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'Sputnik' Tribeca Film Festival

Eastern Promise: How Russia’s Screen Sectors Are Recovering In The Face Of The Pandemic

If there’s one thing a worldwide pandemic has taught us, it’s that even in an increasingly globalized world, different countries have different approaches on how to handle a crisis, which ultimately lead to different outcomes. Pre-Covid, Russia was one territory that was seeing a boom in its distribution and production landscape and, although it took a controversial and somewhat softer approach to lockdown compared to other territories, the country’s screen sectors haven’t been knocked off of their stride. 

The territory is not only reaping the benefits of a thriving entertainment sector on a local scale, but thanks to online streamers levelling the global field of content, Russian stories are also resonating with international audiences more than ever.

Russian Reset

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It’s a welcome move in the right direction, but something the film and television sector in the country has been working towards for a long time, notes Evgenia Markova, CEO of Russian film promotion body Roskino. 

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a huge breakdown in what was previously a strong cinematographic society of producers, directors and scriptwriters,” she says. “For many years there was no investment into the film industry on a state level and we all know the film industry develops when it has state funding. Fortunately, in the last 10 years we’ve seen an increase in investment from the Ministry of Culture return to the business, as well as from the Russian Cinema Fund and a number of new players – Russian Export Center, the Department of Entrepreneurship and Innovative Development of the city of Moscow, and the Agency for Creative Industries.” 

Indeed in 2019, in a move that further signaled Russia’s desire to work with the international industry, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev signed off a 40% cash rebate for foreign film productions in the territory. 

Naturally the pandemic has slowed things down on this side, but for a trial period of 2021-2022, the Russian government has allocated $1.3M to test the developed incentives program. Russian Export Center is now accepting applications until the end of May. 

“In addition to the federal incentives, we expect that regions in Russia will introduce rebates in the next few years,” says Evgeniya Danilchenko, head of creative industries export at the Russian Export Center. “For example, Kaliningrad plans to expand their existing incentives program to cover not only films, but also music videos and commercial videos. Krasnodar, a southern region, may increase the refund percent if the locations are mentioned during the filming process.” 

She adds: “The trial period is set not only to assess the real demand from international studios for filming in Russia and benefiting from rebates, but also to test the current program and modify it if necessary.” 

This year’s Key Buyers Event: digital, which is organized by Roskino, is even adding a co-production focus to its event, rather than the typical focus on distribution. The market, which is in its third year, will run virtually in English from June 8-10, presenting new projects, showcasing producers and local emerging and established talents from Russia. 

Access to public funding, lucrative private financing options (such as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s $100M film fund launched in 2019) and a vibrant local VOD sector which is hungry for content are just some of the factors that have helped boost local and international appetite for Russian storytelling. 

“It really feels like global audiences are responding to Russian stories much more than they did before,” says two-time Oscar nominated producer Alexander Rodnyansky. “Russia has at least seven new online platforms and all of them are producing and financing original series. And Netflix has popularized the idea of truly global content that can be viewed in the original language, which is very important for us.” 

As ever, piracy and censorship are “still obstacles” says one exec who points to Russian society at times being “very conservative and polarized,” but in terms of overall trends of the local sector’s health and stories crossing borders, the future is looking brighter.  

UAR

Box Office Recovery 

Before the pandemic hit, Russia’s box office had bounced back from 2015 and 2016, both of which were tough years following the crash of oil prices and a sharp devaluation of the ruble. 2019 marked one of the country’s strongest box office years, with annual takings hitting $857M (RUB55.5B), according to Russia’s Cinema Fund. Local comedy Son of a Rich, distributed by Central Partnership, was the highest earner that year taking nearly $50M in cinemas. 

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Russia enforced a short and hard lockdown from March to May. In Moscow, a digital pass system was enforced which only enabled residents to travel around the city with a permit. Cinemas re-opened in mid-July but only at 50% capacity. They have remained open since, despite various spikes in Covid infection rates since then.  

Vadim Vereshchagin, CEO of Russian production and distribution outfit Central Partnership, says that a year later, the market is looking “much better than we all expected.” 

