While the coronavirus pandemic briefly shut down local production last year and sent the exhibition industry into a tailspin, Artem Vasilyev, of Metrafilms, is among the many Russian producers who did not sit idly by in quarantine.
“We had a very, very fruitful autumn in the industry,” says Vasilyev, who shot four features between August and November, including “30 Days and 30 Nights,” the new film from Venice Silver Lion winner Alexey German, Jr. (“Paper Soldier”), and “Jetlag,” a feature film and episodic series from Michael Idov (“The Humorist”).
Despite the financial and logistical challenges, cameras continued to roll in Russia throughout most of 2020. Coupled with optimism over the rollout of a locally produced coronavirus vaccine, Vasilyev says industry players are hopeful that the growing Russian biz can come roaring back in 2021. “I really see things on the bright side at the moment,” he says.
Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”) shares that optimism. The two-time Oscar-nominated producer had to pause production on Vladimir Bitokov’s “Mama, I Am Home,” and decided to push the release of the big-budget feature “Chernobyl,” starring and directed by Danila Kozlovsky (“Vikings”), to 2021. “But overall, these were unpleasant obstacles, but not tragedies,” he says. “Other than that, I can’t say that the pandemic affected my companies too much. On the contrary, the development business is booming.”
The Russian government provided robust support to help the industry weather last year’s storm of uncertainty, offering relief packages for movie theaters hit by closures and limited seating capacity, as well as subsidies for producers to offset some of the financial risks of releasing films during the pandemic.
Hype Film’s Ilya Stewart (“Sputnik,” “Leto”) says that support has been “a game changer.” “Injections such as these are a major step towards returning to a version of normal, and for unreleased films not to pile up and get lost in what will undoubtedly be an incredibly dense release schedule over the next few years,” he says.
The exhibition sector nevertheless suffered, with total box office plummeting to $243 million in 2020, down more than 70% from the previous year—a hefty toll for an industry that is still heavily reliant on theatrical release. Many exhibitors are reeling.
Still, there was a silver lining from box office receipts during the traditionally busy holiday season, led by “The Last Warrior: Root of Evil,” which was released by Disney Russia and grossed $22 million. Hype Film’s “The Relatives” (pictured), released by Sony Pictures on Feb. 11, took in more than $2 million on its opening weekend, something Stewart sees as a healthy sign for the industry’s 2021 recovery.
“With a busy release schedule and no major competition from U.S. studios for the moment, it really is the time for Russian films to make their mark and help bring the audience back into theaters,” he says.
The pandemic is nevertheless accelerating changes that were already underway, with a host of local streaming platforms moving ever more aggressively into the market, snatching up new titles and commissioning high-end original content. Vadim Vereshchagin, CEO of leading production and distribution company Central Partnership, says Russian bizzers are increasingly asking the same questions as their counterparts around the world.
“From the global standpoint, are we now in the era of hybrid releases?” he says. “Or are we going to be releasing theatrically, and then the windows are going to shorten? Or are we not releasing theatrically and going globally on VOD? Those are the questions that need to be answered by the global industry.”
The pandemic has nevertheless offered “a great opportunity to learn something new about yourself and the industry,” says Art Pictures’ Fedor Bondarchuk. When theater closures last spring upended the release strategy of the sci-fi thriller “Sputnik,” a co-production between Art Pictures, Hype Film and Vodorod, the producers opted for a digital premiere on local VOD platforms instead.
The strategy paid off, with “Sputnik” racking up more than a million streaming views in its first month in Russia before breaking into the top five on iTunes in the U.S. “We made a risk, decided to adapt rather than deny the situation—and in the long run we were right,” says Bondarchuk.
Hype Film’s Stewart sees that as emblematic of how the Russian industry is coming to terms with a new, uncertain era. “I think that while the significance of streamers brings new opportunities for filmmakers, they will continue to co-exist with the theaters, and this will hopefully become an even healthier balance once the industry bounces back fully,” he says.
For Rodnyansky, the uncertain future of distribution and exhibition doesn’t fundamentally alter the equation for Russian filmmakers, who must continue to strike a chord with local audiences as they eye the global market. “This is the key to not just bouncing back, but growing—bigger confidence of the people in the quality of our films,” he says. “Everything else, I think, would fall into place one way or another.”