Patriotism Leads Movie Comeback

ReutersActor Oleg Yankovsky walking near a movie prop hanging from gallows on the set of Lungin's movie "Ivan" in Suzdal.
SUZDAL, Vladimir Region — A gang of black-clad horsemen gallop past a line of gallows, splattering tufts of snow against frozen corpses.

They are the oprichniki, loyal henchmen of 16th-century Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Severed dogs' heads dangle from their saddles, a warning to the motherland's internal enemies.

The set belongs to a new film, "Ivan the Terrible and Metropolitan Philip," due to be released next year, which explores the relationship between Ivan and his friend and fiercest critic, Philip.

Standing near a white-walled monastery in Suzdal, a town 200 kilometers northeast of Moscow, director Pavel Lungin said he had a working budget of $17 million for "Ivan," high by Russian standards. The budget and professional crew, including a U.S. cameraman who works with director Clint Eastwood, are a sign of a revival in the film industry.

The government expects its production companies to make $900 million in profits in 2011, almost double last year's earnings. "The Irony of Fate: Continuation," a sequel to Soviet-era television movie "The Irony of Fate," raked in a record $50 million in its opening month over the New Year's holiday.

Meanwhile, post-apocalyptic "Inhabited Island," a sci-fi two-part film directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk with a running time of 4 1/2 hours, has a budget of $36.5 million, possibly the largest-budget Russian movie. Producer Alexander Rodnyansky said the film's special effects would rival "The Matrix."

"[We want] to try to make the viewers understand that at least some Russian producers are able to produce the high-quality product, exactly the same quality as all the great international movies," Rodnyansky said.

The state kick-started the film revival at the early 2000s by introducing market conditions. "Our position was very simple: We will support production, but cinemas and production companies will be private," said Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography.

Of the 200 films made last year, half were given state support, he said, adding that 100 million euros ($157.3 million) has been allocated for films this year.

Private investors play a key role, contributing the often much larger balance from their pockets. "Private investors will call us and ask if we will support a movie, and if we do, then they will immediately invest. Governmental expertise in these fields is very important," Shvydkoi said. Billionaire Viktor Vekselberg and Bank of Moscow have funded films, he said.

Shvydkoi expects to see 20 million moviegoers by 2010, up from 14 million today. By 2010, he hopes that 2,500 new screens will be opening every year, compared to the 150 that opened across Russia in 2000. One-quarter of movie theaters now show Russian films, up from 3 percent in 2000.

While movies about Soviet-era wars, the ongoing conflict in Chechnya and much earlier periods of Russian history are successful here, they have not done well abroad. "The highly patriotic element in many big-budget Russian films that makes them so popular at home is to some extent a turn-off for foreign viewers, who may well take a different geopolitical stance," said Julian Graffy, professor of Soviet and Russian film at University College London.

Averaging 12 to 22 years of age, the Russian moviegoer is too young to appreciate "sophisticated" movies, said Michael Schlicht, head of 20th Century Fox in the CIS and a native East German. "An Oscar is no guarantee for success in Russia. Rather, the opposite is the case. They like shallow stuff."