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Moscow Junket Diary Two: Unraveling the Russian Film Industry, from Putin and Mikhalkov to Threat of Censorship

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 29, 2012 at 1:08PM

Trying to get a handle on the Russian film industry is like unwinding Winston Churchill's "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"; you never seem to figure it out. There's much money, and various power players, led by the president himself, Vladimir Putin.
Nikita Mikhalkov
Nikita Mikhalkov

Trying to get a handle on the Russian film industry is like unwinding Winston Churchill's "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"; you never seem to figure it out. There's much money, and various power players, led by the president himself, Vladimir Putin, who has puts a chill on the film community by saying that he admires Hollywood's Hays Code and feels Russia should represent itself and the caucuses more positively to the rest of the world.

His acolyte, wealthy businessman//filmmaker Mikhalkov, who owns hotels, a production company and heads one of two rival filmmaker unions, has taken up the cause as well, and some suspected that he was behind the Letter of 61, a missive sent to him by a group of 61 anonymous film students, as reported on June 26 in Izvestia, which was read during a roundtable at the Moscow House of Cinema. A Russian journalist provided the translation from the Izvestia excerpt and quotes below:

"Lately we've come to believe the witnesses of friends which are obvious in our educational and festival structures which are instructional in the distribution of films which are propagating amorality and kitsch and they produce disgust for our cinema, for our people and all the Motherland. The organizers of our leading student and youth film festivals while selecting films and putting together programs prefer this kind of film."

Why so anonymous? "Because we would be eaten alive," one of the students told Mikhalkov.

"They didn't sign because they would be turned to dust by irony and sarcasm," Mikhalkov said. "Now we are in this situation where the ministry of culture should be equal to the ministry of defense because we have to defend our culture."

St. Petersburg Canal
St. Petersburg Canal

Andrei Proshkin of the Filmmaker's Union points out in the piece that the letter brings up no concrete examples of "depriving people of their rights from making positive movies." And Marina Rozbeshkina, director in chief of documentary journalism, says that she is worried that pitting students against each other is "from yesteryear, from the old times. What's most disgusting is someone is using the young directors in this cause." UPDATE: At a subsequent June Filmmakers Union roundtable, one documentary filmmaker, 32-year-old graduate of the Moscow Film Institute Dmitry Bogolyubov, identified himself as the letter's author.

Now there is discussion of starting a commitee for useful young cinema, which Mikhalkov has pledged to help create. At the roundtable it was made clear that the Youth Committee will be started in the fall, and that the government minister of culture has every intention of instituting new policies in the film arena.

Clearly the young filmmakers who feel on the outs with festival selection committees are currying favor with the most powerful forces in Russian cinema--who fund their films. And like other countries that subsidize filmmakers, the results are not always competitive in the marketplace. Russia wants to support its film industry, but controlling its filmmakers may not yield the desired results. Even on its home turf, American studios dominate the Russian market, which boasts some 1500 high standard cinemas along with many substandard ones (totalling 2700+), with 85% of the grosses to Russia's 15%. "It's not a free market," said one Russian industry insider. "It's like a flea market now."

Roskino, which is the renamed SovExportfilm entity, is having some of its functions mirrored by Russia's Cinema Fund, which puts money into uplifting projects of which it approves, funding the top seven Russian companies with $8 million each for three films a year, which they don't have to give back. The Cinema Fund also mounted its own Moscow Business Square, offering panels on Russia and USA co-productions under the aegis of the president of the Moscow Film Festival, Mikhalkov, known in film circles as the "man with the mustache." When Mtsitouridze licensed the Russian Variety, Mikhalkov swiftly followed with the Russian Hollywood Reporter.

Fedor Bondarchuk on set of 'Stalingrad'
Fedor Bondarchuk on set of 'Stalingrad'

One night in Moscow as a group of us celebrated distributor Bob Berney's birthday at Radisson's 29th floor Ukraina Hotel bar overlooking the city (the lobby diorama of Moscow is above), one European film industry insider tried to explain how this state-run and funded film industry works, with two motion picture Academies, two Russian pavilions at Cannes, two filmmaker unions-- in other words, a neverending world of intrigue and chaos. He explained as well that post-Glastnost, the Moscow Film Festival is less powerful, because instead of marshalling the best of all the Russian and Soviet satellite films, the filmmakers are all free to send the best films to Cannes, Berlin or Karlovy Vary.

Russia is about the old and the new. For all the changes since perestroika, much of the country--despite recent protests-- clings to keeping a sense of order, embodied by president Putin. As the center of government with a population of some 15 million, Moscow alone boasts, by some estimates, 100,000 police, army and private security forces (vs. L.A.P.D.'s 6000) which are ubiquitous wherever you go. Those of us who ventured into Moscow's magnificent metro system, each stop built deep underground and decorated like a museum, were warned to guard our purses and wallets. There is still a sense of paranoia here. Putin commutes to the Kremlin along one avenue that closes down twice a day to let him through, driving at the high speed at which no bullets can catch him. It's an arresting image.

One ray of hope for Roskino: Nancy Gerstman's 20-year-old indie Zeitgeist Films acquired "Elena" off the film fest circuit and is currently releasing it stateside, where it earned strong reviews; she spent about $40,000 to market and book the film. That's much less than DOORS Summit attendees Roadside Attractions, Fox Searchlight or IFC would lay out for a theatrical release, and more in line with what other attendees Tribeca, Indomina, Red Flag, Film Movement or Kino Lorber might spend. Canada's thriving E-One is now venturing into North American distribution, while Jeanne and Bob Berney, who released one of the more successful Russian films shown in America, Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol," are exploring a new start-up.

Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace

Neither "Elena" nor Sokurov's Venice prize-winner "Faust" were submitted for Oscar consideration by Russia (while it was in German, it was eligible). That's because the committee that chooses the Oscar submission is still under the sway of Russia's most powerful filmmaker--not Sokurov, nor rising (but unpolitical) VFX producer and filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov of "Wanted" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" fame--Mikhalkov. Thus "Burnt by the Sun 2" was submitted, and did not make the final cut of nominees. And "Faust" remains unsold in North America.

At the DOORS summit on Saturday, Gertsman and other distributors talked about the challenges facing any foreign film in America, not just Russian-language fare. Theatrically, they'd need to gross $3 million, not $1 million, because they would have no life in ancillary markets like television and homevideo. Day and date VOD isn't the way to go. Theatrical is it.

As we walked through the Hermitage at the Winter Palace in St. Petersberg, made famous by Sokurov's "Russian Ark," a film that offers a glimpse to a lost world, and proved a surprise hit, grossing over $6 million ten years ago, Kino Lorber's Richard Lorber admitted that he would like to get back the rights so that he can release it to the new online universe that is more important than ever these days. Lorber, of all the folks who came to Moscow on this Roskino junket, probably has released more Russian films--over 50--than anyone else. Why was that film a hit? Because it was audacious, and different, it was one of a kind and took you someplace you've never been before. That's what all these distributors are seeking.

Online could work for foreign films. Hulu, for one, is redefining the world of digital streaming, where lower release costs can translate into a healthy revenue share for the filmmaker. And Gravitas acts as an aggregator and go-between for filmmakers and multiple online outlets such as Hulu. If there's a more innovative way to bring Russian films, whether politically correct, upbeat or as grim as they want to be, to the growing army of cinephiles online, some of these folks will figure that out.


This article is related to: Festivals, Festivals, Independents

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.