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Russian Cinema Looks Beyond Borders for Greater Traction

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and based on Western media coverage alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Russia has turned back the clock to the Soviet era and reverted to an isolationist standpoint. But for film industry folk at least, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Russian arthouse films have been earning plaudits on the international festival and awards circuit recently, most notably Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Paradise,” which won Venice Film Festival’s director award and was Oscar shortlisted. But Western audiences expecting deep philosophical insights in the tradition of such auteurs as Andrei Tarkovsky are often surprised by the number of crowdpleasers from Russia, says Filip Perkon, general producer of the Russian Film Week in London. Among the upcoming Russian films he is looking forward to: Aleksey Uchitel’s lavish period drama “Matilda,” which follows the real-life love affair between a leading ballerina and the future Russian Czar Nicholas II.

The strength of mainstream Russian cinema lies in its “ambitiousness and willingness to work on a scale and budget comparable with mid-budget Hollywood productions,” says Katya Mtsitouridze, CEO of film promotion agency Roskino.

The high production values of animated films including Wizart’s “Snow Queen” franchise, and VFX-heavy genre films such as Fedor Bondarchuk’s sci-fi actioner “Attraction,” and Andrei Kravchuk’s historical epic “Viking,” are helping Russian films to break into the mainstream internationally, she says. It helps that filmmakers are taking a more international approach to storytelling.

Although Wizart’s films are rooted in Russian culture they have a universal appeal, general producer Yuri Moskvin says. “We try to emphasize the values that a modern society is based on, but also make our movies funny,” he says. “In ‘The Snow Queen 3: Fire and Ice,’ we speak about the importance of family and of stretching out a helping hand, while ‘Sheep and Wolves’ is about the importance of friendship and support.”

Russia is the world’s 12th biggest movie market with a box office totaling 49 billion rubles ($727 million) last year, according to comScore, but it is dominated by Hollywood product with local films taking just 18% of the market. Only two local films, Nikolai Lebedev’s disaster movie “Flight Crew,” and “Viking,” made it into the top 20.

The government’s Cinema Fund invests $50.6 million a year in local production, with the Ministry of Culture matching that, but even with that help, most producers of ambitious upscale projects rely on international co-production and distribution partners to bridge the funding gap.

Alexander Rodnyansky, who produced Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated “Leviathan” and the director’s next film, “Loveless,” says foreign markets present challenges and opportunities for Russian films. He also produced box-office hit “Stalingrad,” and period actioner “The Duelist,” which was released in the U.S. by Sony after playing at Toronto Intl. Film Festival. He found that “for big Russian genre films like ‘Stalingrad’ or ‘The Duelist,’ international sales are rather limited — their potential is always hindered by the fact that they are in Russian and require subtitles [or dubbing].” (China is the major exception.)

“On the other hand, for Russian auteur films like ‘Leviathan’ or ‘Loveless,’ the percentage of the budget that can come from abroad can be as high as 20%-30%. It is really easy both to pre-sell them and to structure co-productions with European production companies.

“Finally there is a third type of productions, on which we are focused right now. We are developing a slate of films for international audiences to be shot in Russia but in English. For such films up to 70% of the budget can come from the international market.”

The low value of the ruble makes Russian films relatively cheap to produce, Rodnyansky adds.

A few years ago foreign sales would be expected to contribute 10% of the budget of a film, but now the percentage is more likely to be 25%-30%, according to Art Pictures Studio’s Dmitriy Rudovsky, one of the producers of “Attraction.” He says the percentage has grown “not just because of the advantage we get from the weak ruble but also because of the growing demand for Russian movies.” In the case of “Attraction,” he expects to derive 40% of the budget from foreign sales.

“Russian films were always in demand in the arthouse market, but in the last three years distributors have started acquiring rights for a wider range of genres,” he says. “The prices are not as high as for the Hollywood films and the quality is already competitive in the medium and low price range.”

As in Hollywood, the international partners of choice for Russian producers are the Chinese. “Flight Crew” profited from a distribution pact between its Russian distributor Central Partnership and state-run China Film Group, with a gross of 29.3 million yuan ($4.42 million) earned in China. Other such deals include China Film Group’s investment in Russian fantasy movie “Viy 2,” starring Jason Flemyng, and “Attraction,” which was acquired by China’s HGС Entertainment.

But producers are also looking further afield. “Attraction” has been picked up for distribution in more than 40 countries, and “The Snow Queen 3: Fire and Ice,” a co-production between Wizart and China’s Flame Node Entertainment, has been sold to around 60 countries.

Russian producers are also reaching out to sales companies in the U.S. and Western Europe to provide a gateway to international audiences. Los Angeles-based Covert Media, for example, is handling international rights to two Russian films in Berlin: Emilis Velyvis’ fantasy thriller “The Night Watchmen,” and Sarik Andreasyan’s disaster film “Earthquake.”

Liz Kim Schwan, Covert’s president of international, says Russian filmmakers she has talked to have varying levels of experience and exposure in the West, “but 100% across the board their international profile is very important [to them], and we are here to help with that.”

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