Hollywood Finds a Warm Welcome at the St. Petersburg Film Forum
Agents and execs visit Russia's cultural capital to get a foothold in a rapidly growing market.
When Los Angeles-based filmmaker Mike Ott was invited to screen his low-budget indie drama Littlerock at the St. Petersburg Film Forum, he had no idea what to expect.
The event, currently in its second edition, is still in search of an identity after launching in May of last year. That first edition, which was only supposed to be a one-off affair to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II, proved so successful that organizers — including a well-funded city government — decided to ride the momentum and transform the event into an annual affair.
The Forum is now part of a long-range strategy to build a film industry from the ground up in what is considered Russia’s “cultural capital.” That vision includes a recently opened, state-of-the-art film studio, a new film school and, perhaps most importantly, an attempt to steal some of Moscow’s thunder by luring Hollywood to the city Peter the Great hoped would become Russia’s “gateway to the West.”
For Ott, who has fielded requests to attend festivals all over the world, including Thessaloniki and Cairo, the offer to participate in a burgeoning event in such a historic city was too tempting to pass up.
"Saint Petersburg is one of those cities that you dream about visiting, but never think you'll ever actually have the chance,” he says. “The art, the history, the people are all amazing. So for me, being here is not just exciting, but very surreal."
Examples of progress after the Forum’s first edition are everywhere: From the expanded fleet of Audis that line the street outside the fest’s plush headquarters at the Grand Hotel Europe just off famed Nevsky Prospect, to the opening night film, Pedro Almodovar’s Cannes competition entry The Skin I Live In, which provided some high-profile legitimacy in a way last year’s fest opener, the obscure Russian war drama Just Not Right Now, did not.
Then there’s Hollywood’s presence. Last year, the Forum hosted a handful of international film execs such as Paul Higginson, vp of 20th Century Fox CIS, and Michael Schlicht, executive director of Sony Pictures Entertainment. It was a strong collection of studio talent, but this year’s Hollywood contingent runs the gamut, from up-and-coming directors like Ott, to L.A.-based lawyers, agents, financiers and producers.
And unlike last year, when some high-powered attendees appeared uncertain about the purpose at the event, this year’s Hollywood crowd knows exactly why it’s here: To be aggressively courted by fest organizers and attendees through a combination of panel discussions, roundtables and a nightly cocktail reception that provides some invaluable networking.
“I’d been to the city before so I was kind of salesman for it with friends in the industry,” says David Matlof, an entertainment lawyer with L.A.-based firm Hirsch, Wallerstein, Hayum, Matlof & Fishman. “It’s an incredible city and the festival offers an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what’s happening here.”
He adds however that since the local film sector is really in its infancy, the most valuable commodity Hollywood attendees can offer is advice on how to build the industry. What St. Petersburg offers is a sense of culture and history Hollywood can’t touch.
“There are people here at this festival who are the third generation of artists in their family,” he says. “I don’t know anyone like that in the States. There’s probably more art in the Hermitage than there is in all of California.”
Hollywood’s presence at the festival isn’t exactly altruistic, as William Morris Endeavor’s Graham Taylor is quick to point out. After all, Russia is now the fifth largest film market in the world, and growing. Asked if there are opportunities to be had, Taylor answers quickly.
“One hundred percent,” he says. “The reality is that Russia on a macro level is obviously hugely important and St. Petersburg specifically has a long history of great artists and filmmaking, so I wanted to come here and understand it better and see if there’s a role for us here.”
If there is one Hollywood exec on hand who can attest to how the Film Forum has grown since it’s first edition, it’s Gary Marenzi, who recently left his post as head of worldwide TV at MGM to start up his own consulting firm. Marenzi was part of a team of execs invited last year, and he says the progress the event has made was immediately evident.
“This year they’ve actually brought in more working independent producers,” he says. “Last year they had some window dressing but I think that this year by having a better cross section it provides more legitimacy. Also, Russia is exploding. There is a lot of growth that is still going to happen in this market that is going to provide outlets for all the audio visual content that’s being produced here.”
Despite all the optimism, organizers concede that the Kinoforum is still a long way from being the kind of event it needs to be if it’s going to survive on the increasingly crowded international festival circuit.
“It needs a market,” says St. Petersburg born Leonard Yanovsky, who, as head of L.A. and St. Petersburg-based distribution outfit Intra Communications provides a crucial link to Hollywood. “We have to increase the commercial side of the event. With the box office growing every year, a lot of independent producers are going to want to sell their products to Russia and this will open an important door within the country. This will have to happen in the next few years.”
Another problem is star power. While the first edition managed to land Antonio Banderas, the most recognizable name this year is probably actress Natasha Kinski, who is perhaps still best known for Roman Polanski’s Tess, which came more than 30 years ago.
What’s worse, the recent Moscow Film Festival opened with the splashy Russian premiere of Paramount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with director Michael Bay and the film’s cast on hand to provide the event with the kind of media buzz every upstart film festival desperately needs.
For Ott, who was thrilled with the warm reception his film received after screening on July 12, star power is of little concern. What he was after was exposure for his film and the opportunity to experience a world he knew little about. In that sense St. Petersburg delivered — and then some.
"The reaction from the audience was stellar,” he says. “I don't think I've ever signed so many autographs in my life. But my favorite moment was talking with a woman in her 70's who told me, in very broken English, how she was so touched by my film and that she had lived a similar experience to the lead character. For me, those are the comments that mean the most."