Foreign Buyers on What They Want From Russian Films

This week the Key Buyers Event: Digital Edition, organized by Russian film promotion body Roskino, launched its virtual showcase of new Russian productions with some 400 international participants slated to take part, including buyers, commissioners and producers from 55 countries.

Exports of Russian films have been growing at a healthy 25% clip annually in recent years, according to Roskino, but a key question for many foreign buyers is how to market and sell those films in other territories. It was the subject of a panel discussion on Monday featuring Angel Lopez Armendariz, head of foreign production selection at Mediaset Spain; Juliana da Cunha Jacobsen, head of acquisitions and operations at BF Distribution; and Jordan Fields, VP of acquisitions at Shout! Factory. The session was moderated by Katerina Pshenitsyna, VP of international distribution at Central Partnership.

In many markets, commercial Russian films are a relatively new phenomenon. “What we noticed about five years ago is that there was more and more non-English-speaking titles that were delivering high production values and intriguing premises, and were not on the festival route or in the arthouse genre…which already has a niche audience,” said Jacobsen. “When we started looking at Russian titles, we were definitely surprised by the level of production value they were delivering, and how entertaining and powerful some stories were.”

BF Distribution has long-running relationships with the likes of Lionsgate and NBCUniversal in Latin America and is focused on theatrical releases with strong commercial potential. “When we talk in that vein, we not only see it as Russian content, but theatrical content,” said Jacobsen. “When we are curating and we are scouting for product in the market and in the festivals, this is basically our first go-to: can we release this theatrically? And then, what is the audience for that?”

The company’s first hit came with “The Bride,” a horror film from director Svyatoslav Podgayevsky. “We knew that horror worked in Latin America,” said Jacobsen. The genre’s established track record meant that BF Distribution didn’t have to overcome some of the hurdles often encountered when selling foreign films, such as marketing a cast of unknowns. “You have space to explore and present the elements that actually matter for the genre, not only for Russian titles.”

Some markets nevertheless present greater challenges than others. “The market is very difficult for foreign language [in the U.S.],” said Fields. “We just don’t have the tolerance for sub-titles or English dubs, even.”

Like Jacobsen, Fields pointed to his company’s success releasing Russian titles that relied on the universal language of genre, such as action-adventure, science fiction and horror. “Those are genres that for us don’t rely on talent—on names in the cast. Because they’re Russian films, there aren’t going to be any names in the cast that are marketable in the States,” he said. “We rely on the genre to be that main marketing driver, because they have defined audiences.”

Shout! Factory’s biggest Russian hit so far has been “Guardians,” a slick superhero actioner that’s sold to more than 100 territories worldwide. “It looks like a Marvel movie. Despite Americans’ lack of tolerance for foreign-language films, this is one that looks pretty American,” Fields said. “It’s a very well-produced, good-looking, great story, the key art is fantastic. It just connected with American audiences. We expected good things from it, but I think we were all surprised by just how well it performed.”

Mediaset has acquired some of the top-selling Russian films of recent years, including the World War II blockbuster “T-34,” the sci-fi actioner “The Blackout,” and the alien invasion feature “Attraction,” as well as its forthcoming sequel. Yet Armendariz admitted to skepticism as his company circled its first Russian acquisition, the action film “22 Minutes,” several years ago. “We were afraid about small things like, ‘Is this going to be too Russian?’” he said. “‘Is our audience ready to see that the hero is not a Western one, from U.K. or France or the U.S.A.? Is the audience ready for a Russian hero?’”

Playing in a prime weekend afternoon slot, however, “22 Minutes” was a ratings hit. “From that moment, we were learning that these kind of things were not that important for the audience,” said Armendariz. “The audience wants to see something that is entertaining.”

Gradually the company began to build an understanding of what the Russian market offered, and which titles were likely to click with Spanish audiences. “We have a very clear idea of what we’re looking for,” he said. The growing familiarity also means growing confidence when it comes time to seal a deal. With “Attraction,” from multi-hyphenate Fedor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures Studio, “we had seen the kind of CGI that these guys were able to do,” said Armendariz. Mediaset bought the film sight unseen—”just reading the script and screening some teasers and scenes of the movie.”

“Attraction” was the first Russian movie Mediaset aired in primetime, and it was a huge success, with Armendariz crediting a marketing strategy that highlighted the film’s key selling points. “For primetime, it’s difficult for us to try with these kinds of movies. You need to market that movie, and usually you need cast,” he said. “We decided to make the promotion about the CGI, the alien, the catastrophe. And it worked.”

Ultimately, however, marketing is a two-way street, and the three panelists agreed that Russian producers need to work aggressively to ensure that a film looking for international distribution is putting its best foot forward.

“I cannot possibly overstate the importance of marketing materials, not just for all films that we’re looking at, but especially for Russian films,” said Fields. “There’s no cast that we can use to drive our marketing. If the genre works, that’s half the battle. But then, perhaps the most important element would be the key art.”

He continued: “So many films that are being shopped around, they haven’t done the most important part, which is to create art that will help sell it. When filmmakers forget to do that, I think they’re really doing their films and themselves a disservice.”

Fields cited the example of “Mermaid: Lake of the Dead,” a “perfectly solid horror film” that would nevertheless have to compete in a crowded market. But the film’s key art stood out. “It has a narrative. The imagery has a story. You get a good sense of what the movie is going to be about, the tone, just from that art,” he said. Shout! Factory’s sales team was instantly won over, and the company’s head of sales told Fields, simply: “I can sell this.”