Lost glitter of 'Hollywood East' Filmmaking: While Russia has a strong contender for an Oscar tonight, the main cog in the country's movie industry, Mosfilm studios, has fallen apart.

Sun Journal

March 24, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The movie script calls for Leonardo da Vinci to paint his masterpiece, "The Last Supper," so designer Sergei Portnoy is doing his best to make a large photocopy of the work look remotely like a Leonardo in progress.

"In the old days, we'd be doing this on a set with real art materials," says the veteran designer, gluing the photocopy to a crumbling corridor wall. "And in the old days, we'd have an actor playing da Vinci -- but the dog trainer over there is going to play him," he says, gesturing to a bearded man trying to make a white greyhound sit still on an antique settee.

Russia has a strong contender for an Oscar tonight -- "Prisoner of the Mountains," about Russia's civil war in Chechnya. But "Hollywood East" has lost its glitter, and the main cog in Russia's movie industry, Mosfilm studios, has fallen apart.

Most movies made in Russia, including this year's Academy Award nominee for best foreign film, have at least a remote connection to Mosfilm because it is still the largest movie studio in Europe and has Russia's only state-of-the-art technical facilities.

In the heyday of this once-glamorous propaganda machine, 6,000 people churned out 50 movies a year and made the Soviet Union's own galaxy of movie stars.

Now, theaters are closed, people can't afford a movie ticket and filmmakers can't find financing.

The Oscars won by Russian films still gleam in the front office's display cases. But the studios and back lots that cover 100 acres are mostly empty.

Mosfilm employs only 350 people now, produces no more than four movies a year, and rents its best facilities to television production and advertising companies, says Abdurakhman Mamilov, the studio's deputy director.

Like so many businesses that used to be state enterprises, Mosfilm's status isn't wholly clear. It technically isn't a private business, but it rarely receives any of the state subsidies the government budgets for it each year. Studio directors have spun off technical divisions as separate businesses in which Mosfilm holds a 51 percent share.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and communism should have freed the film industry, Mamilov says.

Indeed, there was a brief burst in filmmaking nationwide in 1991 and 1992 -- from 150 movies a year to 1,500.

But when the economy and government support collapsed, filmmaking virtually came to a halt -- and the vast government distribution network vital to the movie industry vanished.

Vladimir Naumov, the veteran director making the oddly named "Marcello's Mysteries or a White Dog," the movie with the Leonardo scene, says there have been large breaks in shooting because financing is not complete. His film is the studio's only production so far this year.

If the movie is finished, he can't be sure whether Russians will even see it.

"It wasn't that long ago that cinema was second only to vodka in profitability in this country. Now, you practically have to pay people to see films," veteran Mosfilm producer Eldar Ryazanov told Shop Window magazine last month.

Ticket prices of $1 to $8 -- depending on whether the theater is an unheated dive or a modern foreign venture -- are too expensive for Russians, whose average salary (when it is paid) is $150 a month.

Besides, says Vyacheslav Shmyrov, a cinematography historian, nTC as few as 10 percent of Russia's estimated 100,000 movie theaters show movies now. The others are likely to have been turned into auto showrooms, furniture stores or discotheques.

"The only way to make any money is to take movies abroad -- it's impossible in Russia to make any money," says Alexander Timofeyevsky, film critic for the newspaper Commersant Daily.

Without the old distribution network, moviemakers sometimes are forced to negotiate individual deals with theater administrators, which can limit distribution to Moscow or St. Petersburg. As a result, Timofeyevsky says, "Prisoner of the Mountains" has probably been seen by more Americans than Russians.

The movie about the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya portrays two captive Russian soldiers and the mellowing of their relationship with each other and their Chechen captors.

Timofeyevsky says that Sergei Bodrov, the movie's writer, director and producer, and Nikita Mikhalkov, the director whose "Burnt by the Sun" won the Oscar for best foreign film two years ago, aren't purely Russian moviemakers anymore. Their success dependent on foreign financing.

Despite its many problems, Mosfilm remains vitally connected to all the important Russian movie ventures, film experts say. Its sound stages, editing equipment and other technical facilities are still considered the best in the country; its recording studio is considered one of the best in the world.

Director Mikhalkov boasts his own independent studio now, but the technical aspects of his films rely heavily on facilities at Mosfilm.

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