“When the pandemic started and cinemas were closed, we all thought it was going to take a while for it to come back and we would lose a lot of business,” he says. “Obviously the VOD services have grown like crazy and the market has doubled – at least – so we knew it wasn’t going to be the same anymore. But what we’re seeing now is people still want to go to the movies. Those patterns haven’t changed. With even a 50% limitation on capacity, we’re almost at the same level as [we were in] 2019.” 

Indeed, Russian cinemagoers turned out for local fantasy-comedy title The Last Warrior: Root of Evil, a Disney co-production with indie studio Yellow, which has taken $28.3M since its release on January 1. Disney/Pixar’s Soul hit $18.3M at Russian cinemas, making it one of the biggest Pixar releases ever in the territory. Warner Bros/Legendary’s Godzilla Vs Kong has taken $11.7M  – one of the top five international releases so far for the film – while New Line/Warner Bros’ Mortal Kombat has earned $11M in theaters since its launch in the country a month ago. Miramax recently released international figures for Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man, which has taken $11.5M since it bowed on April 22. Russia was the first territory to release the Jason Statham actioner. 

“These are some huge numbers,” remarks Vereshchagin. “Admittedly the competition right now is pretty weak as there aren’t as many movies around. There are certain dramas that are not working, but that’s probably because people just don’t want to see dramas right now. That happened after World War II and the Great Depression in the U.S. where the most popular genre became local comedies. But the market is looking very, very healthy here.” 

Indeed, local comedies have, like other markets, proved to be a welcome tonic for audiences. Hype Film’s The Relatives, a road movie, became an early success story in the pandemic aftermath, taking $6.6M in Russian cinemas. 

“It showed that people wanted to come back to the cinemas for something light-hearted and fun and I think that was a major factor of the success,” says Hype Film’s Ilya Stewart.

Production Ramping Up

As the Russian box office finds its feet again, the production sector is booming. This has been largely led by the country’s extremely dynamic local VOD ecosystem, which saw a huge increase in appetite for content in the wake of the pandemic. According to a report by TMT Consulting, Russia’s online video market grew by more than 60% in 2020. 

Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov, co-heads of 1-2-3 Production, the outfit behind Netflix plague thriller To The Lake, say the pandemic has paved the way for a surge of VOD platforms. 

“Russia currently has [around] 10 large local streaming platforms, some of which are small parts of much larger ecosystems such as a bank, a mobile network provider, media holding companies and internet service providers,” says Fedorovich. “So, it’s not surprising that in 2020, the most interesting things were happening on the internet and content creators are now specifically targeting online audiences. The VOD segment in Russia is developing right before our very eyes and with our direct involvement. It’s a very opportunistic and creative time for the industry.”

Nikishov adds: “We’ve entered a qualitatively new era in our history.”

The surge in demand for online content from the VOD sector meant production houses had to step up capacity to fill the pipelines of these OTT platforms. Meeting this demand during a lockdown could have seemed somewhat of a paradox, but not for Timur Bekmambetov’s studio The Bazelevs Group. The innovative company kept content flowing thanks to the director’s Screenlife format, a form of storytelling that eschews traditional cameras for methods that visually drive the narrative through stories that unfold from the POV of smartphones and computer screens. Screenlife has previously seen titles such as Unfriended gross $65M globally (off a $1M budget) and Searching take more than $75M. 

“We continued to work a lot last year and because we have so many offices in different countries and we’re doing films on Screenlife format, we were all on Skype and Zoom before the lockdown,” says Bazelevs producer Maria Zatulovskaya. “It didn’t change much for us.” 

Bazelevs

Even though lockdown commenced right as Bekmambetov was in the middle of production on his 1950s World War II thriller V2 Escape From Hell, nimble production methods enabled Bazelevs to finish the shoot without any major hiccups. 

“Lockdown didn’t really influence the whole production thankfully, because of the way the production was set up” Zatulovskaya says. 

Other companies in Russia saw the benefit of this low-budget production format and, adds Zatulovskaya, nearly every VOD platform in the territory started making their own versions of Screenlife content. 

