Russia’s film industry takes baby steps forward

Growth in the film distribution industry in Russia is driven not only by such obvious reasons such as the lack of contemporary cinemas, but also by the tech boom. Source: PhotoXPress

Growth in the film distribution industry in Russia is driven not only by such obvious reasons such as the lack of contemporary cinemas, but also by the tech boom. Source: PhotoXPress

It has been a pretty successful year for Russian film distributors and producers, with a number of significant events taking place. It is safe to say that the Russian film industry is moving forward and has become a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

In Frank Oz’s comedy “What About Bob?,” which came out only half a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a psychiatrist recommends his book – “Baby Steps” – to the film’s main character. The book was quite thick, but its underlying principle takes only a couple of lines to formulate: set small tasks every day, moving forward with baby steps.

While there is nothing more absurd than looking for some kind of universal wisdom in a comedy, the advice the self-satisfied Dr. Marvin gives his patient is actually not so bad. More than this, it actually works.

Side one: film distribution

The Russian film distribution industry is still in its infancy. If it were a person, it would not even old enough to watch movies containing scenes with sex, violence and strong language. There is huge potential here, in addition to some quite lofty ambitions.

Still, this cannot be achieved all at once. A new high was achieved this year when “Ice Age: Continental Drift”hit 2,090 cinemas nationwide. Before this, no movie had ever broken the 2,000 mark. The record was previously held by “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which opened in 1,716 cinemas across the country in 2011. These are not exactly baby steps, but there is still a long way to go before Russia starts to match U.S. figures…

In any case, 2013 looks poised to continue the record-setting trend of previous years, thanks in large part to two huge deals completed in December.

First, there was the merger of two major cinema chains: Formula Kino and Kronverk Cinema (ranked sixth and fourth, respectively, in terms of the number of screens). The resulting entity will have 254 cinemas across Russia and Ukraine – only slightly behind the current leader, Cinema Park, which has 272 screens.

The second piece of headline-grabbing news was Paul Heth’s acquisition of a controlling stake in Karo Film, which, until recently, had been Russia’s second-largest cinema chain.

It should be noted that Paul Heth has been one of the key figures in the Russian film distribution industry. Back in 1996, he opened the cinema in Russia with Dolby Surround technology – Moscow’s Kodak Kinomir. Similarly, he founded the Kinostar Deluxe chain in 2002. This turned into an asset that, once acquired by Vladimir Potanin, propelled Cinema Park to the number-one position amongst Russian cinema chains.

The very fact that Paul Heth has been interested in the Russian cinema market for so many years indicates how promising it is.

Incidentally, growth in the film distribution industry is driven not only by such obvious reasons such as the lack of contemporary cinemas (and there are dozens of Russian cities that have none whatsoever), but also by the tech boom. For those who are already bored with 3-D, Korean engineers have come up with a new diversion: Moscow’s Cinema Park Deluxe multiplex recently unveiled the country’s first ever 4-DX theatre that stimulates almost all the senses.

Side two: film production

Meanwhile, the film production industry is not so rosy. Just two years ago, Russia had three of the world’s top-10 grossing films. Russia’s highest-grossing movie of 2012, “Dukhless” (“Soulless”),did not even make the top 20. This is probably what prompted so much talk about the need for changes in how production companies receive government funding for their projects.

Next year, the Ministry of Culture will get in on the act. Until now, the Federal Fund for Social and Economic Support of the National Cinematography (the Russian Cinema Fund) has been responsible for doling out financial assistance to the largest film production companies.

The ministry, however, will focus on socially important projects. Furthermore, Russia’s top film school – the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) – has reached an agreement with the ministry, whereby winners of the International VGIK Student Festival will be granted money to produce feature-length films. This is probably the year’s most encouraging news.  

Meanwhile, talented Russian film producers are still dreaming of Hollywood. Following in the footsteps of Timur Bekmambetov, who has all but settled in Los Angeles, Alexander Rodnyansky has set off on a quest to conquer Tinseltown. He has founded a 120-million-dollar investment fund with Angelina Jolie’s manager, Geyer Kosinski, to finance the production of six feature-length films. The six projects will include Billy Bob Thornton's upcoming drama (“Jayne Mansfield’s Car”)and two projects by Robert Rodriguez (“Machete Kills”and “Sin City 2”).

There are plenty of other Russian film producers that are dreaming of success abroad, but with films shot in Russia. Film markets have been gaining momentum every year, including at the Moscow International Film Festival and the Kinotavr Film Festival. According to experts, foreign distribution companies have been growing increasingly interested in Russian movies, and film markets have been attracting more and more scouts who are shopping for new licenses.

But we should not get ahead of ourselves. The market is still developing, and the best is still to come. But there is no hurry: even if it is only baby steps, the point is to move forward, and not the other way around.

Alexander Folin is the editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter’s Russian edition.

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