Russian Export

How and why does the expansion of the national content to the international territories happen

Lives of Russian movies are not restricted to national distribution anymore, and box office results of particular movies being distributed outside the Russian Federation only multiply. Who are the heroes that viewers of the Americas, Europe and China want to see? Do cinema festivals and members of The American Academy of Motion Picture need Russian art-house movies and what’s the deal with “Masha and the Bear” here – in the special review

Genre movies and blockbusters

Viewers: China, Central and South America, the USA, Europe


Re-thinking and exotica

The machine of Hollywood, smoothly delivering movies to the world's screens, sees no deficit in blockbusters but is continuously in search of original storylines. Russian big-scale motion-pictures are able to draw the attention of the American viewer. The pathfinder in the area is Timur Bekmambetov, whose "Night watch" was purchased by the motion-picture company Fox Searchlight in 2004. The screen adaptation of the wide-known in Russia trilogy by the fantasy-genre writer Sergei Lukyanenko turned in the West into a reinterpretation of a played-out (for that moment) “vampire” genre and movies about the undead and hit the USA box office with 1.5 million dollars. The sequel “Day watch” didn’t manage to repeat the trick, but Bekmambetov himself had already got his Hollywood pass: the director screened the first American blockbuster “Wanted” starring Angelina Jolie and robustly makes movies of American production up to this day.

The American release of 2007 “Mongol” by Sergei Bodrov turned to be not less successful: the movie about the rise of Genghis Khan raised sizable 5.7 million dollars in American box office and was nominated in the category “Best Foreign Language Movie”. The success among viewers was triggered by the participation of “Mongol” in the Oscars race and the related promotional campaign. And also the national charm: a spark of essential exotica, which turned the Bodrov’s picture for the USA dwellers into epics not so much historical as notional and somewhere even fairy-tale. However, when in the director turned to the classical fantasy movie with dragons and magicians “The Seventh Son” starring Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore he didn’t manage to pay off the sizeable movie budget (95 million dollars).

Balanced against the fantastic fiction and exotica, the biographical sports dramas are not aking to the western movie-goer – just because they do not have that nostalgia for monumental Soviet Union events the audience of the movie appeals to. So, the leaders of the Russian box office “Going vertical” and “Legend No.17” hadn’t struck home to the people across the Atlantics. Other Russian hits – a war drama “Stalingrad” and a movie “Attraction” had raised moderate but laudable money. The real success awaited both movies by Fyodor Bondarchuk not from the West – it came from the East.

The project examples with B.O. receipts:

“Night watch” Timur Bekmambetov, 2004

“Mongol”, Sergey Bodrov, 2007

Cooperation and puerility

China is a conservation area, the country, concentrated on its own cinematography, where only a few, the titans of cinema industry and owners of a special quota for distribution can fight their way through. Only founders of the motion-picture company “Art Pictures” Dmitry Rudkovsky and Fyodor Bondarchuk managed to build up sustained relations with Asia. Their partnership with Asia started from the distribution of the "The Inhabited Island” – the movie of the latter - to the Chinese territory, but it was the sum of 11.7 million dollars the other movie by Bondarchuk “Stalingrad” (created in collaboration with Non-Stop Production” of Aleksandr Rodyanskiy) raised, that really consolidated the partnership. Partly due to this fact the movie “Attraction”, that saw the world several years later, was sold to China at a very considerable price.

Rigorous restrictions are applied to the distribution of foreign movies that managed to push through the Great Wall both ways: it's hard to filter through these limits, but behind them there is an active audience, which remembers well the old Soviet movies and remains interested in new modern Russian ones. A good example is the success of the cosmic thriller "Salyut 7” by Klim Shipenko, the movie raised more than 2.5 million dollars for the first ten days of Chinese distribution. (and that was with a total 3.7 % of screenings in the film distribution). The Chinese movie-goers estimated the Shipenko’s picture as high as the much-talked-about “Gravitation” – and then they watched “The Viking” and “The Cabin Crew”, sold to the Chinese territory, with no less interest.

The movie “I am the Dragon” produced by “Bazalevs” – the motion-picture company of Timur Bekmambetov, went a totally different, alternative route to the Chinese market. In 2016 the romantic fantasy movie, which received quite a chilly reception in Russia, was pulled apart on quotes and frames on Chinese pirate websites. Following such success, it was decided to show the movie legally in Chinese cinemas, where it raised 9 million dollars. The local audience, over and over making the box office by big-scale national fantasy movies, accepted with equal interest the Russian fairy-tale about a young girl and a dragon. It demonstrated puerility of the Chinese viewer, what votes for magic with purchased tickets quite more often than the Russian one.

