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Russia: Film Industry Struggling To Make A Comeback

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, Russia; 2 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- This year may go down in Russian film history as the year that Lenfilm, Russia's oldest film studio, bounced back.

Founded in 1918 by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Peasants, Lenfilm has produced nearly 1,500 films, many now classics of world cinema. Mosfilm, in Moscow, gained fame for both light-hearted and politicized films. Lenfilm and the Leningrad School of Film are known for intellectual and artistic films, and for experimentation in film in the European tradition.

Other Russian film studios are just -- well -- film studios. Lenfilm is more. It is a pillar of St. Petersburg culture and its traditions. St. Petersburg film expert Alexander Pozdniakov puts it this way: "Lenfilm was a magic word and the people who worked there, or who were associated with it, were a privileged caste."

Like many other Russian enterprises, Lenfilm is now in hard times, and financial problems have forced the film studio to be resourceful. For example, it rents two of its seven film stages to businesses. One sells furniture and the other computers.

Many directors were not prepared for the changes wrought by reform.

"In Soviet times it was easier to film because we were guaranteed funding by the state," said leading film director Alexander Rogozhkin. "Now, production is often stopped because money has dried up, and so our biggest problem is looking for money. This is not necessarily bad. It is simply a natural state of life, as in any other country and we will have to get used to the fact that the state is not all powerful."

Few now have the illusion that Russian film will resurrect itself to its former glory. In 1996, only one film was produced at Lenfilm. Viktor Sergeev, the head of Lenfilm and himself one of Russia's leading film directors, says that Goskino, the state film committee, contributed only 29 percent of what was promised.

The feature that made Lenfilm great -- its high-quality artistry -- is also that which is hurting the studio. Sergeev says: "Russian film, especially of the Leningrad School, is not oriented on profit."

Despite the tough times, 1997 might prove to be the year that Lenfilm bounces back. Russia's leading film critic Sergei Dobrotvorsky spoke to our correspondent shortly before his unexpected death last week.

"The worst is behind us," he said. "The Russian film industry has gotten over the crisis of the past few years, and I think that in the next three we should see things pick up. First, the Soviet film age is over, and a new generation of creative talent has matured. Second, a new relationships is developing with the countries new financial structures to support film. Money is the key. No money. No film."

Lenfilm is currently set to release six films this year that it wholly produced, and another eight that are joint ventures with the myriad of small independent film studios that are based on the territory of Lenfilm, and are staffed by current or former Lenfilm people.

One of the ways to save the Russian film industry is privatization, and private capital is willing to pick up the more tasty morsels. For example, Vladimir Gusinsky, CEO of Media-Most and one of Russia's most powerful magnates, recently offered Mosfilm $167 million for 49 percent of its of stock and rights to all films made after 1990.

The issue of privatization at Lenfilm is a sore one because for many it smacks of commercialization. The idea was first raised in 1992, when Technicolor was ready to invest up to $30 million to revamp Lenfilm. But the studios leading directors and actors created a public outcry and appealed to President Yeltsin to stop the sale of what they called, "our national heritage."

Ensuing hard times have softened such opposition. Sergeev says that people now understand government cannot answer for everything. He says privatization stands a better chance.