The Russians Are Filming! The Russians Are Filming! By LAURA M. HOLSON and STEVEN LEE MYERS

The Russians Are Filming! The Russians Are Filming!


JAMES D. DECK and James Heth — or “the Americans,” as their Russian film crew calls them — descended 200 feet down a rusty ladder into the blank darkness of one of this city’s serpentine subway tunnels, far below a cluttered construction lot near the old Red Army Theater.

Mr. Deck and Mr. Heth are the creative and technical advisers on “Trackman,” a thriller set here, filmed in Russian and aimed at millions of eager moviegoers spread across the former Soviet republics. It is the first local-language film for Monumental Pictures, a joint venture of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Patton Media Group, a production company backed in part by American investors.

A primary task for the two men is to instill a studio-style work ethic on the “Trackman” set and to make sure that the movie is delivered on time and on budget. When the film’s director, Igor Shavlak, tells Mr. Deck that cameras will roll in 30 minutes, Mr. Deck raises a good-natured eyebrow. “Promise?” he asks.

Mr. Shavlak welcomes the prodding. “The idea is to absorb the American experience” making films, he said later. “It is common knowledge we are lagging far behind.”

Not, it would appear, for long. Russia’s movie industry, following a torpid decade that mirrored the country’s social, political and economic turbulence after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, is in the midst of a creative renaissance and box-office boom. And Hollywood — whose producers, distributors and exhibitors rarely pass up a chance to exploit an opportunity — is spending millions on theaters, distributors and movies themselves.

“It’s like a gold rush right now,” says Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “There is a long history of good filmmaking; there are actors and directors who know what they are doing. The trick is getting in at the ground level.”

Russia, of course, is a land where a rush for gold is a perennial pastime. It is also an unpredictable, unwieldy place that in recent years has routinely rewarded and then confounded the expectations of many fortune hunters. Even so, analysts and film executives all say the movie business here looks more promising and more vibrant than it has in many, many years.

Box-office receipts in Russia increased 20 percent in 2005, to $331 million, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the American accounting firm, predicting double-digit growth in each of the next five years. (Other hot growth markets, based on preliminary data, are Turkey and China.) By contrast, almost every other major Western and Eastern European country had box-office declines last year, as did the United States, where revenue slid 5.7 percent, to $9 billion.

The number of tickets sold in Russia jumped 19 percent, to 125 million, in 2005, while movie admissions in the rest of Europe, the United States and much of Asia were either flat or down, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Russia’s biggest movie distributor is Gemini Film, which 20th Century Fox, a unit of the News Corporation, bought in April. Michael Schlicht, a native of the former East Germany, heads Gemini’s Moscow office, and he advises that serious, creative film companies ignore Russia at their own peril.

“You have to be here,” he says.

“Trackman” is the first of three Russian films that Sony plans to make this year with Patton, whose partners include Paul B. Heth, James’s older brother, and Shari Redstone, the president of National Amusements, the Boston-area-based company that runs movie theaters. Ms. Redstone’s father is the American media tycoon Sumner M. Redstone.

Ms. Redstone has also joined with Mr. Heth in Rising Star Media, a five-year-old company that has built two American-style multiplexes that are drawing thousands of moviegoers to the sprawling megamalls sprouting on Moscow’s suburban fringes. Rising Star says it has plans for two more multiplexes, including the first in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city.

Other media companies are interested, too. Fox, which bought the international rights to Timur Bekmambetov’s eerie, supernatural blockbusters “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” now has 40 employees here, Fox executives said. In March, the Walt Disney Company announced the hiring of a senior executive to expand operations in Moscow. Such moves, mere baby steps by American corporate standards, still illustrate how much has changed, and how quickly, in Russian moviemaking.

In the years after the Soviet collapse, the Russian film industry — an accomplished one, despite state controls — ground to a halt after losing its government financing. Like other industries, it struggled to adapt to a free market. Most of the old Soviet movie houses — large halls with single screens — became casinos or auto showrooms. A flood of mostly cheap counterfeit videos, followed later by DVD’s, kept Russians out of what few theaters were left. Even acclaimed films like Nikita Mikhailov’s “Burnt by the Sun,” which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1994, was viewed mostly on video.