One more way to build bridges to Asia is co-production. Due to the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation, signed in 2018, for the following 5 years a Russian-Chinese movie will be able to reach the cinemas of both countries bypassing quotas and getting a bigger share of screenings. Producer Andrey Petrukhin, who several years ago has launched the production of the movie “The Mystery of Dragon Seal” (a kind of a sequel of his production project “Viy 3D", screened in association with the United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine and the Czech Republic) follows this way for some years. The "Mystery” directed by Oleg Stepchenko, was created together with the Chinese state major China Film Group and “JCE Movies Limited” – the production company, owned by Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan himself appeared in this movie, alongside with such actors as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Yury Kolokolnikov. The movie is scheduled to be released in late summer 2019.

The project examples with B.O. receipts (see the table):

“Stalingrad” by Fyodor Bondarchuk, 2013

“I am the Dragon” by Indar Dzhendubaev, 2015

“Attraction” by Fyodor Bondarchuk, 2017

“Salyut 7” by Klim Shipenko, 2017

Traditional values

The other territory, which has recently started to demonstrate a growing interest in Russian movies, is South and Central America. More specifically – Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, Peru and Chile.

It was where the thriller “The Bride” by Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy to receive a great appreciation in 2017, and afterwards, Netflix bought out the movie to distribute it in Latin America. The director himself explained such a success by the tradition to honour the theme of death in these countries. The movie about a young girl and a horrible ritual for transmigration of souls that the family of her husband-to-be wants to perform to her, suited the taste of the audience. However, according to Podgaevskiy, he wasn’t focused on a particular audience while creating a picture, and relied on the universal character of the movie’s content: the wedding ceremony, the importance of which is well known not only in Latin America. The interest in the storyline of “The Bride” in the USA, where in 2017 the company Lionsgate acquired the rights for a remake, can prove this fact.

It’s pretty interesting that “The Bride” has opened the way to Latin America for other Russian horror movies: at the recent international film markets, local distributors literally fought over each other to get the rights for new Russian horrors “Mermaid: The Lak of the Dead”, “Dawn” and “Yaga: the Nightmare of the Dark Forest”.

The theme of weddings, but in other, comedic sense, was covered by director Zhora Kryzhovnikov in his movies "Gorko!” and “Gorko! 2”. In the countries of Latin America the audience has adopted even that perspective and as a result, in 2018 they made a remake of the movie named "Until the wedding does not separate us", repeating the original movie frame by frame. In fact, this movie became the first official adaptation of the Russian motion picture abroad. The main reason for success, according to Timur Bekmambetov, one of the producers of the picture in lies in the recognizability of the characters and situations described in the movie by Kryzhovnikov: it is due to these timeless episodes of life and universal values, the picture was equally well received as in Riga, so in Kazakhstan, and even in New York.

The project examples with B.O. receipts (see the table):

“Gorko!” by Zhora Kryzhovkinov, 2013

“The Bride” by Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy, 2017

“Mermaid: The Lake of the Dead” by Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy, 2018

Festival movies

Viewers – Europe, the USA, Baltic countries


Proper names

Success in the West can be measured not only in monetary terms. No less significant (though less tangible) than box office revenues is the recognition factor, which only a few Russian directors possess. Their names every other time can be found participant lists of international film festivals, and their names have long ago become nominal for foreign film enthusiasts. For example, such authors include Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky. The latter used to work in the West, and today he continues to make films starring Italian and German cast in Europe. Featuring such movies the director stably appears in the program of his favourite Venice Film Festival and members of jury invariably return his love by prizes. After a tour in Palm Springs, Troms and Chicago, Konchalovsky's latest films, such as “Paradise”, have been released in limited distribution in France, Germany and Italy and received appreciation among the audience.

Film director Alexander Sokurov also received wide recognition in Europe, and every his movie becomes an event for Western film critics. For example, Sokurov's "Russian Ark", shot in one take and one double, is still included in the most diverse lists of "The Best Films in the History of Cinema", and in 2011 his "Faust" received the Grand Prix of the Venice Film Festival. Another list of the best films of 2018 includes the films of two other Russian filmmakers: Alexei German Jr. and Kirill Serebrennikov. The first presented at the Berlinale 2018 his film “Dovlatov”, afterwards sold to Netflix: now the picture can be seen by streaming service users in more than 30 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain and virtually all of Scandinavia. The movie “Summer” by Serebrennikov, which tells the story of youth and Victor Tsoi this year appeared in the competition program of the Cannes, and by the end of the year, the movie started to be screened in European countries.

Both directors - German Jr. and Serebrennikov - have a successful history of relations with international film festivals. Both of them brought to international screenings films not only telling the audience about people, but also revealing national symbols of their native country – unconventionally shot films that stand far from biopics in their usual sense. And in both cases, the western viewer appreciated this unusual approach.

