As Russia becomes the world’s sixth biggest film market, Screen looks at what is driving the boom, whether it can be sustained and the impact such box-office growth is having on local film-makers

It is a tale of two industries. At the box office, Russia is scaling new heights. In 2010, total box office exceeded $1bn for the first time, up 43% on 2009. It made Russia the sixth biggest film market in the world.

The boom is being driven by US blockbusters — the market share for Russian films declined from 24% in 2009 to 15% in 2010.

Arthouse films from directors such as Andrei Zvyagintsev, who won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003 with The Return and whose new film Elena won Un Certain Regard’s special jury prize in Cannes last month, along with Bakur Bakuradze, whose debut feature The Hunter also screened in Un Certain Regard, perform well on the international festival circuit and enjoy moderate theatrical success abroad, but fail to make much of an impression at home.

Russian cinema-goers are young (typically aged 16-25) and they want fast, loud and exciting films. The generation that enjoyed Soviet-era cinema has not been wooed back to theatres since the mass exodus of Soviet directors, writers and actors in the early 1990s.

Russia produces about 100 films a year with an average budget of $3.6m-$4.3m. About 70% of these are released.

“Last year our viewers became more critical and selective in the choice of movies,” suggests Mark Lolo, the new president of leading local producer and distributor Central Partnership. “They are suspicious of Russian movies.”

This year, the government is pumping an expected $142.6m (rub4bn) into the local production sector via the country’s three biggest production houses: Nikita Mikhalkov’s Three T, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Art Pictures and Igor Tolstunov’s Profit. The decision to make the three companies act almost as the gatekeepers of all Russian filmmaking is a contentious one. The move forces film-makers to work with one of the three studios, find a wealthy private backer or look for investment outside the country.

Elena, produced by Ekaterina Shneyderova at Moscow’s Non Stop Productions, secured an international sales agent in France’s Pyramide, while The Hunter, produced by Sergei Selyanov’s CTB Film Company in St Petersburg, was platformed at CineMart and Berlin’s Co-Production Market and ultimately funded privately by Selyanov. It is hoped Russia’s recent entry into Eurimages will herald an increase in the number of similar collaborations as well as more market-driven pictures. Russia also has official co-production treaties with a number of countries including Bulgaria, Italy, France and India.

“We have made significant progress in co-production with foreign countries,” says culture minister Alexander Avdeev. “From 2006 to 2009, 36 projects worth about $12.8m (rub360m) were implemented.”

US studios move in

All of the US studios (except Warner Bros) have a significant production and distribution footprint in Russia with European companies such as EuropaCorp also eyeing a move into this growing market. The Walt Disney Co, 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures are most active in local co-production. Disney co-produced 2009’s The Book Of Masters, while Fox International Productions (FIP) is planning Russian versions of Man On Fire and Working Girl. It is also co-producing Sergei Ginsburg’s Love Carrot 3 (Lubby Dubby 3) — the latest instalment in Russia’s hit body-swap comedy franchise — with Interfest’s Renat Davletiarov and Alexander Kotelevsky.

“Over the last few years Russia’s film industry has undergone rapid transformation, becoming one the most important markets in the world,” said FIP director of development Anna Kokourina earlier this year.

Universal Pictures Russia (UPR) has a strong relationship with Timur Bekmambetov’s Bazelevs production outfit and is producing Bekmambetov’s English-language remake of his Russian hit Black Lightning. UPR is also considering working with Central Partnership on several projects.

Sony Pictures was the first US major to move into Russian production through its Monumental Pictures subsidiary and most recently co-produced The Very Best Movie 2 and The Very Best Movie 3D; the latter was released earlier this year.

However, despite the optimistic outlook, Russia remains blighted by piracy and some local players express caution at the challenges in the market.

“The Russian distribution system remains non-transparent,” claims Sergei Kitin, general director of leading exhibitor Cinema Park. “Most of the profits from distribution go to distributors and pirates, while the revenue for producers remains small. In addition, data regarding tickets sales is sometimes under-reported by about two times [by distributors].”

Russia in numbers

Total population: 142.9 million

Total box-office gross, 2010: $1.1bn (rub31.3bn)

Total admissions, 2010: 165.5 million

Market share of local films, 2010: 15%

Highest grossing local film, 2010: Our Russia: The Eggs Of Fortune, $22.5m

Highest grossing film, 2010: Shrek Forever After, $51.4m

Total number of theatres: 829

Total number of screens: 2,246

Total number of digital screens: 779

Total number of 3D screens: 761

Average ticket price: $6.40-$7.15 (rub180-rub200)

Highest grossing film of 2011 (to end of March): Rio, $11.3m