Russia diversifies into local production


Michael Dounaev, CEO of Sistema Mass-Media, the parent company of Thema Prods., which plans to open its own roughly 130,000-square-foot studio in St. Petersburg this summer, believes it's time for Russia's film industry to have a stronger producer system.

Dounaev, who also is co-founder of Thema, says the company, whose recent co-productions include Woody Allen's 2005 drama "Match Point" and this year's Nelson Mandela prison-guard biopic "Goodbye Bafana" and Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn," will attempt to revamp certain working methods in Russia that he says must change if the industry is to mature.

"We have call sheets and daily reports -- our partners have never seen anything like this in Russia before," says Dounaev, who grew up in Japan and speaks several languages. "If a director is expected on-set at 9 a.m., he is there at 9 a.m. -- not 2 p.m. like many Russian directors."

Thema, which has offices in St. Petersburg, Luxembourg and London, submitted two movies to the Festival de Cannes, both of which will be seen in market screenings even if they were not picked up by festival program sections.

"In Tranzit," directed by Tom Roberts and featuring an international cast that includes John Malkovich and rising talent such as Russian actor Yevgeni Mironov, Daniel Bruhl ("Good Bye Lenin!") and Nathalie Press ("My Summer of Love"), is an English-language story about a chance postwar meeting between Russian women prisoners of the Gulag and a group of German prisoners of war sent to Siberia.

Thema's second Cannes offering is "Lilacs," a Russian-language biopic about composer Sergei Rachmaninoff that is directed by top Russian helmer Pavel Lungin. His last film, "Ostrov" (The Island), scooped up all the top honors at the Golden Eagle Awards and the Nika Awards, the two leading annual Russian film kudosfests.

The two Cannes movies neatly reflect Thema's approach to doing business in Russia, where it plans to produce three or four films a year at its St. Petersburg studios with budgets of about $3 million each -- reasonably high by Russian standards.

Current projects include "Gagarin," an English-language picture a la 1983's "The Right Stuff" based on the life of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The company also has plans to co-produce Russian-language movies with the Walt Disney Co. -- which recently opened a Moscow office -- including the tentatively titled "Dark Waters" and "Billionaire's Fair," a kind of Russian "Ocean's Eleven."

"The fact that we are building a studio shows that we see the economies of scale here," Dounaev says, adding that Russia's "northern capital" of St. Petersburg can double for Amsterdam, Paris, Venice and 1920s America.

Thema's balance between Western and Russian projects -- last year, its projects skewed 80% Western, this year, they're 50/50 -- suggests it sees potential for further promoting its producer system in Russia, making it a company to watch.