The project examples with B.O. receipts (see the table):

“Paradise” by Andrei Konchalovsky, 2016

“Faust” by Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011

“Dovlatov” by Aleksei German Jr., 2018

“Summer” by Kirill Serebrennikov, 2018

In one step from the “Oscar”

There is also a name among the new generation directors successful in the West, which in recent years has been frequently associated with the award of the American Academy of Motion Picture: over the past few years, Andrey Zvyagintsev has been included in the list of five candidates for the award in the category "Best Foreign Language Movie" twice. Moreover, the director's latest film, “Loveless”, won almost all European awards between 2017 and 2018, from César and the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival to the main prize at the BFI London Film Festival and the main award at the Munich Film Festival. Only the golden bubblehead “Oscar”, which may well go to the next film of the director, was left uncovered.

Movies by Zvyagintsev, directed at the highest level and swinging on the nerves of the audience, hit the pain points of the viewers in many countries. In these very countries, however, his films are distributed due to nominations and prizes, collected carefully as if by pieces. Thus, the success in Cannes and the César has led to increased interest in "Loveless" in French box office and to the honorary place in the top ten box office films of the first weekend. For the American distribution of the picture the nominations for the "Golden Globe" and "Oscar" were of significant importance, as well as numerous special screenings for the local press and members of the Academy, which, according to the producer of the film Alexandr Rodnyansky, are not always focused on the European market and need additional incentives in the form of promotional tours, receptions and numerous interviews.

The project examples with B.O. receipts:

“Leviathan” by Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2014

“Loveless” by Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2017

New faces and relations

It was Aleksandr Rodnyansky, who, being no stranger to the American cinema business processes, launched the AR Content international motion-picture company this year. The company’s plans include several ambitious projects that the producer is going to create together with movie-makers from different countries. So, the first film is the political thriller “The President’s Interrogation” that will be produced by Ziad Douri, a Lebanese film director and an Oscar nominee. The second film, a documentary about the fate of the Jewish refugees in the 30s of the last century, Rodnyansky will be making with Kevin McDonald,  the author of The Last King of Scotland and a British Oscar winner. The company's plans include two series intended for the international market: one Russian-language project under the direction of Andrey Zvyagintsev for Paramount and an English-language series by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, the author of White God, dedicated to the secrets of the porn industry.

The producer is also planning to support new people in the sphere of local (and then international) cinema. After the success of the Closeness film, which was shot by the 27-year-old debutant Kantemir Balagov, a student of Aleksandr Sokurov, in Cannes, the producer decided to start making the second film of Kantemir, the military drama “Dylda”. As a producer, Rodnyansky also took part in the making of The Man Who Surprised Everyone new motion-picture by  directors Natalia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov who are not still well-known in Europe. The film was included in the Horizions program of the last Venice Film Festival, and the actress Natalya Kudryashova, who performed the key role there, has received an award.

The same way as Rodnyansky, namely to attract young talents and build bridges between countries, the Hype Production producers Ilya Stuart and Murad Osman are also going today. The last of the company’s projects announced at the moment is Persian Lessons, the drama about the Second World War, in which Lars Eidinger, the German actor, will play the main role. The film director will be Vadim Perelman, who not only successfully shoots in Russia, but also once came to the attention of the American Academy of Motion Picture. His 2003 movie House of Sand and Fog, in which Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly has played, had some Oscar nominations and showed good grosses in the United States.

Such progressive steps in attraction of international colleagues to an increasing number of projects is a new and effective way to sell a movie on the greatest number of territories where viewers from different countries will be able to see it.

The project examples with B.O. receipts (see the table):

House of Sand and Fog, Vadim Perelman, 2003

Closeness, Kantemir Balagov, 2017

The man who surprised everyone, Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, 2018

Animated cartoons

Viewers – Europe, USA and Asia

If for live-action films, despite the general progress and growing rapport with foreign colleagues, there is still such an obstacle as the different mentalities, the animation seems to have already cleared the barrier. The most emotional, perceptive, and sometimes the most flexible foreign audience are children (as well as their parents), who are  increasingly choosing Russian cartoons for watching.

The popular Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear was translated into 25 languages: both American and European viewers liked the story about a girl who lost in the woods which is familiar to everyone from the Russian fairy tales, and some of the project series collected the record number of views on YouTube. The reason for such a success many people see in the fact that the series propagate universal values for the most numerous audience – family audience. Therefore, the complexities of the relations between capricious Masha and the good bear (“child-parent” model) are understandable to everyone even without knowledge of the Russian language.

