Hollywood studios bullish on Russian bear

Co-productions bloom as territory’s output expands

MOSCOW -- As the Russian film industry increases its annual output to about 100 features annually -- about equal to that of Soviet times -- Hollywood majors are stepping up their involvement in production for the local market.

"It's a natural process," said Vadim Ivanov, commercial director at Universal Pictures Russia, whose company is actively seeking projects in the market. "Every major wants to use local resources in the countries where they operate in the best possible way."

Sony Pictures Entertainment already has become part of the local scene. Two years ago, it formed Monumental Pictures as a joint venture with Patton Media Group. The company's first production, the youth drama "Awaiting the Miracle," was released last spring, and although its boxoffice take was average, the company said it isn't discouraged and has a few more projects in development.

Disney also is eyeing the local market. "Films that we are planning to make here are meant for Russian viewers, because our top priority is to create the perception of Disney as a Russian brand," said Marina Jigalova-Ozkan, general manager for the Walt Disney Co. in Russia and CIS. "That is why we would like to focus on well-known characters from Russian literature. These would be absolutely local projects, (by) Russian scriptwriters. I hope that in 2009, we will show our first film to Russian viewers."

"For 2008, we have four projects green-lighted and more in the pipeline," Patton Media Group co-owner Michael Schlicht said. "Principal photography for a new movie by director Alexander Atanesyan is scheduled to begin in March, followed in April by shooting of the sequel to the boxoffice champion 'Best Movie Ever.' "

According to Schlicht, Monumental Pictures also is in the preparatory stages on a pair of projects with TV channel CTC: a movie that will be co-produced by "High School Musical" producer Bill Borden and another under the working title "The Governess." Principal photography for both may start this summer.

20th Century Fox made a first-time investment in Russian films in 2005 that kicked off with a three-picture arrangement with Russian director Timur Bekmambetov involving his fantasy-action franchise "Night Watch," its sequel "Day Watch," and the third installment, "Dusk Watch," currently in the works.

"It does make us a good citizen of the world to be able to bring our expertise and resources to aid a lot of local filmmakers," Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said at the time of the Bekmambetov deal. "We have massive resources around the world that allow us to support local talent, and it affords us an opportunity for growth beyond our homegrown slate."

Fox is presently participating on a minimum guarantee basis in the financing of writer-director Garik Sukachyov's "The House of the Sun," now in postproduction. The drama's announced budget of $4 million is considered just about average for Russian films these days. And Hollywood majors apparently do not have immediate plans to push up production budgets here. "Locally produced movie budgets will correspond to average market investments in Russian film productions," Jigalova-Ozkan said.

At the same time, U.S. companies are seeking a slot in the Russian film market not yet assumed by domestic producers. "There is a niche in the Russian market that is still practically not occupied -- films for the whole family," Jigalova-Ozkan said. "And our objective in the Russian market is to create a quality film for family viewing."

Despite the lackluster boxoffice performance of Russian films released last year, the U.S. majors don't seem discouraged. "After more than 10 years of crises and dramatic changes in the Russian society, it is still difficult for the new generation of Russian filmmakers to feel the nerves of the cinema audience," Schlicht said. "However, for the past few years, we have also seen five to six Russian films a year that were successful."

Meanwhile, Russian talent may be making inroads in Hollywood. Universal's Ivanov points out that the comic book-based actioner "Wanted" (Universal/Spyglass) was directed by Bekmambetov ("Day Watch") and employed "a lot of Russian talent." It's set for U.S. release in June by Universal.