2004 Prophets and Gain

2004 Prophets and Gain

Much has been written in the past decade about the crises besetting the film industry in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991: the financial collapse of the major film studios (Mosfilm, Lenfilm, Gor'kii Film Studio) leading to a catastrophic drop in production; the dismantling of the nationwide distribution system, severely impeding the domestic circulation of newly released films; the architectural disintegration and technological obsolescence of most screening venues; and, perhaps most importantly, the disappearance of audiences from movie theaters with the transformation of television broadcast policies, the rise of the video market, and the flood of low quality foreign (mostly American) films. The transition from a state-financed film industry to a privately-financed studio production model of a film industry has indeed been difficult, marked by currency speculation and money laundering, abortive attempts at innovation in financing low-budget productions, the financial crash of 1998, as well as a series of bankruptcies, mergers, and changes in leadership.

These crises, however, were simply the inevitable consequence of capital's struggle to differentiate itself from money—that is, a painful transition from funding individual film projects (by the state, by Klondike capitalists, by the underworld) to the investment of funds with an expectation of generating surplus value; a transition that transformed the film industry by shifting the focus from products to profits. This process can be traced in every subsidiary branch of the film industry, starting with the disbanding of the financially semi-autonomous State Committee on Cinematography (Goskino) in the summer of 2000 and the establishment of a Committee on Cinematography that is directly subordinated to and financially accountable to the Ministry of Culture. This new Committee no longer underwrites the entire cost of any film project. Instead, it provides a kind of competitive "seed funding" for projects, functioning as something like a pass-through grant agency using state funds, the disbursements of which are subject to periodic review.

In a similar way, the existing film studios inherited from the recent Soviet past—Mosfilm, Lenfilm, Gor'kii Film Studio—were forced to allocate their now limited resources in a new way: film projects had to be packaged both in terms of their "social (or artistic) merits" and their projected ability to return capital investments to the studios.[1] This was a radical development in the Russian film industry because it redefined the procedures in obtaining film financing and, in the process, gave birth to a new profession within the industry itself: the producer—the individual responsible (and accountable) for assembling the essential components for any film project (a concept, a script, a director, a cast, a production crew, and the capital necessary to pay for it all). Not surprisingly, some of the first producers were both young and entrepreneurial, making use of the existing infrastructure of the industry: in 1990 Valerii Todorovskii, Igor' Tolstunov, and Sergei Livnev established TTL, a production company that used the technological base at Gor'kii Film Studio to produce a number of films (Todorovskii's Love, 1991; Livnev's Kiks, 1991); in 1995 Livnev became the director of the Gor'kii Film Studio and launched his ambitious project to make a series of low-budget films.

Inevitably, the rise of independent producers was accompanied by the emergence of privately owned film production companies that also initially used already existing infrastructures: Andrei Razumovskii's Fora-Film (established in 1988) was merely the first.[2] In the intervening years, three private production studios in particular have dominated the independent market in Russia and have begun to transform both the kinds of films being made and audiences' tastes: STW Film Company in St. Petersburg, established by former film director Sergei Sel'ianov in 1992 (Program Two); NTV-Profit Film Company in Moscow, a joint company established in 1995 linking Tolstunov's production studio Profit with Vladimir Gusinskii's NTV Television Company (Program Four); and Pygmalion Productions in Moscow, established in 2001 by Sergei Chliants (Program Three).

The success of these production companies in changing audiences' tastes, however, is predicated on the return of audiences to movie theaters. By 1995 per capita attendance in movie theaters had dropped to approximately 0.25 visits annually (down from 16 annual visits in the 1980s). This precipitous decline in attendance was the result of several factors, including the low quality of foreign films screened in the theaters beginning in the late 1980s, the emergence of alternative screening venues (video and dvd, home movie theaters), and the extremely run-down state of most commercial movie theaters (the last major overhaul occurred during Nikita Khrushchev's political reign): no heating, broken seats, torn screens, obsolete projection equipment and sound systems). In the 1990s there were just over 1,500 movie theaters of this "old type" in the Russian Federation (Daniil Dondurei, Iskusstvo kino roundtable, July 2003). By 2003, more than 400 of these theaters had been completely remodeled and re-equipped: new interior designs and layouts, new seats, new screens, new projection technologies, Dolby sound systems. In addition, most of these theaters were converted from single-screen venues to multiplex facilities, providing not only a greater selection of available films, but also a host of other amenities for audiences (bars, cafes, casinos, dance halls).

While these new multiplexes continue to screen foreign films, two things have changed dramatically: low-budget and low-quality foreign films have begun to disappear (replaced by higher quality and more recently produced foreign films), and domestically produced films are once again being screened (after an absence of almost a decade) and are attracting a growing audience. Unlike the 1990s, virtually every film produced in Russia makes it to screen, if not in neighborhood theaters, then at least somewhere in the city. The return of Russian films to Russian screens has begun, in turn, to generate a demand for better quality domestically produced films, not just by established filmmakers—whether those whose careers are identifiable with the Soviet past (Vadim Abdrashitov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Karen Shakhnazarov, and others) or by the so-called "young generation" (now in their forties) who emerged in the immediate post-Soviet years (Aleksei Balabanov, Aleksandr Rogozhkin, Valerii Todorovskii, and others)—but also by completely new and unknown filmmakers, as often as not young directors who have just completed their first feature film (Program One).

[1]The only analog from Soviet times for this approach to film production is the Experimental Creative Studio, which was established in 1963 on the territory of Mosfilm. During the short-lived economic policy introduced by Kosygin, the Council of Ministers of the USSR authorized the creation of the ECS under the sole management and control of its creators: film director Grigorii Chukhrai (artistic director), writer Konstantin Simonov (script department), and former diplomat Vladimir Pozner Sr. (executive director). "The experiment was extraordinarily successful. Productivity rose sharply, waste was cut dramatically, the profits were astronomical in comparison with the average state-subsidized [sic] production" (Anna Lawton, Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time, 1992: 77). The ECS encountered serious problems after several of its films were shelved for political reasons in 1967. It was officially disbanded in 1972, when it was renamed the Mosfilm Experimental Creative Association and integrated into the film industry's administrative apparatus.

[2]Among the more than 25 films produced by the studio are The Jackals (Khabibula Faiziev, 1989), The Ladies' Tailor (Leonid Gorovets, 1990), Ten Years Without the Right of Correspondence (Vladimir Naumov, 1990), Sons of Bitches (Leonid Filatov, 1991), Everything Will Be Alright (Dmitrii Astrakhan, 1995), The More Tender One (Abai Karpykov, 1996), and The Russian Beauty (Cesare Ferrario, 2000-1).

2004 Symposium Materials

Schedule of Events
List of Participants
Photos of the Event
Artifacts & Promotional Materials

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