“On the one hand, it was great, but on the other hand it meant we started to have a lot of competition in the market,” she allows.  

Stewart says producers in Russia were lucky that the country was “quick to reintroduce safety measures to allow production to continue,” adding that the government put schemes in place to support the sector. 

“I know other territories haven’t been as lucky,” he says. “Having said that, I think just the mentality of the professionals in the industry is we’d rather keep working than not, which is also a major factor in things going back to a version of normal.” 

Russian TV production company Sreda, which has made more than 30 series in the past decade, several of which have been licenced to Netflix and Amazon such as Silver Spoon and Sparta, also benefited from captive audiences. Its producer Ivan Samokhvalov says that the outfit’s volume of production is on course to nearly triple. 

“Because of the increasing demand from content companies, we have had to increase our production capacity to a huge level after lockdown,” he says. “After lockdown finished, we produced 11 TV series in six months. Prior to Covid, we would have normally produced around five to eight series in that amount of time. Next year we have orders to do 15 TV series.” 

Sreda’s U.S. studio, Sreda Global, recently secured rights to David Hill’s praised 2020 book The Vapors, for TV, with The Loudest Voice exec producer/showrunner Alex Metcalf attached to pen the series adaptation. 

Samokhvalov is optimistic about the hunger from local streamers as well as the possibility of major streamers such as Netflix, Apple and HBO Max looking to enter the Russian market. Not only does it give producers a wider pool to sell content, but it will, he says, increase the quality of product. 

“This kind of competition [in the marketplace] is good for everybody,” he opines. “It’s like textbook economic competition. All of these [players] coming into the market will increase the quality of the shows, increase the budgets and ultimately result in better commodities.” 

Russian Stories Working Abroad

Russian content isn’t just working in Russia – it’s traveling to international markets as well, with the last few years in particular seeing an uptick in the global consumption of Russian stories. In part, the streamers have largely helped boost this and, mirroring the success of local language series from the likes of Spain, France and Germany, borders for content have undoubtedly become more blurred. 

“Over the last three to five years Russia has become one of the major international exporters of original content due to the unique national storytelling which is increasingly appealing to global audiences,” says Markova. “Local players have definitely been inspired by the [success of] South Korean film Parasite. Now we see Russian producers also creating compelling films, series and animation for wider global audiences such as Sputnik, To The Lake, Secret Magic Control Agency as well as festival titles including Beanpole, Dear Comrades!, Persian Lessons and many others.” 

Neon

Stewart, the indie producer behind Persian Lessons, points to the success of HBO’s Chernobyl as being a catalyst for the industry paying more attention to Russian stories.

“We have certainly benefited from that [show] because we’ve had a lot of desire from international colleagues – primarily from the U.S. – for just this vast and really exotic world of stories that people don’t seem to realize is there in Russia,” he says.

Last year, Hype Films’ sci-fi thriller Sputnik, which the company co-produced with fellow Russian firms Art Pictures and Vodorod Pictures, was released digitally during the pandemic and had an unprecedented amount of international interest, particularly in the U.S. on iTunes. In March, Village Roadshow teamed with Matt Reeves’ 6th & Idaho and XYZ Films for the English-language remake rights to the title. 

Producer Rodnyanski, who has worked with emerging filmmakers like Kira Kovalenko and Vladimir Bitokov, says that there is a movement of Russian filmmakers and talent to tell stories about relevant international issues that can travel in a way that is “absolutely impossible for Russian genre films.” 

“We have much broader projects semantically relevant to international audiences which, on one side, has already been produced for Russian platforms but are original and contemporary enough to attract the attention of international streamers,” he says, adding that international perception of the country as being “politically challenging” means filmmakers have to work harder to grab attention from the international audience.  

“The streaming boom – and the pandemic in some peculiar way – has helped spectators around the world to delve deeper than their local cinematography,” says Art Pictures’ Fedor Bondarchuk. “The success of our feature Sputnik and the news about its remake that followed is the living example of this hunger for something new. People do have appetite for original content and they want to hear new stories set in original circumstances. Russian and Soviet settings and Russian directors and writers can become this new thing for the global market. And I really hope they do.” 

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