Alexander Rodnyansky on 'Beanpole,' Embracing Opportunities in the Age of Netflix
The Russia super producer also discusses the threat of self-censorship and why he "never wanted to conquer Hollywood."
In Russia, and increasingly beyond, Alexander Rodnyansky is a pretty big deal. Over the past 15 years, Rodnyansky, 57, has established himself as one of Russia’s most successful and, arguably, most internationally accomplished film producers.
His credits include the last two Russian Oscar nominees: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) and Loveless (2017). He was also a producer on Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 2013 war epic Stalingrad, still Russia’s most successful local-language film, with a global gross of some $70 million.
The Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II, is also the backdrop for Beanpole, Rodnyansky’s latest production. The drama, from Russian director Kantemir Balagov — whose 2017 feature, Closeness, won the Fipresci international critics’ prize in Cannes — is set in Leningrad in 1945, just after the war has leveled the city. Two women, Iya and Masha, struggle to find meaning and hope in their lives as they rebuild amid the ruins. Beanpole will premiere in this year’s Un Certain Regard.
Outside Russia, Rodnyansky, born in Kiev to Jewish parents, has co-produced such features as Machete Kills and Cloud Atlas. In his day job, he runs his Moscow-based shingle Non-Stop Production and his new, Hollywood-based AR Content.
A member of the European Film Academy and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the U.S., Rodnyansky retains his passion for local films. He is president of Kinotavr, the country’s leading festival for Russian cinema. Rodnyansky spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Cannes about a new era of Russia self-censorship, increasing competition from Netflix and his Hollywood plans.
Tell us about the film you have in Cannes this year, Beanpole. At what stage did you get involved in that project? What gave you confidence in the young director, Kantemir Balagov?
I made a decision to work with Kantemir after I watched his [debut feature] Closeness. He showed me that project at an early stage, but I was busy with Loveless, and I didn’t react. But when I watched the finished film, I saw the potential of this young director, and the question was now what film we were going to make together. We considered several options and chose one that was closest to Kantemir. It’s a very complex drama focused on people going through post-traumatic stress disorder.
You’ve produced successful commercial movies as well as art house films. Which is easier to fund in Russia these days?
In Russia, it’s much easier for me to fund art house movies. People trust me and I can find funding outside the state support system. Leviathan was the first and only time in the history of my collaboration with director Andrey Zvyagintsev that we used government cash, covering 20 percent of the budget. It was a deliberate step; by doing that I hoped to defend us from possible political problems. But I turned out to be wrong. The government funding of the film — which was allegedly critical of the government — was later used as a reason for attacking us. Since then, I have tried to avoid state funding for art house movies. I have a pool of private investors, the resources of the company and my own resources, as well as international co-production resources. As for large commercial movies, state support is much more important, and we apply for it more often than we used to. Now we are working on Chernobyl, a movie connected to my own past, and for this project we applied for state support, which is likely to cover a large part of the budget.
To what extent is Russia’s film industry affected by censorship? What impact does it have?
The main impact is self-censorship. It triggers people’s defense mechanisms, touching upon fears enshrined in our cultural code. One testimony to that is a ridiculous thing that happened recently, when the Russian exhibitor of Hellboy, in dubbing the film, replaced the name Stalin with Hitler. Of course, the culture ministry didn’t require that, it was just self-censorship. As for the culture ministry itself, it selects films to be funded, and that’s where censorship takes place. We don’t have state commissions scrutinizing every script, as in Soviet times, but self-censorship is often enough. Too many people are scared.
Has the strained relationship between Russia and the U.S. had any effect on what you do?
So far, there has been no impact. In Russia, big politics often doesn’t descend to the level of real economic activity, and many businesses still collaborate with the United States despite the ugly relations [between the two countries]. The same applies to the film industry.
What about the culture ministry’s efforts to limit Hollywood releases to boost local productions?
I’m a vehement opponent of any attempts by the government to influence the movie exhibition segment. It’s the only healthy part of the Russian film industry. It shouldn’t be touched because it was built exclusively with private money. Avengers: Endgame was supposed to be released in Russia on April 25, just like everywhere in the world. But the release was postponed to the Monday to give the weekend to the Russian film Billions, whose title apparently reflects the ambitions of its creators for box office performance. But it’s clear that the film’s gross will fall short of the expectations, and theaters are facing a second lackluster weekend in a row. I have repeatedly criticized this twisted protectionism by the culture ministry for local movies. Strong Russian films don’t need government protection.
Has Netflix impacted your business model at all? Do you believe movies should be seen in theaters?
I accept the reality. Being a total cinephile who prefers to watch films in a movie theater, I still have to accept it. Also, this is a special form of distribution for some kinds of content. The more broadly entertaining movies are in theaters and there is less room for dramatic films. While in the U.S. there is still room for independent drama, Russia has less and less space for it. So, we are looking at streaming platforms, potentially, as partners to create radical, unconventional films.
What is the biggest challenge you face working in Russia?
I never had plans to conquer Hollywood. I would like to do universal stories in both film and television that would transcend borders and appeal to mass international audiences. So, I chose to be in Russia and create international stories with strong directors — both Russian and foreign — for the world. And this plan ran into problems in this country, which, unfortunately, is moving in the opposite direction. Russia is isolating itself from the world. But I remain optimistic.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 17 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.