St. Petersburg makes pitch to be the Hollywood of Russia

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Peter the Great would have been proud. During the inaugural St. Petersburg International Film Forum in May, it was clear that organizers had made a genuine first step toward transforming Russia's unofficial cultural capital into a thriving movie hub. Although Moscow might garner the headlines, newcomers to St. Petersburg discovered a vibrant city that is far more than simply the "Venice of the North," as it is frequently called. Displaying only a hint of lingering Soviet influence -- the occasional stark, utilitarian government building; taxi drivers and policemen in boxy Trabants -- St. Petersburg combines the baroque grandeur of Western Europe with a stoic, hard-won Russian sensibility to create a multifaceted world all its own.

From the myriad monuments dedicated to its famed military leaders to its 30-plus museums, the city offers an immersive experience in art and history that is exhilarating, if not a bit overwhelming. This is, after all, a place where artists managed to thrive despite centuries of political turmoil, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, who penned "Crime and Punishment" here (one can tour his apartment and visit key locations from the book); Alexander Pushkin, who walked the storied Fields of Mars searching for inspiration; and Vladimir Nabokov, who was born in St. Petersburg before emigrating to America.

Festival organizers were wise to capitalize on this by shuttling attendees to several landmarks, such as the sprawling Hermitage and the State Russia Museum, and special events including a stunning three-hour performance of "La Bayadere" by the Mariinsky Ballet and a lavish dinner with Gov. Valentina Matviyenko in the opulent ballroom of Catherine the Great's palace in Tsarskoye Selo. (The Romanovs weren't shy about building monuments to their greatness, but the city certainly is better off because of it.)

Given everything St. Petersburg has to offer, it's surprising that this is the first time it has hosted a film festival. To help the event stand out on an increasingly crowded international fest calendar, organizers shrewdly invoked the city's rich heritage by linking the event to the 65th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis. It's a moment in history St. Petersburgers know well; the city, then known as Leningrad, famously dug in and withstood a 900-day Nazi blockade before Hitler's army was defeated by Allied forces in 1945.

St. Petersburg's deputy mayor, Alla Manilova, says that while the festival program -- which consisted of Russian war films like Mikhail Kalatozov's 1957 classic "The Cranes are Flying" as well as special screenings of such recent studio fare as Fox's "The Thin Red Line" and Disney's "Pearl Harbor" -- looked back on a pivotal moment in history, the hope was that festgoers would see firsthand all that St. Petersburg has to offer in the future, especially to Hollywood and Europe.

"Our city is a jewel, and we want to attract more people to it," Manilova says. "We think St. Petersburg is much more comfortable for people from America and the West because it is more of a European city than anywhere else in Russia. We want visitors from Hollywood to know that they will find a friendly administration in St. Petersburg, and they will not experience any red tape concerning anything they would like to do here."

To that end, organizers invited a delegation of studio executives to the event including Gary Marenzi, president of worldwide distribution at MGM; Paul Higginson, a senior vp at Fox; Michael Schlicht, executive director of Sony Pictures Entertainment CIS; Hans-Bodo Mueller, managing director of Twentieth Century Fox CIS; and Leonard Yanovsky, chairman and CEO of Intra Communications. Also on hand were Hungarian-born American producer Andrew Vajna ("Terminator Salvation") and Antonio Banderas, who raved about the event and the city during an opening news conference.

"The regional government is very business-friendly," Marenzi says. "With such a beautiful city as a backdrop, an annual film festival would only enhance the reputation of St. Petersburg as a great gateway to doing more business in Russia."

Because it's the local government's aim to make this an annual event that will continue to appeal to Westerners, Manilova says that in many ways the festival is continuing a vision of St. Petersburg that began with Peter the Great himself. She laughs approvingly at the suggestion that more than two centuries after his death, the man who oversaw the birth of the city was something of an unofficial artistic director at this year's event.

"Yes it's true, Peter the Great was an innovator," she says. "We don't want to create just a local film festival; we want this to be an international festival. Before St. Petersburg was created, Russia was considered the end of the world, a place of peasants. After Peter the Great visited Europe, he decided that he would turn Russia to the West, and he built the city as a window to the West. We are continuing that tradition of innovation."
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