Is Russian ani ready to rise? Stay tooned

New generation of animators trying to revive genre

MOSCOW -- Last year, producer Melnitsa's "Ilya Muromets i Solovey Razboynik" set a boxoffice record for Russia's domestic animation industry, grossing nearly $10 million on a budget of just $2 million.

The film, about a hero who has to rescue a treasure -- and his horse -- from a legendary bandit, was part of a mini-wave that has seen five animated features released here during the past six months. But while its success marks a major step forward from the market's darkest days in the early '90s, the local industry isn't ready to call it a trend just yet.

Influenced by Disney and Pixar, a new generation of Russian animators is busy trying to revive a genre that's been in crisis since the collapse of the Soviet economy. But meeting those standards -- both artistically and commercially -- is a work in progress, say professionals here, who point to a lack of technical talent and screenwriters as elements holding back the market.

"In the 1990s, the domestic animation industry hardly existed at all," said Dmitry Pisarevsky, a producer at Moscow-based company Era Vodoleya. "The situation was even worse than in the feature film industry, where some films were still being made."

Now, according to Pisarevsky, an older generation of animated filmmakers is giving way to a new one whose eyes are firmly on the boxoffice prize.

"We have two types of people working in animation," Pisarevsky said. "The older generation is more focused on conveying moral values and exploring creative ideas, while the younger generation is more concerned with the entertainment value and commercial success. And I'm sure the latter will soon win over the former."

Although it is difficult for Russian animated films to compete for domestic audiences with Disney/Pixar-level offerings, there are factors that could compensate for that, industry observers contend.

"Technology apart, if a Russian animated film had a strong script, dynamic action and good dialogue and if it were directed well ... it could compete with an American (animated film) for domestic audiences, or maybe elsewhere," said Alexander Gerasimov, director of film company Masterfilm.

"A lack of qualified screenwriters is the biggest problem," said Alexander Boyarsky, head of the St. Petersburg-based animation studio Melnitsa, adding that, while domestic film schools annually produce dozens of screenwriters, few are qualified enough to work either in the feature film or animated film industry.

"Similarly, we lack directors and animation artists," he said. "None of the Russian schools train animation artists, so we find talented artists and train them to work in animation."

That shortage of qualified personnel is one of the factors hampering possible cooperation and co-productions with Western countries.

"We don't have sufficient resources here at this point," Gerasimov said. "And production-wise, we don't have big facilities as in China or Southeast Asia. So, producing animation here for other countries would be too long, too expensive and with too many risks involved. On the other hand, if at some point there were money and ideas here, domestic producers might look for talent elsewhere."

There are, however, encouraging signs that Russian animation is making progress.

"Russian audiences' interest in animated films is increasing. People here want to watch domestically made feature-length animation films, just like American ones," Boyarsky said.

"The animation industry here is certainly on the rise," said Gerasimov, who points to the recent flurry of local product on Russian screens, adding that about twice as many films are in various stages of production.

But Melnitsa's Boyarsky, while justifiably proud of his studio's success with "Razboynik," has his eye on establishing a road to long-term success.

"Our studio has to achieve stability first, releasing a feature-length film a year, rather than every other year, before we can think about higher budgets," he said.

It's a target the company might be close to realizing, with two films now in production and two more in preparatory stages.

Era Vodoleya's Pisarevsky, meanwhile, expects his new feature-length animated film -- the $2.5 million "Sapsan," scheduled for release at the end of the year -- to do well in theaters.

"This is a family type of movie, and I'm sure that it will turn in a profit," he said. "We have secured a participation and distribution deal with (major Russian film producer and distributor) Central Partnership, so we are pretty sure it will perform well at the boxoffice."