specialists have to work with every frame taking out the artifacts and patching etc. It remains very slow. Sometimes difficulties arise that have to be resolved by our engineers. Sometimes we encounter artifacts, or spoiled passages which occurred even when the film was shot. We try to improve on that, using sophisticated engineering solutions.

Do you organize commercial releases of your restored films, as occurs, for example, with classic titles in France?

Unfortunately that is not the case in Russia. Russian film distributors are very reluctant to release classic films theatrically. Sometimes we can arrange one-off seasons or showcases of restored films. When we do, the audiences are always very big. But distributors are nonetheless very apprehensive. They focus on the immediate financial return and don’t want to run the risk.

Do you receive any public support for your restoration projects?

Mosfilm is a state-owned company. But it’s self financed. We do not receive any state financing. We pay taxes to the state. We don’t receive funds for restoration. Overall, Mosfilm generates profits from our other activities. That gives us the possibility to invest in restoration. We do receive some commercial revenues from restored films. But they are very small compared to the cost. We view this area as a loss leader. Nonetheless, we try to increase revenues. Part of this strategy is to participate in film festivals, in order to present our restored films. We also sell restored films in foreign markets, which brings in some revenues. We hope this will increase. We sell to both TV companies and independent distributors. When we sell TV rights we prefer to deal directly with the channels. I believe it is beneficial to Mosfilm and to world culture to restore these films. We concentrate on restoring films that have great artistic value, which form part of world cinema heritage. Even if they don’t generate high revenues now they will always be in the center of attention. And I think that over the long run we will recoup our investment.

What is the cut-off date for restored films?

We are not so keen to set a date. Again it depends on the films that have great importance. Another factor is the condition of the recent films in terms of the source materials. Some recent films are already in bad condition. Some recent films from the 1980s, such as Vladimir Menshov’s “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”, have also been restored and also some films from the late 1980s, such as, “Zerograd,” that will be shown in Lyon, which was released in 1988.