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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hope Springs Eternal for Russia's Film Industry

Soviet Cinema Day is being marked by strange turnabouts.

Seventy-five years after Lenin nationalized the film industry, turning the art of cinema into a propaganda tool, independent filmmakers are once again turning to the government for support.

Meanwhile, much of the good news for Russian movie-goers is coming from overseas. The tidal wave of B-grade foreign films that hit Russia two years ago is giving way to quality releases from a new generation of distributors.

Roskomkino, formerly known as Goskino, the state film industry, is giving partial or total financial support to 90 feature films this year. Among the most notable projects are "Yermak," an epic period piece by Valery Uskov and Alexander Krasnopolsky about the legendary conqueror of Siberia; "Love Russian Style," a melodramatic flick by former Brezhnev screen impersonator Yevgeny Matveyev about ethnic Russian immigrants from the former republics; "Chagall," a surreal biographical film about the artist Marc Chagall by the up-and-coming director Alexander Zeldovich; and "Gorky Street," a nostalgic retro-drama by the renowned Jewish ?migr?-filmmaker Mikhail Kalik.

"Russia still remains the biggest and the most influential European film producer," said Armen Medvedev, Roskomkino's chairman. Despite the sharp decline in domestic film production, 38 state-owned and about 200 independent studios produced 137 feature films in 1993, Medvedev said at a press conference marking Soviet Cinema Day.

Exactly 75 years ago, on Aug. 27, 1919, Vladimir Lenin signed the "Decree on the Transfer of the Photographic and Cinematographic Industry and Trade to the People's Commissariat of Education," which officially marked the birth of Soviet cinema. With the passage of ownership into government hands, film was no longer a commercial private enterprise. The nationalized cinema served the socialist state as a straightforward medium of ideology, propaganda and enlightenment.

Today, independent Russian filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle. While the average Russian citizen only goes to the movies once a year, according to Roskomkino, the standard motion picture costs about 1 billion rubles ($464,000) to produce. Loans from banks for film production are virtually non-existent, as banks are reluctant to give credits for projects that usually take two years to complete.

Meanwhile, the quality of foreign films being shown in Russia is beginning to improve, which is a good thing as Western-made films still outnumber homegrown movies. In 1993, there were 220 Western-produced films shown in Russia, compared to 137 Russian movies.

Only two years ago, movie theaters in Moscow and the provinces were flooded with B-grade, low-budget films bought cheaply at film markets in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Now, an impressive constellation of distribution companies -- Yekaterinburg-Art, East-West, Most-Media, Gemini Film and Sovexportfilm-Kinoton -- are beginning to fight against the tide of low-grade movies.

Sovexportfilm-Kinoton, which has been working with 20th-Century Fox since last September, arranged a Moscow screening of "Mrs. Doubtfire," a switch-of-the-sexes comedy starring Robin Williams, only three days after its U.S. premiere.

The film attracted 830,000 viewers, well over the 400,000 to 500,000 viewers needed to cover advertising and rental expenses, said Valery Markov, president of Sovexportfilm-Kinoton. The firm also brought "Hot Shots," starring Charlie Sheen, which during four months reached a record audience of more than 1.1 million, and hopes to premiere "Baby's Day Out," a John Hughes comedy about a kidnapped baby in Chicago, at the Americom House of Cinema in October.

"Fox experts are teaching us the real work ethic, the way to maintain precise accounts and make commercial prognoses," said Markov. "Even in such remote Russian cities as Vladivostok or Khabarovsk our representatives in branch offices can get accurate information on local marketing."

Sovexportfilm-Kinotron is also working with Polygram in hopes of bringing "Hudsucker Proxy," the story of a janitor who becomes a chief executive, and "Backbeat," a musical about the Beatles, to Russia by early next year, Markov said.

Even with quality movies, however, the distribution business is a risky one.

"Even a box-office success like 'The Bodyguard' cannot cover the losses from a distribution failure like 'JFK' or 'Made in America,' neither of which attracted large audiences in Russia," said Sergei Fiks, a spokesman for Gemini Film, a production company that has brought Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar films to Russia since being formed last January.

"The days when 12 million eager Iron Curtain spectators rushed to watch 'Gone With the Wind' are gone with perestroika," said Fiks. "Today an audience of 1 million is a success. And we have to advertise hard for that."

Gemini hopes its next big success will be "Unforgiven," a Clint Eastwood anti-western that recently premiered at Moscow's Zaryadye Cinema and will begin showing in September. Also in September will be the long-awaited, and once postponed, Russian premiere of "Schindler's List," the acclaimed Holocaust film by Steven Spielberg. The film, brought to Russia by the East-West company, is scheduled to show at the Khudozhestvenny Theater on the Arbat from Sept. 13. to 18.