Russia’s proud cinematic traditions, forged during the Soviet era, were shaken by the years of economic turmoil in the 1990s, but the industry is now fighting to return to its position on the global screen.
Leading the way is Mosfilm, once the symbol of Soviet cinema. The studio, occupying a sprawling complex on 125 acres on Moscow’s Sparrow Hills, struggled through much of the past two decades but is now on an upward path, working desperately to restore its glory years and reach a new audience.
Established seven years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the studio was essentially the film arm of the Soviet Union’s propaganda machine and all the great directors of Soviet cinema, from Sergei Eisenstein to Andrei Tarkovsky, worked there. More than 3,000 films were produced there, including “War and Peace” (1968) and “Dersu Uzala” (1975), both of which won Oscars for best foreign film.
Sitting at the head of a boardroom table with the two Oscars in a glass cabinet behind him, Mosfilm’s general director recalls the decade of financial distress and artistic disorientation that forced the industry into decline.
“I remember that period very well,” Karen Shakhnazarov says. “In the 90s, films were virtually not made, the industry didn’t even function.”
The legendary film studio’s production hit rock bottom – it says only 21 feature films were released in 1996. Such meager output would have been unthinkable in the Soviet Union, when cinema had a central cultural role.
In 1997, the government placed Mosfilm on the list of enterprises to be privatized in order to breathe new life into the ailing film industry and by the end of the 1990s, all the major film institutions in Russia– the Filmmakers Union, Goskino, Mosfilm and Lenfilm - had new leadership.
But the transition was far from easy. Filmmaking costs rocketed and today the average feature film costs from 500 million to 700 million rubles to produce (about $350,000 to $500,000), roughly 100 times what it cost in the Soviet Union.
“We became an independent business,” says Shakhanzarov. “Our success is measured by the quality and the amount of films we produce. More is expected from us now.”
And Russian movie makers are delivering. In recent years, Russian-made movies have frequently topped the box office charts, although 2010 has been dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. This year, some estimates put domestic box office sales at more than $600 million, up from $25 million in 2000.
Nonetheless, many of Russia’s most popular films of the past two decades have not made it to Western screens, due to a lack of subtitles and poor distribution.
Shakhnazarov says Mosfilm needs to change this.
“We have difficulty in promoting [our] pictures abroad, marketing them, and we’re running too few joint projects," he says.
Foreign distributors and producers are displaying growing demand for Russian movies, Shakhnazarov says, but he admits that this realm remains largely untapped.
Recognition is coming though. Russian director Alexei Popogrebsky won Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival for How I Ended This Summer.
“The important thing is that the world is finally taking notice of Russian movies,” Shakhnazarov says. “We can’t fall short of their expectations.”
MOSCOW, November 12 (RIA Novosti, Diana Markosian)