When the bottom fell out of the Russian economy during the crisis of 2014, sending the ruble into a tailspin, the shockwaves reverberating across the country had a seismic impact on the film industry. For many accustomed to the old ways of doing business, a dramatic rethink was at hand.
“Until 2014…Russian producers were never really thinking about international distribution, because it wasn’t worthwhile,” says Vadim Vereshchagin, CEO of production, distribution and sales company Central Partnership. The domestic market in the nation of 145 million had until then been robust. With the collapse of the ruble, however, that market was virtually halved overnight. “All of a sudden, a lot of people started thinking, ‘What do we do to sell these films outside of Russia?’”
Change was already underway, with the Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund beginning to offer support for the promotion of Russian films abroad. The years that followed would see a noticeable shift in the international distribution of domestic content. Before the crisis, Russian films were being sold to roughly two dozen countries; today that number has risen to 120, according to data provided by Roskino, the Russian film promotion body, which is organizing a virtual content market for international buyers next month.
The shift was significant, too, in the types of films being sold. Russia’s thriving arthouse tradition has long found an international platform for auteurs such as Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as rising young filmmakers like Kantemir Balagov (“Closeness,” “Beanpole”). Yet the 2010s have seen a boom in foreign sales for genre films, offering what Vereshchagin describes as “a true representation of what Russian cinema is, and what Russian cinema-going audiences want to see.”
Anastasia Bankovskaya, of distributor Planeta Inform, says action films are the “driver” of Russia’s international sales, citing the success of Planeta Inform titles such as superhero actioner “Guardians” (pictured), which sold to more than 100 countries and was released theatrically in Latin America, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, and Germany. Science fiction and horror have a strong track record, while animation—long a Russian staple—accounted for six of the top 20 films last year in terms of global box office.
In many ways, 2019 was a banner year for Russia’s global sales, with 91 local films distributed internationally—up from 80 in 2018—and global box office for Russian films reaching $51.6 million, soaring past the previous year’s total of $42.1 million.
Buyers are responding to a new wave of filmmaking. “High quality, good storytelling, great CGI are the factors that are paving the way for the Russian films in the international market,” says Bankovskaya. She also credits the “consecutive commercial success of Russian films in the international markets” for contributing “positive word of mouth,” dispelling lingering doubts about how well Russian films hold up against foreign counterparts.
“I think the situation…has really changed in the past few years,” says multi-hyphenate Fedor Bondarchuk, founder of Art Pictures Studio and producer of the sci-fi actioner “Sputnik,” which was selected for Tribeca this year and has been acquired by IFC Midnight for the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
Though patriotic war epics have long been a staple at the domestic box office—Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” ranks among the top-grossing local films of all time—popular Russian cinema is increasingly moving in step with the global market. “The production quality and the storytelling have started to be more international,” he says. “It’s not about World War II, our orthodox themes. It’s about real life, real heroes in this modern period.”
For the time being, Vereshchagin says there are practical challenges to expanding the industry’s reach, such as improving local dubbing and subtitling facilities to service more markets. Russian stars need to be promoted to boost name recognition in foreign markets. Central Partnership has also begun to provide foreign buyers with a fuller slate of marketing materials—including country-specific posters, trailers, and EPKs—“for them to be able to more successfully distribute [films] to their territories.”
There’s a long way to go, but Vereshchagin believes the Russian industry is slowly moving in the right direction. “We’re still in the early stages of international distribution,” he says. “In terms of money that we’re generating, it’s still not anywhere close to what we’re generating in Russia. But it’s growing.”