Russia Steals the Scene
It’s a typical Moscow night. Our hero, Anton, has just drunk a glassful of warm, thick pig’s blood (an unpleasant but necessary preparation for hunting vampires). Then he gets stopped by one of the beefy militsiya who are the scourge of every Muscovite who has ever ventured into the streets fueled by a shot of something strong -- and that would be quite a few.
Roughed up by the arrogant officer demanding his dokumenti, Anton delicately upchucks. With a horrified response -- “What are these kids drinking these days?” -- the officer sends Anton along on his mission against the forces of darkness.
Then the question is, who really is the hero? Anton, the morally compromised watchman of light? Or the wise, pleasure-seeking creatures of the night he pledged to keep in check? Which one would you choose?
Stylishly shot, brooding, ambiguous and Russian to the core, the 2004 fantasy-action film “Night Watch” has helped ignite a cinema renaissance that is reviving the nation’s legendary film production facilities and challenging Hollywood’s supremacy in the Russian movie market.
A decade ago, the post-Soviet film industry was all but officially pronounced dead. The famous Mosfilm studios, once home to such directors as Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, had packs of stray dogs running in the nearly empty halls.
Then, last summer, “Night Watch” opened simultaneously on an unprecedented 325 screens and earned more money in Russia than “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Troy” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” It outdrew the American film with which it is most often compared, “Matrix Revolutions,” by more than a third.
It apparently wasn’t a fluke. In February, an improbable historical adventure set during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, “Turkish Gambit,” broke box office records, bringing in $19.2 million and edging out the latest “Star Wars” installment as well as “Alexander.” Not bad for a war most Americans have never heard of.
The figures aren’t big compared with domestic receipts of American blockbusters, which just get started at $100 million. What is unexpected is that these films are out-earning American blockbusters in Russia. Receipts were negligible for domestic productions just a few years ago.
The phenomenon has come on the heels of a wave of movie house construction across the country and is as much a story of marketing as movie production. Audiences in places as disparate as Russia, Poland, Hungary and Turkey are beginning to signal an occasional preference for domestic fare, cast with familiar faces in recognizable locales, over films from Hollywood.
Whether the films have international legs will become apparent this year, when “Night Watch,” which has earned $16.3 million in Russia, is scheduled to hit the United States in the first major American release of a Russian motion picture.
Fox Searchlight Pictures has also optioned the sequel, “Night Watch 2: Chalk of Fate,” which director Timur Bekmambetov is shepherding through postproduction. He plans to shoot the final part of the trilogy in English, in the United States.
“American films since the silent era have dominated the world market. They just made more, and bigger, and better,” said Anna Franklin, a longtime critic and expert on East European film based in Moscow. “But they always made most of their money in the U.S., and foreign sales were just icing on the cake. All that changed in the ‘70s, when American budgets started getting so high they absolutely had to make money on the international markets to meet the budget.”
The growing domestic sales figures in Russia and elsewhere represent a change, if slight, in the substantial European market share the U.S. has locked in over the last decade. That domination is the result of years of aggressive marketing and distribution agreements along with the commercial appeal of U.S. films.
“There’s been a real backlash,” Franklin said. “People are bored and tired of all these American films. People in Turkey, in Poland and in a lot of countries have started producing their own domestic blockbusters, and these blockbusters are beating the American films at the box office.”
The Russian share of the box office in Russia and neighboring Ukraine more than doubled from 2003 to 2004 to 11.6%, with hits that included “Antikiller 2" and “72 Meters,” a patriotic submarine drama that plays out less ignominiously for the government than did the real-life story of the 118 sailors who died aboard the Kursk in 2000.
The Russian share so far this year is even bigger, at 18%. In the Czech Republic, domestic films took 24% of the box office last year. Although “Return of the King” led the pack, four Czech films finished in the top 10.
In Turkey this year, domestic films have captured 60% of theater admissions. Six of the 10 most popular films are domestic. “Gora,” the top Turkish film of 2004, generated $18 million.
