A Renaissance in Russian
Text Vladimir Kozlov
When back in 2002 the movie Antikiller directed by Yegor Konchalovsky became the first Russian movie to gross more than $1 million at the domestic box office, it was taken by many as a sign that the Russian film industry, which had lain in shambles for most of the 1990s, was beginning to recuperate. Now, seven years on, the Russian film scene is showing clear signs of recovery.
“Renaissance may be a little too strong a word when it comes to the current state of the Russian film industry, but we’ve been seeing an annual increase in the number of movies produced here for several years,” said Yuri Plechev, general director of the Russian Guild of Producers. “And this is a very positive trend. Unlike the production of TV serials, which is almost always a profitable business, making movies for the big screen is risky.”
Despite the potential risks, producers seem to be willing to invest in domestic cinema. Last year, about 100 feature films were made in Russia, which is on par with filmproduction figures from the Soviet time. The increase is quite impressive, compared with statistics throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s — a couple of dozen movies per year at most, and often less than that. Meanwhile, increases have been reported not only in the number of movies made but also new theaters built, as well as the amount of cash spent by Russians on going to the movies. In 2007, Russia’s box offices grossed a record $565 million, a quarter of which was contributed by domestic films.
Meanwhile, recent years have seen not only commercial but also creative successes for domestic filmmakers. In 2003, a movie by then-unknown firsttime feature director Andrei Zvyagintsev, The Return, won the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Four years later, his sophomore effort, The Banishment, was an official selection at Cannes, arguably the world’s most respected film event, and eventually won the best actor prize, which went to Konstantin Lavronenko. The streak of international recognition continued this year, when 12 by veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov was nominated for the best foreignlanguage feature Oscar and Mermaid by young director Anna Melikyan earned prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival and at Sundance.
Many on the domestic film scene agree that the government has played a crucial role in preserving the industry in Russia, and state support remains an important source of financing for domestic productions. Since a law on support for the film industry was enacted in 1996, the government has spent millions of rubles in financial aid for film projects. “If there were no state support, there would be no film industry in this country,” said Plechev.
Currently, the state is helping to finance about 210 feature films in various stages of production, and another 70 projects have been approved for state support in 2008 and 2009, Sergei Lazaruk, deputy head of the State Agency for Culture and Cinema, said at a recent industry conference. More initiatives aimed at supporting the domestic film industry have been approved, he added. Within the next three years, the government is planning to build 200 new cinemas in smaller cities — those with populations of under 300,000 people, where private business is not in a hurry to expand because of lower return on investment and longer recuperation periods. In addition, the government has proposed the payment of cash bonuses to film production companies that have made commercially successful movies, Lazaruk said, but details of this scheme are not yet available.
Meanwhile, state grants are vital for first-time directors who would have difficulties raising funds for their debut features elsewhere. “All feature debuts are eligible for financing from the state as long as the budget does not exceed $350,000,” Lazaruk said, adding that competition is high and up to 15 projects could compete for one state grant.
But once a director’s first feature is made, he or she must rely primarily on other funding sources for subsequent projects, the state official noted. “We have too many film directors at the moment, whose work the government can no longer finance, and I hope that creative competition will lead to improving the quality of the films.”
And there is quite a lot of room for improvement, both in the creative and commercial domain. For example, of 85 Russian movies released in 2007, fewer than a dozen grossed $5 million or more at the box office, while many flopped completely, said Mark Lolo, general director of Central Partnership Sales House, the distribution wing of Russia’s largest film company, Central Partnership.
He explained that Russian audiences’ expectations are largely based on the high-quality blockbusters they’ve been watching for years now. “Cinemagoers have very high requirements for movies, which have been informed by Hollywood products.”
The issue of competition between domestic films and Hollywood movies has been under discussion for some time. “In Russian theaters, there is dominance of Hollywood cinema,” Plechev said. “And domestic distributors are often unwilling to buy Russian movies, opting for American ones instead as more commercially viable.”
However, according to Plechev, the introduction of long-discussed steps aimed at the “protection” of domestic filmmakers, such as national film quotas, wouldn’t work. “Quotas and restrictions have never led to a positive outcome,” he said. “Russian movies have to compete for audience in fair conditions.”
But at this point, not all is rosy when it comes to the quality of Russian movies, which causes some in the Russian film community to be less than optimistic about the current situation. “The fact that the number of annually made movies has increased to Soviet-time levels is not a sign of renaissance of Russian cinema,” said Daniil Dondurey, editor of the monthly industry journal Iskusstvo Kino [Cinema Art]. “It’s just pure figures. The size of investment in the industry, the number of people employed, and so on. When we talk about renaissance, we talk about the quality of films made, about their ability to live up to the expectations of millions of people. We’ve got nothing like that at the moment.”
Other industry insiders acknowledge the quality issue. “Unfortunately, the quality of domestic films sometimes leaves something to be desired, but there are quite palatable reasons for that,” Plechev said. “For more than a decade, the domestic film industry was in deep crisis, which resulted in a generation gap. The older generation of filmmakers left the stage while a new one has not yet matured. And this gap will be felt for a long time.”
According to Plechev, the domestic film industry is facing a dramatic shortage of talented directors and screenwriters. “These are our softest spots,” he said. “Our school for cinematography is very good, and we don’t have problems with other technical professions. But when it comes to directors and screenwriters, good new ones are few and far between.”
Plechev added that one solution to this problem may come as a result of a draft law currently being considered by the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russian parliament, which stipulates that a citizen should be able to get a second degree in creative areas for free. “Currently, VGIK [the state film institute] takes students right after secondary school to train them as screenwriters or directors. They aren’t mature enough for these professions; they lack life experience.”