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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cash-Strapped Lenfilm Goes to the Car Wash

ST. PETERSBURG -- Lenfilm, Russia's oldest movie studio, is getting into the car wash business to raise desperately needed cash.

The famous film complex is planning to set up a network of more than 20 German-made automated car washing machines on roads around St. Petersburg using a city council-underwritten loan of $3 million. Return on the investment should take no more than 12 months after the first sites open later this year, studio bosses say, and should eventually provide annual revenues of more than $2 million, equal to Lenfilm's current budget.

"The idea of getting into the car wash business for me is not exactly a pleasant one," said Victor Sergeyev, Lenfilm's newly appointed director. "But I have had to do it. This is just one example of something that would have been absolutely unthinkable 10 years ago."

Film production at the studios, once the flagship of the Soviet film industry, has slumped from an average output of 50 features a year in the late 1980s, to last year's disastrous low-point when only one movie was completed. State funding has crashed to just 30 percent of the studio's $2 million budget and once-active and profitable sectors, such as post-production services, have all but ceased functioning.

Staffing at the studios, which produced such famous classics as the 1960 film adaptation of Chekhov's "The Lady and the Dog" and Kozintsev's 1964 version of "Hamlet," has fallen by over half, from 2,000 in 1990 to the current payroll of 830, but Lenfilm, where crumbling buildings and almost nonexistent maintenance attest to the decay, is still desperately short of cash.

The idea behind the car wash business arose when St. Petersburg's recently elected Communist governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, issued a decree making it a traffic offense to drive a dirty car within the city limits, an offense also punishable in Moscow. Russia's harsh climate and rural dirt roads mean that few vehicles stay clean for very long.

Lenfilm petitioned the governor to support an idea that would both benefit the studios and his new policy, said Sergeyev, a director and former chairman of Lenfilm's ruling body, the general council, and whose "Peculiarities of the National Hunt" last year won a Nika, the Russian equivalent of an Oscar.

"The GAI [State Auto Inspectorate] will get a small percentage of profits from each car wash in return for their stationing patrolmen nearby to direct dirty cars, which infringe this new law, to our sites," he said, adding with a smile that this element was typical of contemporary Russian enterprise.

The cost of a full car wash would be set at price lower than that current at other automated services in the city, which generally charge around 50,000 rubles ($8), he said. Construction work on the car wash sites, which will not advertise Lenfilm's connection to the service, should start before the end of the year, pending final confirmation from the city governor's office, he added.

Other, more conventional film-related enterprises are being pursued to help keep Lenfilm afloat, said Sergeyev, who described 1996 as the "worst year ever" for the Russian film industry.

The studio's set decorating department and pre-production unit, which makes props and costumes, are both self-supporting, with healthy commercial relationships in the television, advertising and music video industries.

But Lenfilm, in common with Russia's other leading studios, Mosfilm and the Gorky Film Studios in Moscow, has largely lost its overseas cinematographic market to countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, which offer competitively priced and convenient production facility packages to international clients.

But some Western movies have used Lenfilm facilities in recent years, Sergeyev said, citing Mel Gibson's "Anna Karenina," HBO's "Rasputin" and two movies in Michael Caine's "Harry Palmer" series, "Virgin to Peking" and "Midnight in St. Petersburg."

Konstantin Gavruishin, head of international affairs at Goskomkino, the Russian film ministry, said studios were forced to pursue commercial ventures today simply in order to survive.

"We're living on the edge here," he said. "I wish Lenfilm success with its car wash program, but I hope the network does not outgrow the purpose, to provide funds for making films at the studios."

"Of course, directors who are making a movie with a Russian theme would rather shoot here, but many overseas production companies are put off by today's unstable political, economic and social climate," Sergeyev said.