The figures are perhaps most significant here in Russia because of the earnings potential they represent -- an estimated 300 million people speak Russian as a first or second language -- and because they signal a great comeback.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a world-renowned cinema industry that had produced such masterpieces as Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” with 100% state support suddenly found itself cut off at the knees, without financial resources.
Many of the 2,000-odd state-run theaters across the country fell into sordid disrepair, and some were converted into auto dealerships. Filmgoers, revolted by the condition of most movie houses, turned to television or pirated videos of American films. One of the strongest moviegoing markets in the world -- Russians went to the cinema three times as often as Americans on average -- had evaporated.
American movies predominated at the surviving theaters, averaging nearly 80 releases a year through the late 1990s.
Mosfilm, a grande dame of the filmmaking world, spun into a steep decline, its 98 acres in the heart of Moscow eventually overgrown with weeds and its soundstages vacant.
“There were empty corridors ... inhabited by packs of stray dogs,” said Karen Shakhnazarov, director of this year’s “The Rider Named Death” and the man who, as director of Mosfilm since 1998, is credited with bringing the state-owned studio back. “It was a totally mystical sight.”
Russian “art” films continued to be made. Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1994 film, “Burnt by the Sun,” won a best foreign film Oscar. But virtually no one in Russia saw them until they came out on video.
The turnaround began in 1995, when Kodak, against all odds, opened a glitzy theater in the heart of the capital, the first truly modern movie house in Russia. It had snack bars, even Dolby stereo. Tickets reached $15 and more, and people lined up to buy them.
Since then, a cinema building boom has continued unabated. New multiplexes have sprouted up in the sprawling shopping malls on Moscow’s periphery and in the regions, from Novosibirsk to Nizhny Novgorod.
Today there are 713 screens in 420 cinemas across Russia, and there may be four times that many built in the next two years. Ticket sales have leaped from $18 million in 1999 to $268 million last year.
To be sure, Hollywood has raked in the biggest share of the box office. The Russian market grew from a paltry $10 million in 1999 for U.S. filmmakers to more than $215 million last year. Since 2003, Russia has been one of the top 15 markets in the world for American films.
Television drama is making a comeback as well. Last year, 3,000 hours were produced. In fact, “Night Watch” and “Turkish Gambit” were originally made as TV miniseries by powerful, state-owned First Channel, then transferred to the big screen when the cinema boom hit.
The sound production for “Night Watch” was done in Los Angeles, but the bulk of postproduction and special effects on that and “Turkish Gambit” was completed in modernized facilities at Mosfilm, which has enjoyed a renaissance of its own.
“When I became the director of the studio, we were 20 or 30 years behind the rest of the world in terms of technology and equipment. But there was nowhere to take money from,” Shakhnazarov said. “No one was lining up to give us a bank loan. No one even believed that restoration of Mosfilm was a viable task.”
The studio head turned to the one asset he had, the amazing library of Russian classics gathering dust. Many of them, especially old comedies, still had earnings potential on TV.
“All the money we were getting from selling these movies to television we would invest in renovation of the fleet. We were buying cameras, lights -- we didn’t have anything. We tried to purchase top-of-the-line, and implement only the breakthrough and innovative technology in our work,” he said.
“Gradually, step by step, we started seeing new movies getting made at the film studios.”
Today, Mosfilm is turning a profit. Russian film managers hope to lure American crews to Moscow and organize Russian-American coproductions.
Shooting is underway on the first full coproduction, Roland Joffe’s “Captivity.” The psychological thriller is being filmed on a Mosfilm soundstage with an American cast and a Russian production company, Ramco, which has partnered with producer Mark Damon’s Foresight Unlimited.
“The barrier for attracting important American and international production to Russia had been a formidable one,” Damon said. “I realized that in order to break this down, we would have to come to Russia with a very strong director, a strong project, a strong cast, and once they saw that a film of this level, this kind of talent, was shooting in Russia, all the barriers would come down.
