Cannes: Russian Producer In Search of the Next 'Leviathan' (Q&A)

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Alexander Rodnyansky says a plummeting ruble and sanctions are taking their toll on the local film industry, but that won’t prevent him from targeting overseas markets — including America.

Alexander Rodnyansky, founder and head of A.R. Films, is a seasoned filmmaker and one of the best-known Russian producers and media executives in the international film industry.

The founder of the Ukrainian independent television channel 1+1 and an architect of the meteoric rise of Russian CTC Media, Rodnyansky, 53, sold his media assets at peak prices and now concentrates on producing for film and TV. With more than a few dozen feature films (including Stalingrad, the highest-grossing Russian film of the decade, and Leviathan, winner of a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nominee) and TV shows under his belt, he has been a regular at Cannes for the past 20 years.

His company has headquarters in Moscow and representation in Hollywood and operates in Asia and across Central and Eastern Europe. He also owns Russia’s leading national film showcase, Kinotavr, which takes place each June in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. Rodnyansky, whose wife, Valeriya Miroshnichenko, produces a film fest in Russia called Kino v detalaykh (Cinema in Details), has two children studying in the U.S.: Alexander Jr., 29, completing his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton, and Elen, 21, who is attending the University of Chicago.

Rodnyansky spoke with THR in his comfortable and contemporary offices in an old industrial building near Pushkin Square in the heart of Moscow.

What brings you to Cannes this year?
A couple of key projects: There is the much-anticipated new film by Andrei Zvyagintsev; I can’t say anything about that, other than it will, like all his films, explore the psychological relationship between men and women. We’ll talk to our partners in Europe — Pyramid in France, Artificial Eye from the U.K. and Sony Classics in the U.S., who all did such a fantastic job with Leviathan — as I know they are very excited to see this project.

We will also be promoting another new project, The Duelist, which begins principal photography in mid-July. It’s an original script, with English and French dialogue, and set in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, when the city was a truly international European capital. It delves into the complex world of Russian dueling, where the code allowed for those with physical or mental disabilities to appoint a proxy to fight for them. Our hero, Yakovlev, has returned to Russia after exile on the Aleutian Islands, the Alaskan isles that Russia and America share. Like a true historic figure, a member of the Tolstoy family — who was known as Tolstoy Amerikanets [American Tolstoy] — who spent time in those remote isles, our hero is covered from head to toe in native tattoos.

It is the first genre movie for a very talented director, Aleksey Mizgirev, who won best director at Locarno in 2009 for Tambourine, Drum. The film creates an entire world and opens with Yakovlev and his opponent sitting in a room with pistols pressed against each other’s foreheads. The roots of Russian roulette — a world that brought us to the famous scene in The Deer Hunter — go back to the universe in which the duelist lived and fought.

Relations between Russia and its near neighbors in Eastern Europe and further west are strained. Are sanctions and the devaluation of the ruble having an impact on business?
We have good relations with U.S. producers and partners. We are now exploring a number of projects in the U.S. [Timur] Bekmambetov has just produced a horror film, Unfriended, which took in $25 million in its first 10 days at the U.S. box office. We have a slate of five movies of different genres in the $1 million to $7 million range with which we are keen to involve U.S. partners.

Although business is hard for U.S. movies in Russia — box-office receipts may be good in ruble terms but have lost a lot of value in dollar terms — the flip side of that is for the first time, one can truly say that Russian creative value is cost-effective when compared with other parts of Eastern Europe.

Of course, sanctions have deeply influenced Russia; the market for international productions has shrunk by as much as 50 percent, and with the economy in trouble, consumers are feeling the pinch and have less to spend. They are making a clear choice; they like The Avengers and Furious 7, which took in 1.6  billion rubles, which would have been worth $55 million a year ago but today is about $30 million.

You have a distribution business, A Company, that is active in Eastern Europe. How is that market doing?
We have business interests in almost all of the countries in the region, and we plan to pursue our strategy aggressively there, but right now, as you can understand, the territories of the former Soviet Union are largely affected by the same economic process that affects our core market. In terms of distribution, only the Polish market has sufficient commercial potential.

My company has a lot of experience in producing high-budget event TV series for the leading networks in Russia. We specialize in period dramas that are based on iconic works of Russian literature and deal with important historic events, such our TV series based on [Mikhail] Bulgakov’s White Guard and Demons by Dostoyevsky.

We are developing a few other projects that follow the same paradigm — visually captivating dramas set against a backdrop of tragic events that changed the course of history — with one notable distinction: Now we are shifting our focus toward internationally viable TV series. The projects in development will be interesting to our audiences at home as well as television viewers in Europe and even the U.S.

Did the controversy over Leviathan being critical of Vladimir Putin help win it attention? How are your relations now with the authorities?
The controversy brought it more attention. In a way, it made the film bigger than it was. Film critics and the press all over the world had loved the film. They appreciated its artistic quality very much. That’s why it did so well and was so warmly received in Cannes. Well before the controversy, it had been a festival hit in London, Munich, Dubai, Goa, Telluride and Toronto, not to mention later the Globes and the Oscars.

A film conceived in 2008 as an art house project could not have anticipated the political situation in Russia in 2014. Zvyagintsev is a director who tells the truth in his stories; that is his active mission. As far as further state funding now — well, we will always explore all the options. I don’t think that in Russia you can find a lot of directors to compare with Zvyagintsev, in terms of his art and professionalism. I believe it is the duty of any minister to support artists like him. What is Russian cinema if it is not Zvyagintsev?

Any favorite haunts in Cannes?
My favorite pizza place is La Pizza Cresci in Cannes’ old town. And I often have meetings at the Carlton and dinners at Tatu or the Hotel du Cap in Antibes. I’ll usually go out and eat a couple of times with another Cannes regular, Len Blavatnik [owner of Warner Music], who is always in town with his wife, Emily. Len is a very approachable guy, really interested in film and people. We’ve known each other many years.