Another popular project in the West was the Smeshariki animated series: in 2016, the American company Shout! Factory acquired the rights for distribution of the two films from the series (The Legend of the Golden Dragon and Smeshariki. Beginning), having renamed them to the Kikoriki. According to the project art director Anatoly Prokhorov, some fragments of the animated film, for example, some particularly sad episodes were slightly changed for showing in the USA, and in some scenes, there was a background music changed. Similarly, the dialogues of the animated series were adapted during their show in China. In Asia, Europe and America, this animation project has beeb watched by both children and adults – the first were attracted by the “kawaii” factor, the tenderness for unusual round-shaped characters, while the latter paid more attention to ironic dialogues and philosophical implications of the series.

With success and without changes, The Snow Queen cartoon series have been released in China. Thus, its second part The Snow Queen-2: Refreezing collected more than $5 million in PRC, and its third part almost $11.5 million, breaking the B.O. revenues from the Stalingrad film (but only in conversion to local currency). The creators of the series consider that the high quality of the cartoon is the key factor for its success. Its status of coproduction with China also had an influence on good takings, due to which the third part of the “Queen” was locally released on favourable dates during the Qingming holiday and screened in movie theaters for more than a month (a great rarity for a foreign project in China). The fourth cartoon The Snow Queen. Through the Looking Glass, which is going to be released  in Russia on the New Year holidays, is currently planned to be shown in Europe and South Korea.

The project examples with B.O. receipts (see the table):

Smeshariki: The Legend of the Golden Dragon, 2016

Smeshariki: Deja Vu, 2018

The Snow Queen, 2013

The Snow Queen 2: Refreezing, 2015

The Snow Queen 3: Fire and Ice, 2016


Viewers – the USA, Europe, Netflix audience


Our response to Brian Cranston

An Ordinary Woman, the Boris Klebnikov series about a mother-of-two who carries her husband and children on her shoulders, while working as a pimp, was successfully shown this year at all important European TV events. The project became the first television film from Russia selected to participate in the prestigious international film festival Series Mania in Lille, got into the program of the international film festival in Zurich, and then was shown at the largest international television content market MIPCOM, where the Khlebnikov project was called the Russian version of Breaking Bad.

An Ordinary Woman, which has already received a positive response from the managers of channels such as the BBC and Sky, is not the only project that has drawn the attention of Western buyers. An increasing number of the Western television industry representatives are looking at the TV products from the Russian Federation: having changed the hackneyed subject of “series about gangsters and crime”, the directors began to produce movies about Russia which is modern, interesting, different and not at all so far from its foreign neighbors as it has been always considered. Chris Bonnie, the Cineflix Media Director of Legal Affairs, confirms this thesis: “An Ordinary Woman is a series that offers a fascinating look at the life of modern Russia, it combines strong female characters, an exceptional acting and amazing camerawork.” It was Cineflix who took up the promotion of the Khlebnikov project in the international market.

Expropriation and adaptation

Following the results of last year’s MIPCOM, the Trotsky series by Aleksandr Tsekalo’s film company “Sreda” was sold to the Netflix streaming service. He is a record-breaker in the number of TV shows that attracted the attention of this giant of digital content. At the moment, you can also see Silver Spoon and The Method on Netflix, and although the service does not provide exact information about the number of views of its content, the fact of the availability of the Russian projects there already says a lot. As of today, the rights to Silver Spoon, as well as another “Sreda” company’s series Sparta, are bought for adaptation of their plots and formats.

Adaptation is a quite traditional story for the Western audience, but while earlier the inspiration for remakes was predominately sought in Scandinavian, French and British TV shows, nowadays Russia is also regarded as a source of interesting plots and subjects for the Western expropriation. In the spring of this year, the Seven Seconds series was released on Netflix, the key moments in the plot of which were taken from The Major film by Yuri Bykov. And back in 2013, CBS International acquired the rights to the international distribution of the Kitchen series. For the present, the series remakes were shot in Portugal, Georgia, Croatia and other countries.

Original is better than copy

It is rather possible that very soon the foreign representatives of the film industry will make a shift from the stage of copying to fully-fledged joint cooperation and coproduction. Back in the last year, Netflix signed a deal on the exclusive right to show the popular German the Darkness TV series, which, after being released on the platform, became a real hit (and 90% of the Darkness viewers did not live in Germany). Now the showrunners of this project Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese are obliged to release their projects exclusively on this streaming service.

The expansion of the Ted Sarandos (head of Netflix) creation continues in Europe, and sooner or later Russia will come in sight of if not this then any other streaming service as a country that supplies original content. The first contender for such a co-production is the above-mentioned project of Andrei Zvyagintsev and Alexander Rodnyansky for Paramount Television. Its shooting will take place in Moscow, and its premiere may happen either on one of the world's largest channels, or on one of the online platforms. How exactly it will be, we will see in the future. Now one thing is clear: digital services, even faster than filmmakers themselves, erase the boundaries between countries and allow film directors and producers to show their products far beyond the borders of their native country.

12 Mar 2019
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