Fox Searchlight keeping 'Watch'

U.S. studio putting new spin on Russian fantasy franchise

Two phenomenally successful blockbuster movies — "Night Watch" (Noch-noi Dozor) and "Day Watch" (Dnevnoi Dozor) — captured something of the eerie essence of life in post-totalitarian Russia with their tales of clashes between the forces of light and dark in the shadow-filled world of Moscow in the 1990s.

And the director of both, Kazkah-born Timur Bekmambetov, has been hailed as one of the future stars of filmmaking by big names including Quentin Tarantino. The helmer's brace of vampire tales bit out $51 million at the Russia boxoffice alone between 2004 and 2006.

It's all been very Russian — breathtaking and bizarre at the same time — just as the films' producers, First Channel head Konstantin Ernst and deputy Anatoly Maksimov, planned.

And that has proved a recipe for success overseas. "Night Watch" — based on Russian sci-fi writer Sergei Lukyanenko's novels — was an international hit two years ago when distributors Fox Searchlight matched its Russian boxoffice take of $16 million by luring in U.S. audiences keen for a surreal taste of filmmaking.

"Day Watch" — which pulled in nearly $35 million in Russia in the weeks after its January 2006 Moscow premiere — hits international theaters this fall, stylishly updating the story to today's terror-threatened world, in a story where the planet is at risk from imminent destruction courtesy of an ancient "chalk of fate."

But the next outing in the franchise, "Dusk Watch" — currently under development at Fox Searchlight — will be a wholly English-language, U.S. adaptation of the strange twilight world of vampires and form-changing creatures.

The third movie — penciled in for a possible 2008-09 or later release — will be directed by Bekmambetov, with Ernst and Maksimov on board as executive producers.

Russia's First Channel has the option to co-finance up to $50 million of "Dusk Watch" and Bekmambetov will serve as a script adviser. But aside from that, the movie will be free of direct creative involvement from the Russian side.

Fox Searchlight, which took the English-language project as part of a three-film deal back in 2004, has little to say about "Dusk Watch" but something of what audiences can expect can be gleaned from the three key Russians.

Maksimov says "Dusk Watch," will be a "100% American production, with American actors and English language."

"It's at script stage at the moment and is taking a little longer than expected," Maksimov says, adding that, although the movie will be based "on the world created by Lukyanenko," the characters will be original to the U.S. movie.

"Night Watch" and "Day Watch" were driven by the true inner psychological experiences that Russians underwent as the Soviet Union collapsed beneath them, Maksimov observes.

To translate that energy to a film set in America — probably New York or Los Angeles — "Dusk Watch" will need to be more grounded in the reality of everyday American lives than in a typical superhero model, he says.

Bekmambetov agrees. "If society is in a conceptual crisis and there are no simple answers, people do not know which way to go," he says. "They look for mystical things and movies to get them through. (The earlier two movies) were successful in Russia because there was a crisis and they came at the right moment."

Ernst — who originally set out to create films with Hollywood production values but quintessentially Russian content — says: "The movies work in Russia as 'empire in collapse.' In America, ('Dusk Watch' should) work as 'empire overdeveloped' at the risk of decline."

Ernst observes that "Night Watch" did best in those countries in which it was dubbed rather than subtitled.

If Fox holds true to that formula internationally, it should re-peat the kind of success the earlier two "Watches" have enjoyed, the three Russians predict.