Russian Oil Trader Keen to Produce English-Language Films

12:09 PM PST 12/29/2013 by Nick Holdsworth
Leonid Lebedev

After backing two Russian hits, Leonid Lebedev is ready to branch out to Hollywood fare.

MOSCOW -- Russian businessman Leonid Lebedev made his billions in oil trading, but his first love remains film.

A quarter century after he founded a "cooperative" film, TV and music production shingle, the 57-year-old businessman is planning to put his money and clout behind English-language co-productions.

Working with his American daughter, Julia Lebedev, 30, a Los Angeles-based graduate of USC who produced The Good Doctor, starring Orlando Bloom, Lebedev will be assembling a raft of current projects at the AFM.

"I finance films for reasons of philanthropy and joy of creation, not for gaining profits," Lebedev told The Hollywood Reporter. "That means that since I have much more freedom in what I produce and what the produced film will look like, I am more eager to invest in films whose commercial perspectives are uncertain, no matter how large the budget is, whether it's $50 million or $150 million."

Not given to seeking publicity, Lebedev made headlines three years ago when he and three other billionaires, Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov and Viktor Vekselberg were given a public dressing down by President Vladimir Putin, who accused them of being flush with cash but doing little to develop their flagging oil companies.

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Those things happen in Russia where the Kremlin takes an active role in steering the energy sector. Lebedev appears unruffled by the rough and tumble of the business environment and has backed two of Russia's recent film hits.

In 2008, he teamed up with director Valery Todorovsky's production company to co-produce Hipsters (in Russian, Stilyagi) a rom-com set in 1950s Moscow that was billed as Russia's first post-Soviet musical. He also produced this year's Russian Kinotavr film festival winner The Geographer Drank His Globe Away.

Lebedev is not unique among wealthy Russians seeking to put money into film. In 2005, Valery Chumak, who made his fortune in Siberian coal mines, backed Roland Joffe's film Captivity, starring Canadian actress Elisha Cuthbert. The $10 million film, set in North America, was shot on a Mosfilm studio backlot in Moscow.

Lebedev's comments are unusual, however, because after years of rumors in Hollywood about "rich Russians" providing cash for productions, Russian money still prefers not to advertise its private investments. But now, with his daughter's career beginning to take off, the businessman is happy to step out of the shadows and into the limelight.

He has multiple projects at AFM, all produced with his daughter through their Code Red Productions. They range from small budget projects, such as the $1.7 million comedy Dear White People, a satire about being a black face in a predominately white college campus, to Honor (Ch'est), a $7 million thriller set in England that examines the fraught world of interracial relationships and cultural conflict.

Also in production is The Prophet, an animated feature based on the spiritual verses of Lebanese-born poet Kahlil Gibran, with voices provided by Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek, among others.

The businessman also has a reputation for discretion as a patron of the arts. A philanthropist and keen sailor in his spare time -- his father was an officer in the Soviet navy -- Lebedev is also a major sponsor of the New National Contemporary Arts Center in Moscow and a member of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

Forbes Russia edition last year estimated that his oil company SINTEZ Group had an annual turnover of $1 billion and ranked 154th in the 200 largest private companies in Russia.

Lebedev has ambitions beyond local-language fare and college campus movies in the states. He believes a key opportunity to produce an English-language version of Hipsters was lost at the time.

"The film's director [Valery Todorovsky] met Tom Hanks after the movie came out, and Hanks told him he would have loved to have appeared in that film," Lebedev said, adding that they are hoping to find another suitable project to pitch to Hanks soon.

Although he describes his interests in producing films as a "hobby" -- repeating that it is his daughter Julia who is the professional in this field -- Lebedev is keen to forge relations with U.S. producers to further his ambitions for making English-language movies.

"There was a time when I, myself, planned to study film at USC," reflects Lebedev, who lived in California for a few years before and after the birth of Julia, his first daughter. (His younger daughter, Yana, 26, lives in Moscow, where she has founded an online fashion and trends guide.)

"It was 1984, and Milos Forman was supposed to be teaching the course, but he changed his mind due to work commitments, and without him, I too decided not to do it, deciding to study chemical engineering instead," he said.

Now Lebedev plans to use a combination of Russia state funding, banking and private investment and his own money to produce films that he hopes will engineer a chemistry that works well both with Russian and international audiences.

"In Russia, the film industry is more of a hobby. The distribution system is not transparent; no one can control money flows from picture sales," he said. "At the most, they provide profit for the film distribution companies. There are some positive stories of excellent sophisticated Russian films being commercially successful, but these examples are rare."

His approach is to produce entertaining films for a wide audience that are also thoughtful, he said, citing The Geographer Drank His Globe Away. "This is the best approach for making Russian cinema more popular and -- in the long run -- more profitable," he stated.

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