As the calendar turned to March this year, and the cold, dark months of a pandemic winter gave way to hopeful signs of spring, Evgenia Markova, head of the Russian film promotion body Roskino, mooted the prospect of hosting a physical version of the Key Buyers Event, a showcase of new Russian content now in its third year. “I was hoping that it would be possible,” she tells Variety. “But the further it went, the more uncertainty there was around it.”
With the coronavirus pandemic still spreading in Russia and across the rest of the world, Markova and the organizing team decided to revisit last year’s successful virtual model, which attracted more than 600 participants from around the globe, including 200 foreign buyers from the likes of RTL Group, AMC Networks, CGV Mars, Wild Bunch, Beta Film, and Chinese streaming service iQIYI. The three-day event features live presentations, pitches, panel discussions, and matchmaking sessions, along with a co-development and co-production section and a screening room of new Russian titles.
This year’s edition, which takes place June 8-10, with an additional three days for virtual screenings, will include a host of new wrinkles, including an expansion of the co-production market to include pitches for both international and Russian projects, and a dedicated section in which Roskino will present new and in-progress Russian productions to festival programmers.
Unspooling just weeks ahead of the Marché du Film, which will take place alongside the Cannes Film Festival from July 6-15, Markova envisions the Key Buyers Event as both a comprehensive overview of the Russian market, and a warm-up to the deal-making that will unfold on the Croisette. “The buyers and the producers who are interested in Russian content have an opportunity to do a deep dive in our reality, and the trends,” before finalizing deals in Cannes, she says.
It comes at an opportune time for the Russian industry, which after years of steady domestic growth has increasingly set its sights on the global market. Roskino has beefed up its presence at key international events such as the European Film Market and the Marché du Film, offering Russian creatives increased visibility within the industry, while global streaming platforms have helped those creators find an international audience, with breakout success stories such as the Netflix plague drama “To the Lake,” and the sci-fi thriller “Sputnik” (pictured), which broke into the top five on iTunes in the U.S. and was acquired by IFC Midnight for theatrical release.
There are promising signs that the industry is ready to roar back after the uncertainty of last year. Russian cinemas, which have operated at up to 50% capacity for most of the past year, are off to a strong start in 2021, led by Disney Russia’s fantasy adventure sequel “The Last Warrior: Root of Evil,” a co-production with indie studio Yellow, Black and White and the broadcaster Russia-1, which has grossed more than $28 million since the start of the year.
After a brief lockdown last spring, production has continued apace throughout the pandemic, fuelled by deep-pocketed VOD platforms—backed by companies such as the Russian search engine Yandex and the state-owned energy company Gazprom—looking to meet soaring demand from audiences who have flocked to local streaming services.
That production boom eased whatever doubts Markova might have had for this year’s Key Buyers Event, which will present more than 400 films, series, and animation projects for foreign buyers in its virtual screening room. “We had concerns that this year we wouldn’t have a lot of new projects. But we were wrong,” she says.
As the Russian industry looks to cement its place in the global market, a notable change at this year’s Key Buyers Event is a collaboration with When East Meets West, the Trieste Film Festival’s co-production market, which for the past decade has sought to bridge the gap between producers in the former Eastern Bloc and their counterparts in the more developed industries of Western Europe.
The new co-production market will present roughly 20 Russian projects that are looking for international co-production partners; it will also showcase five to 10 foreign projects in advanced stages of financing in search of Russian co-producers. It’s an expansion of last year’s forum, which solely showcased Russian projects, in response to what Markova sees as growing demand to bring the local industry and its foreign partners closer together. “Anything you do must resonate with the needs of the local and global markets,” she says. “This cooperation is the perfect match.”
It also underscores Markova’s determination, since taking the helm of the film promotion body just over a year ago, to ensure Roskino and the Key Buyers Event continue to evolve. “Even in hard and unstable times, if you have a choice to do or not to do something, it’s best to do it,” she says. “Never mind how hard [the changes] are. They can [lead to] a breakthrough.”