When the Soyuz MS-19 spaceship blasts off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome on Oct. 5, bound for the International Space Station, Vadim Vereschagin – CEO of production and distribution giant Central Partnership – believes his company’s prospects will likewise lift into the stratosphere.
Onboard the ship will be director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild, who are setting out on a 12-day mission to film scenes from the upcoming drama “The Challenge” aboard the station. Produced by public broadcaster Channel One and leading studio Yellow, Black and White, in collaboration with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the first-of-its-kind feature will be distributed by Central Partnership.
Vereschagin says the cosmic shoot is a “dream” for him personally, as well as a fitting milestone for a company that’s celebrating its quarter-century anniversary this year. “This project, for us, is the pinnacle of all the 25 years that we’ve done so far,” he says. “You look at it, and this is crazy. This is something that hasn’t been done before.”
Since its modest beginnings as a television production outfit, Central Partnership has grown into a production and distribution powerhouse. It’s distributed a string of commercial blockbusters, such as WWII epic “T-34” and the smash comedy “Son of a Rich” – the highest-grossing Russian film of all time – and has a commanding hold on Russia’s exhibition industry: last year its distribution arm boasted a nearly 30% market share of total box office. The company’s library includes titles from top U.S. and European studios – since 2009, it has been the exclusive distributor for Paramount Pictures in Russia – as well as an extensive catalog of arthouse and commercial movies from the fast-growing domestic industry.
Vereschagin credits the company’s ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape as a key component of its staying power. “This is the oldest company in the market in Russia,” he notes. “A lot of companies that started at the same time are gone and have been gone for a while.”
This week Central Partnership will take part in CineEurope Barcelona, marking the first time a Russian distributor is presenting its international content at the exhibition industry confab. Leading its slate are a host of ambitious titles boasting the signature touches – epic human dramas, lavish production values, stories made for the big screen – that have become a company calling card.
Among the highlights are “The World Champion,” a pulled-from-the-headlines story centering on the legendary 1978 chess match between Soviet world champion Anatoly Karpov and the dissident Viktor Korchnoi, which is helmed by “T-34” director Alexey Sidorov, and “December,” which centers on the last days of Sergey Yesenin, a famous Russian poet and lover of the American dancer Isadora Duncan. “The Challenge’s” Shipenko, who also helmed “Son of a Rich,” is attached to direct.
Another hotly anticipated title is “The First Oscar,” which is inspired by the true story of the making of “Moscow Strikes Back,” the winner of the first Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1943. The film is produced by Natalia Mokritskaya, whose credits include “Battle of Sevastopol,” “Jumpman,” and “Zoology.” Also in early stages of development are “Wizard of Emerald City,” a CGI-laden family fantasy epic, and “Guest from the Future,” an adaptation of the iconic Soviet sci-fi novel “One Hundred Years Ahead,” created with “Stalingrad” and “Invasion” producers Fedor Bondarchuk, Michael Vrubel, and Alexander Andruschenko.
At a time when streaming services around the world have seen subscriber numbers spike – a trend not created, but certainly fueled, by the coronavirus pandemic – Vereschagin is convinced that the future of the exhibition industry is bright, even if it relies on the kind of tentpoles and event movies that can lure audiences off the sofa. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that those are going to be fantasy, action, sci-fi films,” he says. “It’s not about the genre itself. It’s about the scale of the movie, the emotion that that movie brings to the audience.”
While Hollywood studios are increasingly mulling hybrid releases of blockbuster titles like “Dune,” which Warner Bros. launched day-and-date on its HBO Max streaming service, Vereschagin is an adamant defender of the theatrical model. “We’ve had lots of conversations this year about doing hybrid releases, and we decided not to,” he says. “We’re going to be holding the window.”
He concedes that “the platforms are willing to pay a lot of money for hybrid releases,” a phenomenon that has only gathered steam during the pandemic, as cinema closures and jittery audiences have made home-viewing an attractive option for many would-be movie goers. But Vereschagin also sees this as an existential struggle for the future of the industry that goes far beyond today’s bottom line.
“The long-term problem with going hybrid is that at a certain point you’re going to train the audiences to be ready to watch it on a platform, and that kills off your exhibition business,” he says. “We’re not ready to support that. Theatrical distribution has been out there for as long as movies exist, so let’s keep it that way.”
Though the coronavirus pandemic caused a three-month shutdown for the Russian industry last spring, production on a host of Central Partnership titles was soon up and running. “We had a pipeline going on. We continued to produce movies,” says Vereschagin. “That actually helped us to live through this whole pandemic. We had a slate – not only for the domestic distribution, but for the international distribution as well.” Even as domestic and global box office shrunk in the past year, “we managed not only to survive but increase our revenues,” he adds, with revenue from international sales during the pandemic growing by 50%.
That’s sparked one of the key takeaways from the past year for the Central Partnership topper. “First lesson learned is make sure you still own a big chunk of your library. Don’t sell it to whomever forever; keep those license deals short, because you never know when you might need that content,” he says. “We were lucky to have a big chunk of our library available when the pandemic hit, and all of a sudden, all of the streamers needed that content.”
To ensure that library is stocked and the production pipeline continues to flow – particularly when fast-growing domestic streaming services have set off an arms race for Russian talent – Central Partnership has inked a number of first-look deals with leading studios such as Kinoslovo, which produced the Netflix period romance “Silver Skates,” and the genre specialists QS Films. It’s also partnering with Latin American film group BF Films on the psychological horror “Schizophrenic,” marking the first ever co-production between the two industry giants.
Vereschagin says there will be more international co-productions to come, offering a hint of what lies in store as Central Partnership embarks on the next 25 years of its journey. “I think that in Russia, we’ve reached the limit of what we can possibly do,” he says. “We’re looking globally now. That’s our strategy. There’s 140 million people living in Russia. There’s another 6 billion people living outside of Russia. That’s our audience.”