“And in fact, they have. I have received so many proposals from all over Hollywood: ‘Are you interested in shooting in Russia?’ ”
The shooting has not been without hitches. The Russian boom operator couldn’t understand the dialogue well enough to position the mike; the camera, bought for Russian productions, which do not shoot direct sound, had to be outfitted with a makeshift noise shield; the set itself had to be designed by e-mail while Joffe was still in New York.
“I would say that some of the problems we’ve had would probably negate the budget saving [of shooting in Russia],” Joffe said. “We’ve had to bring in a few more skilled people than we thought we would have to.
“But I think that’s a good thing rather than a bad thing. Because it’s only when you work out some of the teething problems that the studio can actually get itself together.”
“Night Watch” and “Turkish Gambit” producers Konstantin Ernst and Anatoly Maximov at First Channel credit Mosfilm’s upgraded facilities for their ability to deliver films that look much like high-tech Hollywood productions for a fraction of the expense.
“Night Watch” cost just $4.2 million. “Turkish Gambit” was shot for $3.5 million. Its huge, “Gladiator"-like battle scenes were filmed with a few extras multiplied many times over by computer imagery.
Yet the budgets for promoting the films may have reached $7 million each, say Russian cinema insiders. The big opening weekends were attributed largely to a U.S.-style marketing strategy that encompassed print, billboard and television advertising along with gimmicks like T-shirts and coffee table books.
Another key part of the equation was a deal with Russia’s infamous DVD pirates that provided rights to legal production of “Night Watch” DVDs at a discount in exchange for delaying the DVD release for four weeks after the theatrical one. (In Russia, pirated DVDs often go on sale the day the movie opens.)
As a result, the movie has sold more than 1 million legal copies on DVD, perhaps four times the usual rate for a U.S. blockbuster in Russia.
The promotional campaign wasn’t hurt by the fact that First Channel was able to deliver free news and entertainment program tie-ins. Or that after years of heading the nation’s premier television outlet, Ernst and Maximov knew exactly what kinds of films would appeal to their target audiences.
In fact, Maximov said he was surprised to see a U.S. audience respond so enthusiastically to the intense, morally nuanced “Night Watch” when it showed at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this year. (The film also screened at the Los Angeles festival in June.)
Its portrayal of a millenniums-long contest for supremacy between the forces of darkness and light is told not only in an exotic Moscow setting but with a distinctly Russian point of view, as Maximov sees it.
“In this film, the light ones are standing for repression, for self-control, for not letting themselves go,” Maximov said. “And the dark ones are free. They’re the ones who are doing what they want to do and urging others to do what they want to do. They’re saying, ‘Guys, you won’t have another life. Take your chance. Do it.’
“America at its core stands for this principle of individual freedom, that the meaning of human life is the realization of personal freedom. Somehow, you feel the light ones represent Russia,” he added. “In the end, the movie glorifies repression and questions the idea of freedom -- not a very American message.”
Still, Fox is betting that Americans will watch it.
In an e-mail interview, Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice said, “The groundbreaking combination of mythic storytelling and awe-inspiring visual FX makes ‘Night Watch’ an audacious, original movie experience that will be enjoyed by audiences around the world, regardless of language.”
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On screen in Russia
American films have been a hit at the box office in Russia and some of its neighbors,* although the domestic industry is enjoying a renaissance. Top-grossing films for the weekend of July 22-24:
*--* Title (country of Weekend gross Total gross Days in release origin) 1 Fantastic Four (U.S.) $390,890 $1,862,969 11 2 Monster-in-Law (U.S.) 384,440 1,465,419 11 3 The Interpreter (U.S.) 344,255 415,705 4 4 The Longest Yard (U.S.) 261,169 328,928 4 5 Mr. and Mrs. Smith 205,079 8,162,382 42 (U.S.) 6 War of the Worlds (U.S.) 150,702 9,922,573 26 7 Fool (Russia) 131,084 154,175 4 8 Dreaming of Space 81,836 696,681 18 (Russia) 9 Les Poupees Russes 30,896 131,435 11 (France) 10 Guess Who (U.S.) 18,845 695,710 32
Source: Box Office Mojo
*Data are for Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia