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Russian Content in Focus at Key Buyers Event – The Hollywood Reporter

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For years, the Russian film and television industry has been a sleeping giant.

A top 10 world box office territory, with a population of just under 150 million and a long, rich cinema cultural tradition of genius auteurs that stretches from Sergei Eisenstein through Andrei Tarkovsky to Andrei Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, Loveless), Alexander Sokurov (Faust, Russian Ark), and Kantemir Balagov (Beanpole) — alongside commercial talents from Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), to Fyodor Bondarchuk (Invasion, Stalingrad) to Ilya Naishuller (Nobody) — Russia has always had enormous potential.

Until recently, though, the creative and commercial energies of the country’s film and television producers have been mostly focused on the domestic market.

That’s changing.

A boom in VOD — according to a report by TMT Consulting, Russia’s online video market grew by 66 percent in 2020 — has led to a surge in high-end TV production, like plague thriller To The Lake (a global hit on Netflix), Chiki, a female-driven dramedy commissioned by local SVOD More.TV, or the addictive mystery drama Swamp, featuring Ivan Yankovskiy, produced for Yandex’s online platform Kinopoisk.

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Evgenia Markova, CEO of Roskino, which promotes Russian film and TV worldwide, says the streaming boom has made Russian productions more interesting for global buyers.

“Russia never provided special subsidies for theatrical releases of Russian titles and its marketing campaign abroad, unlike European countries — Germany or France, for example — so the release of Russian films was always an investment risk for global distributors,” Markova says. “But now, due to global streamers, the problem disappeared.”

More than 500 international executives from 66 countries have already signed up for Roskino’s Key Buyers Event, which over three days — from June 8-10 — will screening some 400 films, series and animation titles from 119 Russian companies, with 50 premiere projects and a further 75 Russian projects looking for co-production partners.

Online-only this year, the Key Buyers Event has gotten some VIP support from actor and industry ambassador Yuri Kolokolnikov (Game of Thrones, Tenet). Together with rising star Sofya Lebedeva (The Last Minister), casting director Frank Moiselle (Vikings, Penny Dreadful) and producer Gudny Hummelvoll (Occupied), Kolokolnikov will discuss the opportunities for Russian actors on the global stage at one of the event’s many online panels.

Other panels will focus on the rise in Russian animation: CTB Film Company’s Upon the Magic Roads and My Sweet Monster, Parovoz animation studio’s Spaceport, and Wizart’s global franchise juggernaut The Snow Queen — the fifth feature will be presented at the Key Buyers Event — are among the must-sees.

Markova notes that, for the first time this year, the Key Buyers Event will feature new content from Russian VOD platforms, including Start, IVI, Okko, More.tv, Nonfiction, Premier, Smotrim, 1 tv., Kinopoisk, Megogo Studios, and Kion. The market will also host an exclusive overview of the country’s booming VOD industry.

“[This boom has led to] quality, due to high competition and wider opportunities for creators to tell the stories they want,” says Markova. “VODs are more open and willing to take risks than traditional TV players, so they produce more provocative, high-end, expensive originals and also give space for young voices.”

While online is in focus, Russian cinema retains pride of place at the Key Buyer’s Event. In a nod to the growing international success of local art-house titles, Roskino has launched a festival section at this year’s market, which will screen recent cross-over hits including Balgov’s Beanpole, Dear Comrades! from by Andrey Konchalovsky, Philip Yuriev’s The Whaler Boy, Persian Lessons from Vadim Perelman, and Ivan Tverdovsky’s Conference among others.

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Kantemir Balagov’s critically-acclaimed ‘Beanpole’ is among the art-house hits being highlighted at this year’s Key Buyers Event.
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The local film industry has also gotten a boost in recent years thanks to new public and private support. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich launched a $100 million film fund in 2019 and the country has introduced a 40 percent cash rebate for international production which shoot in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on visiting shoots, but the government has allocated some $1.3 million to test cases for 2021-2022 and the Russian Export Center is accepting applications until the end of May. Co-production will be highlighted at the Key Buyers Event, through a partnership with the Italian co-production forum When East Meets West. The market will also curate two co-production pitching events, one for Russian titles looking for international producers, a second for international projects looking for Russian partners.

Unlike most of its European counterparts, Russia’s box office has weathered the pandemic well. Russia enforced a short, hard lockdown from March to May 2020 but re-opened cinemas (at 50 percent capacity) in July. Theaters have stayed open since, despite surges in COVID-19 infection rates.

That’s been good news for Hollywood — Pixar’s Soul earned $18 million in Russia, one of the studios’ best-ever performances in the territory, while Warner Bros. Godzilla Vs Kong earned just under $12 million in theatrical release — but also for local hits. Russian fantasy-comedy The Last Warrior: Root of Evil, a Disney co-production with indie studio Yellow, has earned close to $30 million to date. Hype Film’s family comedy The Relatives took around $7 million. Hype Films also scored a digital hit with Egor Abramenko’s sci-fi horror Sputnik, co-produced with Vodorod Pictures and Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures. Released digitally during lockdown, it attracted a global audience and the attention of Village Roadshow, Matt Reeves’ 6th & Idaho, and XYZ Films — which has secured English-language remake rights.

To get the low-down on the state of the Russian industry, and the best in new films and series on offer at the 2021 Key Buyers Event, The Hollywood Reporter went straight to the source and spoke to five of the country’s top producers.

Fedor Bondarchuk, directors, producers, actor and  founder of Art Pictures Studio

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Fyodor Bondarchuk, Art Pictures Studio
Art Pictures Studio

What is driving this new boom in Russian drama?

It’s hard to evaluate the situation when you are inside. Still, we are making more movies and TV series and Russian filmmakers have been invited to foreign projects. Kantemir Balagov will direct a pilot for The Last of Us series, Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody was a U.S. box office champion and Egor Abramenko will executive produce the U.S. remake of his own film Sputnik. But to me, these successes are not a local new wave but part of a global drive to find good stories and compelling projects, and borders in that process are being removed.

The driving force I truly believe in is bold young people who have begun to emerge in recent years in our industry, which [still] remains quite small.

How has the growth in local and global streaming platforms impacted the Russian industry?

It brought me and my colleagues some kind of freedom, as there are now more options for screening compelling and exciting stories and more access points to the viewer. For instance, Netflix’s top lists more and more often feature not only Western but also Russian projects. It’s only recently that most of Art Pictures Studio’s live-action and animated films have also been available there.

However, we were a bit late to that party. As Amazon considers the acquisition of the MGM library аnd AT&T is merging with Discovery, the global trend is the creation of true streaming giants. We have the opposite situation. More and more platforms are popping up — we are in the stage of healthy competition between streaming services. But I think that the global trend for mergers between major companies will also reach us.

What are the top three new shows you are screening at the market — what are your elevator pitches.

We will screen a documentary project, Battle, centered on my father, [renowned Soviet director] Sergei Bondarchuk and directed by journalists Denis Katayev and Anton Zhelnov. Among the people interviewed for the film are Andrei Konchalovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Katharina Kubrick and Martha De Laurentiis.

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‘Happy End’ Poster
Art_Pictures

Another notable project is Happy End, a dramedy about the webcam world and a love story told in a new, unconventional language with its particular rhythm and style. It was directed by first-time feature director Yevgeny Sangadzhiyev who brought his vision to this risqué and even controversial project.

The third project, Ballet, is being actively developed. The director is also Sangadzhiyev, and the casting ensemble features Ingeborga Dapkunaite and John Malkovich [as well as Bondarchuk).  Russian ballet, despite its global popularity, has been gravely underrepresented in cinema, but this is our cultural code, our calling card.

What’s been the impact of COVID on production in Russia?

We are still feeling the consequences of the lockdown and suspension of projects. Gradually, we are returning to our usual rhythm and, looking at our colleagues in Europe and America, we realize that we are lucky, to a certain extent. While in France and Great Britain cinemas are only beginning to reopen after another quarantine, our cinemas have been in operation, even though with some restrictions, for almost a year. In some respects, the pandemic threw the industry several steps back, but, at the same time, new opportunities have opened up. In any case, we have to take the rules of this new reality into account.

Eduard Iloyan, producer, general producer of production shingle Yellow, Black and White, co-founder of the subscription-based streaming service START

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Eduard Iloyan, producer, Yellow, Black and White
Yellow, Black and White

What is driving this new boom in Russian drama?

I believe that over the last few years, the Russian film industry has made a major leap forward. It was largely facilitated by the development of streaming services, which, in turn, have produced high-quality content, driving the market forward. [Our] streaming service START has focused on original stories, which has made it the leader in this segment.

What are the top three new shows you are screening at the market — what are your elevator pitches?

First of all, it’s the series Container, earlier presented at MIPDrama and at the Moscow international film festival. The team in charge of the series is the same as that of the dramedy 257 Reasons to Live, the first Russian project to be awarded at Canneseries.

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‘The Vampires of Midland’
START

The Vampires of Midland was a true hit and heralded a new trend in the Russian series, earning praise from critics and viewers alike. This genre-crossing story about an unusual family from the city of Smolensk is currently in 45th place on the top 250 best series of all time by KinoPoisk, the Russian equivalent of IMDB.

Another successful project is the multifaceted psychological thriller Mediator. This story, which combines a charismatic hero, sophisticated psychological manipulations, and a thrilling investigation, has huge potential.

What’s been the impact of COVID on production in Russia?

Certainly, the pandemic had an impact on the entire economy, including the film industry. Many processes came to a halt, and there were huge financial losses. However, there were positive aspects, too, as many scripts were written during the pandemic, many of which are now actively being made into films and will be soon released either at theaters or on streaming services.

What’s your dream Russian project?

Just like many boys growing in the Soviet Union, I dreamed about becoming a cosmonaut. And now, years later, I nearly made it. In collaboration with [Russian space agency] Roskosmos and Channel One, we are preparing the world’s first-ever movie that will be filmed in outer space. I really hope that our joint efforts will produce a remarkable project that will attract a maximum number of viewers both in Russia and elsewhere.

Vadim Vereshchagin, CEO of Central Partnership

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Vadim Vereshchagin, CEO of Central Partnership
Central Partnership

What’s been the impact of COVID on production in Russia?

The pandemic affected us a lot but it did not kill us. And everything that does not kill you makes you stronger. Recently, the industry has seen a big rebound. Our cinemas have been open since August, so now Russia is in Top-5 global markets in terms of the national box office — and Central Partnership has successfully released several major local films in 2020-2021, including Silver Skates, Fire, and Chernobyl.

Another thing has been the unprecedented growth of the Russian VOD market, which increased by over 60 percent last year. For us, this creates more opportunities to reach wider audiences — not just in Russia, but also elsewhere. I see a great future for the Russian film industry. It’s been producing original content relevant for both domestic and global audiences and has managed to adapt to the pandemic and post-pandemic era, although we’re still on the way back to normal, like the rest of the world. State support and new digital initiatives, including the Key Buyers Event, are a really good help for the industry.

What are the top three shows you have screening at the market?

December chronicles the last days of Sergei Esenin, one of the best internationally known Russian poets. The poet’s wife, the renowned American dancer Isadora Duncan, makes arrangements for him to flee the USSR. All he has to do is get on the train to Riga, but this is easier said than done as the poet is followed by secret service agents who are determined to stop him from leaving. I would say that this film has a particular style and is filled with a dark charm of early 20th century Russia — unstable, dangerous, but very compelling.

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‘Champion of the World’
Central Partnership

Champion of the World is a film based on true events: the 1978 World Chess Championship between Soviet grandmaster Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoy, a former Soviet grandmaster who defected to the Netherlands. This drama not only covers the match, which was held in Baguio, Philippines, but also tells a human story of two ordinary people who are extraordinarily talented and had to compete against each other with a lot of weight on their shoulders. It’s captivating to observe how people go through such challenges, how they handle all their emotions. I think global audiences would enjoy the story and relate to the characters, brilliantly played by Ivan Yankovskiy as Karpov and Konstantine Khabenskiy as Korchnoi.

