Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Decree Aims to Entice Muscovites Back to the Movies

In the land of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, the Hollywood technicolor dream can only last so long before its frames start to flicker and fade to black.

There was a time when the formula of sex, speed and violence that is the trademark of the American movie industry enthralled Russian audiences.

But Russian moviegoers have since grown sick and tired and have stopped going to the movies -- a trend officials at the Moscow's culture committee are trying to reverse with a decree signed last month by Mayor Yury Luzhkov "On Measures to Increase Movie Theater Attendance Among the City's Population and to Modernize Theater Conditions."

"At first Russian viewers were starved for American movies," said Mark Lisogor, a cinema specialist at the Moscow city government's culture committee who was one of the decree's authors. "But now they've gorged themselves on American films, and they have no interest in them anymore."

According to Lisogor, the preference for domestic releases resurfaced last year when the top nine box-office draws throughout the country were made in Russia, with Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun" topping the list. Russian moviegoers, it seems, cannot live on high-speed chases, gratuitous flesh and kickboxing alone.

You would never know it though, looking at the current schedule of Moscow's movie theaters. At the 106 cinemas throughout the city, only about a third of the films showing are Russian made, while more than 50 percent are American imports such as "Mortal Combat" and "Gladiator" that focus heavily on action, sex, and violence.

In fact, it may be easier to make a left turn in the center of Moscow than to catch a Russian movie.

The Rossia Theater on Pushkin Square was showing an American erotic thriller Monday, as was the Khudozhestvenny Theater near Stary Arbat. Kung Fu was available down the street at the Oktyabr Theater, which Monday opened with its first Russian film in months -- Sergei Bodrov's "Prisoner of the Caucasus."

"People are sick and tired of American movies, but our film industry is in crisis," said the administrator of the Oktyabr. "There is no money for production, so we are stuck with foreign films no one wants to see."

With little money being funneled into film production and a meager selection of domestic releases, attendance at the theaters is appallingly low. According to Lisogor, Moscow movie theaters average about a 3 percent capacity.

"If in Soviet times Moscow theaters served 100 million viewers a year, in 1995 there were just over 2 million," said Lisogor. "We used to draw that many for one film."

While Lisogor is reluctant to predict a speedy turnaround, he sees some signs of recovery. Last year, 57 new films were produced in Russia -- a considerable upswing from recent years but still far below Soviet times, when some 200 were released annually.

Lisogor can do little to boost funding for the national film industry, but he can offer assistance to Moscow's struggling movie theaters, almost all of which have resorted to renting out space to furniture dealers, car showrooms and night clubs to cover their expenses.

Now it is Lisogor's job to think up new ways to attract more viewers to the cinema. And listening to the August decree's proposals -- which includes in-house orchestras, buffets and paid parking lots -- an evening at the movies could become quite an elegant affair.

But like many decrees, this one is full of ambitious ideas -- such as a multiplex theater slated to go up near the Hotel Ukraina -- that are not likely to be realized in the near future.

The new directive does offer some immediate relief for Moscow's struggling movie houses. As of Aug. 18 they are exempt from paying rent -- a saving of millions of rubles a month for the more centrally located cinemas.

"Theater directors have been calling and saying they want to come and kiss me," said Lisogor, proud of his administrative victory. "But I tell them not to. What would I tell my wife?"

According to Lisogor, before 1990, Soviet movie theaters were not just self-sufficient, but profit-making enterprises.

"They existed solely on ticket sales. Fifty-one percent went into the federal budget and the rest covered salaries and operating expenses," said Lisogor, adding that attendance was never a problem.

"They couldn't push viewers out fast enough to bring the next crowd in," he said.

"An artist can always draw by candlelight if he can't afford to pay his electric bill," said Lisogor, commenting on the vicious circle that has trapped the Russian film industry. "But film is an industry. It requires equipment and technology."

At the Rossia, for example, they survive from income they collect from the surrounding Utopia and Karo night clubs, while the Oktyabr is home to a variety of commercial operations, from a branch of Bank Menatep to an Indonesian furniture salon.

-- from creating a multi-tiered pricing system to attract a wealthier crowd to creating a centralized bureau that will promote the latest releases