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Lights! Camera! Russian Movies!


With grim determination, a detachment of Russian soldiers prepares a heroic last stand against Osama bin Laden's Afghan mujahideen in the late 1980s. In 9th Company, that is, a new film that opened at hundreds of cinemas across Russia on Sept. 29. Audiences are lapping it up: In the first four days, 9th Company took in $6.7 million, a huge amount by Russian standards. "It's absolutely fantastic. This is the best starting result of all time," says Vadim Ivanov, deputy booking and sales director at Moscow film distributor Gemini Film International.

9th Company is the latest of a slew of locally made movies that herald a remarkable comeback for Russian film. "In the last three years the market share of Russian products has risen dramatically from almost zero," says Gemini managing partner Michael Schlicht. Now, Russian films are a quarter of the market.

Russia has a glorious cinematic tradition dating back to the silent screen. In fact, 9th Company's director, Fedor Bondarchuk, is the son of the legendary Sergei Bondarchuk, who directed the 1968 classic War and Peace. In their heyday the big Soviet studios churned out thousands of films. But the glory days seemed far away by the '90s, when Russia was flooded with Hollywood imports, and state funding dried up.

At Mosfilm in Moscow, Russia's largest and oldest movie studio, production ground to a virtual halt. "There was dirt everywhere and wild dogs roaming the corridors," recalls General Director Karen Shakhnazarov. In 1997 just 13 Russian films were released, with combined sales a paltry $500,000.

It's a different story today. Mosfilm is again a hive of activity, with 150 projects in the works. Rising living standards and new multiplexes have Russians heading to the movies in droves. Ticket sales are set to hit $350 million this year, from just $6 million in 1997. With the rise in revenues, local filmmakers can invest in the latest digital technologies. This growing technical sophistication, combined with a rising patriotic mood among Russian audiences, explains why local productions are drawing crowds. Box office for Russian-made films is set to reach $86 million this year, up from $6.6 million in 2002.

LOW PRODUCTION COSTS

The turning point came last year, with the release of Night Watch, a fantasy thriller about a group of Moscow electricians who save the world from vampires. Produced by state TV station Channel One, Night Watch grossed $16.3 million -- well above the roughly $3 million the most successful Russian movies had earned previously. Within months, Channel One released the historical drama Turkish Gambit, which grossed $19.2 million this year. In contrast, the most successful Hollywood movie ever shown in Russia, last year's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, garnered $14 million.

Such sums may sound small compared with American movies' global revenues. But low production costs -- Night Watch cost around $5 million to make -- mean good returns. Last year, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. () paid an undisclosed sum for global rights to Night Watch and two sequels. It's the first time a Russian film has been bought by a major Hollywood producer. Night Watch premiered on Sept. 28 in France and Germany and ranked No. 6 and No. 4 by its opening weekend. Fox plans a U.S. opening to follow.

But the Russian market could prove a bigger draw. "If Russian films capture a substantial share of a rapidly growing film market, [foreign producers] will soon think of producing films in Russia for Russia," says Schlicht. The revival of Russian cinema may be just beginning.

By Jason Bush in Moscow


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