Russian movies coming back to life

Figures show the Russian public has started again to note (and furiously discuss) local films

By DMITRY KOSYREV / Pic By BLOOMBERG

Among a lot of good economic news coming out of Russia this year-end, some are expected, some are not.

Agricultural boom, with an estimated 3.5% growth in 2017 after the same figure a year ago — that was to be expected.

New car sales, probably up 17% this year — that’s new.

Textiles, clothes and shoes production up 5% or so, for the second year running — that’s very new.

And then there are movies, Russian-made. The things currently happening to that industry are quite a surprise, especially for me, who have been trying to get an entry into that strange world for the last several years — not without a moderate success, I might add.

After all, the people in that dreamland do need written words sometimes, don’t they?

When I put my foot into that door some years ago, I knew very well that I was getting myself into a completely ruined industry (just as textiles and clothes and shoes had the same reputation three to four years ago).

The big idea was to get your modest fee quickly and disregard the future fate of the movie in question.

The general mood in these charmed circles was cynical. The way to success was to get a governmental grant and not to worry about profitability. In any case, a Russian movie had no chance in our cinemas, where all the top 10 positions had been habitually taken over by American productions. With the cost of a good movie hovering around maybe RM30 million, that meant almost no expensive film had much of a chance of being commercially successful.

The grants had to have some justification, like in “babies and families” series, sponsored by the government to raise the birth rates — and they did, incidentally.

But you cannot imagine how the actors ridiculed these endless dumb plots about wanted and unwanted pregnancies, marriages and other kind of drama.

Not that the Russian movie industry had always been down and out.

We used to have dozens, if not hundreds of national celebrities among actors and producers, huge audiences literally lived from movie to movie.

But financially, that former great national industry was going to the dogs with every passing year.

So, imagine my surprise when some new figures were published. The returns from the top 10 most commercially successful Russian movies were around RM260 million in 2015, RM330 million in 2016 and may reach RM550 million in 2017.

And also, look at the number of Russian movies among the top 10 earners in our cinemas: In 2015 — zero. In 2016 — one. And in 2017 — three.

All that don’t necessarily mean that each of the mentioned top 10 local money-earners made profits. The whole industry has not yet become a gold mine.

But the figures show that the Russian public has started again to note (and furiously discuss) local films.

So, what happened? The movies are not the only case of investment returns depending heavily on politics or, wider, the general mood of the nation. But it is a spectacular case of just that.

The great American films of the 1930s-1940s were all about a nation coming out of the Great Depression, being in desperate need of fun and distraction.

The great Italian and French works of the 1960s were about a totally new Europe emerging after the World War Two.

The nations and the movies are in it together, shaping and emotionally charging each other.

So, what happened in Russia in the recent years? Failed Opposition rallies in Moscow, openly supported by the West, in 2011-2012, along the lines of the murderous “Arab Spring” in the Middle East.

An openly anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, gladly supported by the same West. A horrible case of the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in 2014 (Russia was blamed regardless of the facts).

And a stunning Russian victory in Syria, and a joy of a referendum in Crimea, with even the cripples asking to be taken to the polling stations to let them vote to take the peninsula back into Russia.

Also sanctions, accusations of sabotaging the American presidential election in 2016 and elections in Europe, too. And, finally, a doping scandal at the Winter Olympics.

In all these cases, no solid facts, but still Russia had to pay.

One or two such cases had a chance of being accepted by the Russian public as plausible, maybe with a grain of salt. But not all of them together.

So, the nation, previously engaged in turning itself into a happy consumer society, has noticed that something was wrong with the world and concentrated on its own origins, mentality and place in that world.

It began to crave and watch the movies about Russia’s ancient and recent defeats and victories, and about people born and struggling in those turbulent times.

And the movie industry found itself a new life.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia.