A Sequel Breaks All Film Records

MTA couple talking on Pushkin Square on Tuesday. Behind them is a giant poster for "Irony of Fate: Continuation."
The sequel to a classic Soviet melodrama has set a new record for the Russian box office, fueled by older viewers making their first trip to a movie theater in years.

"Irony of Fate: Continuation" grossed $48.5 million in the former Soviet Union in the first 23 days of its release, Maria Lein, a spokeswoman for Channel One television, which produced the film, said by telephone Tuesday.

Released Dec. 21 and still playing in theaters, the film could cross the $50 million mark, she said.

The previous record was held by the 2006 supernatural thriller "Day Watch," which earned just under $35 million, trailed by last year's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," with $31.8 million.

The new box-office champion is a sequel to Eldar Ryazanov's 1975 television film "Irony of Fate," a story of love and mistaken identity that has become a holiday tradition, having been broadcast every New Year's Eve since its premiere.

News that an "Irony of Fate" sequel was in the works provoked howls of protest from some fans of the original. But the film has apparently been given a strong boost from older viewers, according to a survey conducted by Channel One.

The survey found that about a third of the film's viewers were visiting a movie theater for the first time in more than 15 years, Kommersant reported Tuesday.

The finding suggests that "Irony of Fate: Continuation" succeeded in attracting older viewers, a segment of the market usually ignored by filmmakers.

Lein said she could not discuss the survey but that the full results would be released Friday.

She described the film's success as a boost for Channel One's movie production division. "This clearly shows that filmmaking is commercially viable," Lein said. "In two years, we hope to start releasing two to four films per year."

"Irony of Fate: Continuation" was made on a budget of $5 million, with an additional $4.5 million spent on promotion. State-owned Channel One made heavy use of its television resources to promote the film, airing documentaries about the making of the film and mentioning it in news broadcasts.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov -- who also made "Day Watch" -- and produced by Channel One general director Konstantin Ernst, "Irony of Fate: Continuation" was released on more than 1,000 copies in Russia, the CIS and the Baltic states. It got off to a strong start, earning more than $9.3 million in the first four days of its release.

Industry experts warned, however, that Russian box-office results should be taken with a grain of salt because they come from self-reporting by producers and distributors, who have an incentive to overstate the success of their films.

"Companies want to sell the television rights to their films, so naturally they inflate the figures," said Sergei Lavrov, head of statistics for Russian Film Business Today, a trade publication. "There is no electronic system for confirming the results."

Lavrov said he had no data about the earnings of "Irony of Fate: Continuation."

But there is little doubt that movie theaters are doing brisk business in Russia. Total ticket sales were $565 million in 2007, compared with $412 million in 2006, according to Russian Film Business Today.

The makers of "Irony of Fate: Continuation" borrowed a page from Hollywood's playbook by taking a popular original and producing a heavily hyped sequel.

The 1975 original tells the story of Zhenya, a Moscow doctor who gets drunk, wakes up in an airport and takes a taxi to an apartment that appears identical to his own, thanks to the lack of variety in Soviet household furnishings.

But as Zhenya eventually discovers, he is actually in Leningrad and the apartment belongs to a woman named Nadya. Unexpectedly, the two of them fall in love.

The sequel picks up several decades later and reveals that Zhenya and Nadya's love affair never worked out. It focuses on another encounter between their children, who are played by the popular actors Konstantin Khabensky and Liza Boyarskaya.

"Irony of Fate: Continuation" received mixed reviews. Some critics zeroed in on its heavy use of product placement: brands like Beeline, Toyota and Zolotaya Bochka beer make hard-to-miss appearances.

Larisa Malyukova, film critic for Novaya Gazeta, said viewers flocked to the movie because of Channel One's promotional efforts, rather than the quality of the film itself.

"It was because of the marketing machine, undoubtedly," Malyukova said by telephone.

Anna Lyakhova, a Moscow brand manager who saw the film this week, enjoyed it but said it did not live up to the 1975 original.

"The new one is a good, solid movie, and it's very kind and sweet," Lyakhova said. "But it's not a major cinema event like the first one."