In 1997, more or less the nadir of the Russian film industry, producers filmed only 13 movies in Russia, according to Gemini Films and Kinobusiness Today, a Moscow trade publication. The total Russian box office was a mere $6 million, and only a fraction of that was for Russian films. The next year, Russia defaulted on its debts and the ruble plummeted in value, leaving little money for a night out at the movies.

Then, beginning in 2000, the country’s fortunes turned. The political and economic stability that coincided with the presidency of Vladimir V. Putin lifted incomes and fueled a consumer spending boom that, inevitably, left struggling Russians with the once unthinkable: disposable income. While Russia remains poor, with an average monthly income of $350, a middle class is emerging, especially in cities like Moscow, where average monthly income is $1,050, according to government data.

After years of bounding growth, Russian-made films accounted for 26 percent of the country’s box-office revenue last year, according to Russian film executives. Analysts predict that the share may rise to 40 percent in the next few years. With subsidies from the government, Russian film production has doubled since 2002; some 85 productions are under way this year.

Unlike other flourishing markets, Russia poses few obstacles to making a movie inside its borders or having it distributed. In China, by contrast, politicians keep a leash on imports, allowing only 20 foreign films into the country each year. India, for its part, is dominated by a tight-knit group of filmmakers who specialize in stylized musicals. That makes it a hard market for outsiders to crack.

With its relative openness, Russia has become the world’s 13th-largest movie market, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Analysts say that the market is likely to keep growing, given Russia’s population of 143 million and the many millions of other Russian speakers in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics.

Hollywood has taken notice. Last December, as part of a celebration to re-release “Cinderella” on DVD, Disney staged a ballroom party for 2,000 children at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, where Communist Party dignitaries once assembled.

As snow flecked the Kremlin’s golden domes outside, Disney offered cake and candy to aspiring princes and princesses who learned to waltz inside. Disney’s animated characters — officially frowned upon by some in Russia when the country was under Soviet control — twirled on the dance floor. Disney even flew in actors from the United States to sing popular songs from “Cinderella” and “Snow White.” Several months later, Disney announced that it would expand its presence here, making Russia a top priority.

But Disney, typically conservative, is only beginning to ponder making movies; so far, the company says it is more comfortable selling DVD’s, books and stuffed animals.

IN 1996, Paul Heth, with the Eastman Kodak Company as a sponsor, opened Moscow’s first modern, American-style theater here, in a converted conference hall near Pushkin Square. He called it Kodak KinoMir, or Cinema World. It was the first theater to show films with digital sound and dubbing that actually stayed in sync. Mr. Heth recalls moviegoers waiting in long lines to see the first film, “The Rock,” a Nicholas Cage thriller. The theater sold out for almost every showing during the next two years.

“The good news is, Russians love movies,” Mr. Heth said. Still, by 2000, there were only about 78 modern screens in 55 theaters throughout Russia, according to industry analysts. Then the boom hit. The number of screens passed 1,000 in 2005 and is expected to reach 1,350 this year.

But hurdles remain. Shortly before Mr. Heth’s company, Rising Star, opened its first KinoStar-branded theater in 2003, the seats arrived without bolts to attach them to the floor. “I don’t want to say doing business there is easy,” said Mr. Heth’s partner, Ms. Redstone. “It’s complicated enough in the United States. But it’s even more complicated there.”

Mr. Heth and Ms. Redstone say their theaters try to evoke the glamour of Hollywood, but with a modern twist. All are air-conditioned, built in suburban shopping malls and anchored by a megastore, like the furniture company Ikea. At the first KinoStar theater in suburban Moscow, attendants show customers to reserved seats. There, on a stage above the concession stand, the Bolshoi Theater’s orchestra played one evening. The theater sells beer and wine in the auditorium, as well as local pastries, sandwiches and sushi.

