U.S. studios cautious amid Russian downturn

But majors pressing ahead with Russian-language versions

MOSCOW -- With Russian boxoffice down 18.3% in the first quarter, to $232.2 million, U.S. studios operating here are becoming more cautious about the number of screens on which films are released but have yet to make substantial changes to their release schedules, promotional budgets or production plans.

Michael Schlicht, head of Sony Pictures' Russian office, said his company has not experienced any major problems in theaters since the crisis hit the local film industry last fall. "True, there has been some decline in attendance," he said. "But we didn't have major releases either. Still, when it comes to home entertainment, we are already feeling a real crisis."

Schlicht said the studio is not planning to reduce the number of releases because of the crisis, but added that they "will be more careful with the number of screens on which films are released. Costs of film copies are tied to the exchange rate of the dollar."

"In ruble terms, we are collecting the money we predicted," Vadim Smirnov, deputy general director of 20th Century Fox's Russian office, said in the most recent edition of Exhibitors' Bulletin. Smirnov said the company's operating budget for the local market has not been reduced, while the number of screens depends upon the release.

"We have never released films on an excessive number of screens," Roman Isayev, distribution director at Karo, the Russian distributor of Warner fare, told The Hollywood Reporter. "So, this situation hasn't hit us hard and we are not envisioning a reduced number of screens as a strategy." He added that advertising budgets have increased in ruble terms over the last few months.

Despite the uncertain situation, Hollywood majors are going ahead with their Russian-language projects for the local market. Sony's "Samy Luchshi Film --2" (The Best Movie Ever -- 2) was released last January and grossed about $15 million in theaters, but the company's next release, "Pervaya Lyubov" (First Love), didn't fare so well, grossing only $1.7 million. Two more projects are in postproduction, Schlicht confirmed.

A spokesperson for Art Pictures, a company owned by director Fyodor Bondarchuk, said it is in negotiations with 20th Century Fox about a joint production of the movie "Onegin," a loose adaptation of the classic verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. Smirnov told Exhibitors' Bulletin that nearly 10 Russian-language films are in various stages of production, but wouldn't give details.

Disney plans to release its first Russian-language film, "Kniga Masterov" (Masters' Book), this autumn. Timur Bekmambetov is shooting "Chyornaya molniya" (Black Lightening) for Universal, scheduled to be released Dec. 31, and Paramount has been negotiating projects with Central Partnership, the Russian company confirmed.

Still, the fate of all those releases may be uncertain as forecasts for the local boxoffice are far from optimistic. "I think, we are looking at stagnation in ruble terms," Schlicht said. "Theater attendance may go up slightly but the increase would be eaten up by a drop in ticket prices."