Row 19 is a psychological thriller centered on a young doctor and her 6-year-old daughter who are on a redeye flight and get caught in a storm. When passengers of the half-empty plane inexplicably begin to die, the woman’s grip on reality weakens and she is forced to relive her worst childhood nightmare. To me, it’s a compelling story that would keep viewers in any country glued to the screen till the end.

Sergei Selianov, producer, CEO of CTB company

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Sergei Selianov, producer, CEO of CTB company
CTB company

How has the growth in local and global streaming platforms impacted the Russian industry?

We have close working relations with online platforms at home and abroad. For instance, the animated adventure Secret Magic Control Agency by CTB Film Company and Wizart Studio [became a hit] on Netflix within the first week of release. Our animation series Moonzy and the Barkers has had billions of views on YouTube. Sometimes, movies that did not get impressive box-office in theaters become very successful on VOD platforms. Overall, it has been a very positive experience.

What are the top three new shows you are screening at the market?

This year we are presenting three big projects: the adventure fantasy Upon the Magic Roads, animation adventure My Sweet Monster and the war thriller Infiltration.

Upon Magic Roads will take the viewer on an unforgettable journey through the different worlds with romantic John the Fool and his realist friend Magic Foal. The story is based on a popular Russian fairy-tale of the 19th century. The film is produced as a mix of live-action and 3D CGI animation. Two buddies will have to outsmart the evil tyrant tsar, catch the firebird and find John’s true love in different magic worlds. The movie has already earned 1 billion rubles ($13.6 million) at the Russian box office.

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‘My Sweet Monster’
CTB company

My Sweet Monster is an animated adventure that has already sold to the USA, Germany, France and other countries. The obstinate princess Barbara runs away from the palace and gets captured by the forest monster Bogey. The princess tries to bring to the forest her own rules that result in a certain tension and comic adventures. It is a story of true love overcoming all the obstacles and differences but it is at the same time the story of the conflict between nature and civilization.

Infiltration is a thriller about the war in Syria, a very sensitive topic nowadays. The movie is produced in a mix of English, Russian and Arabic. It features a great number of battle scenes, action, brotherhood-in-arms, sacrifice, love, and the battle against evil, no matter where you are from, or which religion you believe in.

Vyacheslav Murugov, CEO of CTC Media, general director of CTC channel, head of NMG Studio (National Media Group)

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Vyacheslav Murugov, CEO of CTC Media
CTC Media

What is driving this new boom in Russian drama?

It’s hard to speak about a boom anywhere. What you can be certain about is that the film industry is completely merging with the TV and online content sectors, and here, thanks to an increase in volume, some signs of a boom could be observed. A good story could first screen in theaters, then on a streaming service, and finally on TV, and find viewers everywhere. Certainly, not all experiments of this kind are successful, but the future clearly belongs to this concept.

The driving force in the Russian film industry is my colleagues and producers of movies and TV series. A true producer is a person who is truly thrilled about their projects and will move them forward regardless of any market crash, pandemic, famine, war, or shortage of video cards.

How has the growth in local and global streaming platforms impacted the Russian industry?

Any increase in available platforms is a positive thing for the industry. More projects will be launched and get the audience. True, the market is becoming hot in terms of talent and it’s becoming harder for the viewer to make a choice, but these are small factors compared with advantages that growth brings. But the true fruits of this process are yet to come, I believe. We are still mainly at the stage of sowing seeds.

What are the top new shows you are screening at the market?

I can mention two. Happy End is a drama based on erotic online content that shows that in Russia, young people are facing exactly the same issues as elsewhere in the world.

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‘Beanpoles’
CTC Media

Beanpoles from the CTC network is a contemporary comedy about a women’s volleyball team, which, through the prism of humor, explores current gender [issues].

What’s your dream Russian project?

I’m constantly in a state of dreaming about a project. And once it’s been executed, there’s always something new. This is a movement rather than a static situation. Specific ideas are not as important as the state of a constant dream.

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