For some, extravagance has its drawbacks. A night at the movies is not cheap: tickets in Moscow cost more than $9. At first, patrons thought the theaters were “too glamorous,” Ms. Redstone said. “They thought they needed an invitation.”

Despite pricey tickets, Russian films have recently begun beating out Hollywood’s heavily promoted blockbusters by using Hollywood’s own tactics, including wide releases and promotional onslaughts — all of which are marketing novelties here. In 2004, the hugely popular “Night Watch” became Russia’s highest-grossing film ever, with $16.3 million in Russian box-office receipts, edging out the much-anticipated “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” which brought in $14 million.

Subsequent films made in Russia broke the “Night Watch” record. In 2005, “The Turkish Gambit,” a historical adventure film, garnered $19.3 million. A few months later, “Company 9,” a bloody, emotionally wrought movie about a cadre of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, pulled in $25.6 million. Mr. Putin viewed a special “Company 9” screening at his residence outside Moscow and declared the Russian film industry “reborn.”

“Day Watch,” the sequel to “Night Watch,” opened in January and grossed $34.7 million, three times more than Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” The twist is that locally produced Russian hits — often portrayed here as a backlash against imported American fare — are being spurred by Hollywood’s interest.

“Trackman” bears no resemblance to a Hollywood blockbuster. Its budget is about $2 million and its story is purely Russian: a bank heist goes sour and a group of robbers seize hostages. But it is a touchy theme in a country that in recent years has endured two hostage crises in which hundreds of people died — the first at a Moscow theater in 2002 and another at a school in Beslan in 2004. The robbers in the film escape into the labyrinthine tunnels under Moscow, only to encounter a mysterious killer, a former K.G.B. agent obsessed with protecting the subway passages that were long rumored to exist as secret escapes for Communist apparatchiks.

But the American influence on “Trackman” is clear. Monumental Pictures oversaw the movie from the start, conducting focus groups to test story themes and even bringing in an American script doctor to polish the prose. Star-making is also part of the mix for film producers because, here as in America, stardom sells.

“They also want their own Brad Pitts and Monica Belluccis,” said Michael Dounayev, the managing director of Sistema Mass Media, which founded Thema Production, a Luxembourg company that has produced two Russian films this year. Thema is converting an unfinished St. Petersburg military warehouse into a 45,000-square-foot production studio, and plans to open it next year.

The financial risk of making movies in Russia is small: most budgets are between $1 million and $5 million. But other headaches persist — quotidian problems like securing permits or office space.

“We couldn’t get an office,” said Mr. Lynton at Sony. “It’s not like Shanghai where there are new buildings. And it is not like they are in the best condition.”

To forestall similar problems, studios like Fox will not consider making a movie in Russia without a local producer onboard. Sony has an international executive, Gareth Wigan, who is based in Los Angeles but travels regularly to Russia to oversee the company’s films here.

Mr. Deck says delays that can dog film production anywhere seem compounded here because of Russia’s bureaucracy. And, of course, there is the language barrier. Still, his excitement is palpable. “You can’t build this set,” he said gleefully, peering down a subway tunnel where “Trackman” was being filmed.

Hollywood’s biggest challenge in Russia is a well-known culprit: film piracy. DVD’s are sold on the street for as little as $2 to $5 on the same day — and sometimes before — a movie’s theatrical debut. Many are copied directly from movie theater prints, suggesting the work of local industry insiders, not enterprising pirates seated in the back of a movie theater carrying camcorders. Mr. Schlicht estimates that movie studios and producers lose about 90 percent of potential Russian box-office revenue because of rampant piracy. But even that is not deterring the most intrepid investors.

“Russia is a hot market right now because things are actually happening,” said Tomas Jegeus, co-president of Fox’s international theatrical distribution division. “It is not just a promise of good fortune to come, like in so many other countries.”

Laura M. Holson reported from Los Angeles for this article, and Steven Lee Myers from Moscow.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company



This entry was posted on Sunday, July 16th, 2006 at 9:47 AM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed. Skip to the end and leave a response. Trackbacks are closed.

Leave a Reply

*Required (Not published)