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Film, TV production partners are having a blast these days

As a lawyer, St. Petersburg-based Nickolai Suslov knows how to negotiate a production contract. As a former KGB special ops expert, he knows how to get things blown up — and how to get his hands on a MiG jet when he needs one.

The gray-haired, fortysomething film executive was in Hollywood last week to talk up a production partnership with L.A.-based producer Dave Riggs, founder of Afterburner Films. The pair was introduced last year at Cannes, which they had visited in search of strategic partnerships.

Riggs was looking for a partner in Eastern Europe with access to cost-effective production facilities. Suslov, with about 36 Russian action titles to his credit, was looking to break into the English-speaking market and for a partner to help create English-speaking product for his studio, Svarog Films.

With a war chest of funding out of Russia, the new entity Svarog-Afterburner plans to create a library of high-end, cost-effective action movies in the $10 million range for theatrical, cable, DVD and over-the-air broadcast during the next eight years, says Riggs, an award-winnng former marketing executive turned producer. "I was looking for a way to do things outside the high costs of the U.S., and he was looking for somebody to market Russian-made action films in the West," Riggs says.

Suslov has one great advantage when it comes to making action films targeted to an 18-34 audience. He has rounded up a large crew of former KGB operatives who are armaments and explosives experts. "In 36 films, not one injury has occurred, even though we use real explosives and real weapons. We don't depend on special effects. We really do blow things up and film it," he says.

"We also have access to deserted villages that were never actually occupied by people but were built in great detail for KGB training purposes," Suslov adds. "We can blow up buildings there." Suslov and his team have also blown up numerous old Soviet-era buildings in cities around the country that were due for demolition.

Adds Riggs: "You can create an expensive special-effects shot of a rocket being fired at a building and blowing it up. Or you can actually fire a rocket at a building and blow it up — far cheaper and a much better result. After all, it's the real thing."

Under an arrangement with the Russian Military Command, Suslov and Riggs also have the ability to work with the Russian Air Force and Navy, the partners say.

Riggs has access to some Vietnam-era MiG jets through his own L.A.-based aerospace company, while Suslov says he can get up-to-the-minute combat-ready MiGs in Russia for the movie slate.

Contacts are a big help in getting things done in today's Russia, Suslov confides. His father was a high-ranking KGB agent, and he himself was handpicked to lead Soviet overseas intelligence efforts, he says. But two weeks after getting the assignment, the Berlin Wall came down and he was pretty much out of a job. "That's when I turned to filmmaking," he says.

His first foray into the business came about through his activities as a lawyer. A filmmaking friend and client found himself in financial difficulties and Suslov offered to try to help out with the business. "That's when I discovered that I both liked and was good at this," he recounts. He adds that unlike his stint with the KGB, he actually does get to blow things up these days.
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