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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film Industry Faces Fade to Black

Lights, camera -- no action.


"Quiet on the set!" has taken on a new meaning for Russian film makers. Ailing since the end of wholesale government financing, the film industry has battled a host of ills in the past several years: climbing ticket prices; declining attendance at theaters; the rise of the video culture; the popularity and prevalence of foreign films.


The figures are grim. According to Alevtina Chinarova, head of the Russian Union of Cinematographers' department for new artistic projects, Russian film industry output has dropped from a whopping 375 feature films produced in 1991 to a mere 51 feature films in 1995.


This precipitous decline of a once-bustling industry has prompted film makers to predict the imminent demise of cinema as a player on the Russian cultural scene. Despite the dire warnings and predictions, union members who gathered at Wednesday's eight-hour Emergency Plenum at the House of Cinematographers took little action other than to chant an election-year mantra familiar to miners, teachers and workers: Pay us our salaries. Help us out of this crisis.


"Today the production of films has come practically to a halt. Film studios are closing; the film distribution [system] is in tatters," reads a draft resolution the film makers plan to present to the government. "A huge army of cinematographers is unemployed and has no way to survive. Russian viewers have no domestically produced films to watch."


Despite the puffed-up language of the resolution, many of the about 250 delegates present Wednesday painted a stark picture of their group's impotence in the face of market forces. One delegate pointed out that the crisis has been building for many years; in fact, he said, six years ago a similar document had been presented to the government.


"I have the unpleasant sensation that, though we've all stated an opinion ... even if we adopt a resolution of the plenum, once again it will end in nothing," said director Alexander Zildovich, speaking in the cavernous auditorium with its water-damaged ceiling and gap-toothed light fixtures. Referring to his colleagues who had stayed away, Zildovich said to the half-empty hall, "There's a sense of a certain hopelessness, no belief that someone will finally take the initiative and do something."


Vladimir Bortko, a director from St. Petersburg, echoed such pessimism. "Is Russian film alive?" he asked rhetorically, referring in part to a St. Petersburg film festival, "Vivat, Russian film!" As Russia celebrates its film centennial this year, many believe that the lack of government funds has driven the industry to its grave. "It is dead," said Bortko.


Not everyone agrees with this prognosis nor with the idea that the industry's ills are financial. "It's not a matter of money," said Inna Tkachenko, film critic and director of programs for Kinotavr, an organizer of film festivals. "No one in this country wants to start from scratch. ... No one wants to take a risk." Tkachenko added that "there must be an intense desire to make films."


Such ambitions propelled Natalya Pyankova, director of "S novym godom, Moskva" ("Happy New Year, Moscow"), to pound the pavement for support. Tkachenko said Pyankova eventually convinced Kodak to assist her by providing film for a project based on three novellas.


Other bright spots dot the Russian cinematographic horizon. Directors Alexei Balabanov and Valery Todorovsky attracted foreign investment in making their critically acclaimed films "The Castle" and "Podmoskovnye Vechera" ("Moscow Nights"), respectively. And, of course, Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun" showed that Russian films can attract both domestic and foreign audiences.


Many of the union's naysayers and prophets of doom, though, still cling to the idea of state as financial nursemaid. The resolution's conclusion made clear whom they blame for the industry's fate: "If you, the president, the Duma, the Federation Council, the government of the Russian Federation, do not immediately rethink your policies regarding the film industry, you accept full responsibility for the demise of the Russian film industry."