Producer Ilya Stewart was in the early days of financing “Petrov’s Flu,” the latest feature from Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov (“Leto”), when he chose to bypass state funding bodies. The decision was made “for a variety of reasons,” he says, but it was nonetheless a risky move in a country where government support is still the main driving force of film production.
Instead, Stewart turned to Kinoprime, the $100 million film fund launched last year by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, which provides up to 50% of a film’s budget. Kinoprime boarded “Petrov’s Flu” at an early stage “and could accommodate the sometimes fluid nature of a financing plan, especially when it comes to working with multiple territories and the various funding bodies in Europe,” says Stewart. The veteran producer then turned to partners in France, Germany and Switzerland to close financing on a film now in the final stages of post-production.
Industry players have called Kinoprime a game-changer for the Russian film business, and the leading example of how private equity is rewriting the rules of independent Russian cinema. Coupled with the rise of Russian VOD platforms engaged in a no-holds barred battle for premium content, producers are increasingly able to finance their films while avoiding the often politically charged minefield of state funding.
That shift offers an obvious upside for many filmmakers. “I don’t approach the state financing for independent dramas, for the films of the directors who try to honestly speak to their audience in a way that their stories require,” says two-time Oscar-nominated producer Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”), citing his work with emerging filmmakers like Kira Kovalenko and Vladimir Bitokov. “It would not be appreciated, it would not be backed. That’s why I’m lucky to have a few private investors who trust me a lot and support me to make these films.”
“Private equity is historically a common source of financing when it comes to any kind of independent filmmaking in Russia,” says Stewart. The rigorous vetting process at Kinoprime, however, which has a selection committee comprised of industry experts who assess each project according to wide-ranging artistic and commercial criteria, is a hopeful sign of the changing times. “Dealing with experienced industry professionals in a systematic way is a new phenomenon for producers.”
A slew of Russian streaming services have meanwhile entered the market, including a VOD platform from Russian search engine Yandex, the Gazprom-backed streamer Premier, and platforms such as more.tv, MTS, Okko, Wink and Ivi. “[They] have been extremely aggressive in fully financing original content and signing first-look deals with major players,” says Stewart, who pre-sold streaming rights on both “Petrov’s Flu” and Vadim Perelman’s Berlin player “Persian Lessons.”
“Some films can now fully avoid the government funding process and be made on the dime on one of the key streaming players, with a day and date release and the chance to still pursue a run at a major festival premiere outside of Russia.”
However much these new sources of financing represent a seismic shift for producers, though, some of the old models still apply. “For big movies with huge risk, it’s important to get the support of state institutions like the film fund,” says Rodnyansky, who estimates that 30% of the roughly $10 million budget for his forthcoming actioner “Chernobyl” came from government coffers. Indeed, many of the commercial blockbusters that have propelled the booming domestic market in recent years would have been impossible to finance without robust state support.
For many producers, private and public support go hand in hand. “If you have [state funding] in your financial plan, then you have the flexibility … when talking to your next partner, whether it’s a VOD platform or it’s a private fund or it’s private equity,” says Artem Vasiliev, of Metrafilms (“Dovlatov,” “The Humorist”). For “The Dorm,” the directorial debut of acclaimed Russian DP Roman Vasyanov (“Suicide Squad,” “Fury”), Vasiliev estimates that roughly half the budget came from Kinoprime, 40% from the Ministry of Culture, and the remainder from private equity sources.
“As a producer, I know which project I would apply for government funding with, and where I would entirely avoid this route,” says Stewart. The successful launch of Kinoprime, meanwhile, which has led to prestigious festival premieres and big box-office returns, is something he hopes will “encourage more equity players to appear on the landscape and drive the industry forward.”