Ben Aris in Moscow -
Just outside the MKAD, Moscow's outer ringroad, stands the Glavkino complex - a collection of brightly coloured buildings that are home to Europe's biggest and most modern film and television studios.
When movies depict film studios in action, usually the lot is full of actors in costume strolling between sound sets. But at Glavkino you are more likely to see fork lift trucks and piles of bricks, as the studio has only just completed its first phase of construction. The administration buildings have yet to be built, but 12 sound sets are in operation and the studio is almost fully booked for the rest of the year.
Russia's TV business is booming, if its movie production is still struggling to re-establish itself. With a population of just under 150m people - almost twice the size of Germany - and a booming consumer sector, Russia has advertising revenues aplenty to fund shows like the hit singing special, "The battle of the choirs" or "Bolshoi Tansy", a dancing competition - both of which were filmed at Glavkino. Demand has grown steadily in recent years, but professional space was in short supply: the last dedicated film studio built in Russia was the world-famous Mosfilm that opened in 1937.
The idea of Glavkino was conceived five years ago by some heavyweights of the industry. Fyodor Bondarchuk, one of Russia's best and most successful directors, together with the young TV producer Ilya Bachurin, who cut his teeth in the youth music and TV world of the 1990s and is now Glavkino's CEO, founded the company in 2008. Konstantin Ernst, the chairman of Russia's state-owned First Channel, the biggest broadcaster in the country, later joined them. Together, these three men own half of Glavkino, with the other half belonging to the financial investor Vitaly Golovachova, who helped organise a $100m credit from state-owned VTB bank to pay for the construction.
Bachurin is a child of the new Russia. With his Malcolm McLaren haircut and pastel lily tattoos down at least one arm, he looks the part of a studio director - except at 34 he is on the young side by western standards. However, he is a rare example of a proven entity in Russia's young media business, having been a founding member of dance music radio station "Russia 2000" in the mid-1990, which was the first attempt to commercialise the explosion of clubs and raves that epitomised the wildness of Russia's first decade of independence.
Glavkino takes advantage of Russia's backwardness, skipping over the incremental updating of facilities that has been forced on most western studios. It has gone straight for state-of-the-art in everything.
Work started in 2009 and the first phase of 22,000 square meters (sqm) and the studio opened its doors for the last four months of last year. Bachurin, who bears a striking resemblance to Malcolm McLaren in both looks and career, says it will earn "multiples" of the $10m it took in during its first few months in 2013. The second phase of construction will add another 10,000sqm and should be ready in 2014.
The sound sets come in all different sizes, ranging from the enormous 3,100sqm main stage, the biggest in Europe, to a string of small sets. This compares with Mosfilm's biggest stage of 1,000sqm and 700sqm at Ostankino, the Soviet-era studios under the landmark TV tower and today home to many of the main TV stations. Moscow also has a handful of private studios set up by independent production companies like A Media, but they offer no more than converted factory space aimed at hosting TV production for the domestic market. "Even with the converted factory space that some production companies were offering, there was not enough space to meet the demand, until we stepped in," says Bachurin, sitting in a black lacquer and chrome temporary office. "What we have built here is an international standard facility that we hope will become part of the international network of studio providing top-class facilities to film and TV producers."
Currently most of the bookings have come from domestic TV companies, including First Channel, which hosted its highly successful "Battle of the Choirs" on the main sound set. Choirs from round the country were invited to compete against each other and there was nowhere else in Moscow that could accommodate the several thousand people that participated.
The smaller sets are also constantly busy. Wandering through the building, we stumbled into a subterranean bar full of students drinking and dancing to music that was part of a soap being made for commercial broadcaster TMT. "We can make up to 20 programmes a month. Our facilities are nearly fully booked already. The largest part of the bookings are making TV shows, but in the long-term we want to become part of the European film industry," says Bachurin.
Even under the Soviets, Russia was a powerhouse in the filmmaking world. Mosfilm was home to "the Father of Montage" Sergei Eisenstein, who is best known for his classic feature "Battleship Potemkin" and several other masterpieces. But since the end of the Soviet Union, the industry has fallen on hard times and now lags far behind Hollywood. "Russian film values are not up to western standards. About 15% of the films screened a year here are Russian, but most of the revenue goes to the international productions, especially the 3D movies," says Bachurin. "So the share of Russian revenue is small and even declining. Between the end of the Soviet Union until about 2010, Russian cinema was losing investment and talent - it is going to be hard to turn it around."
For example, the latest Bruce Willis action picture, "A Good Day to Die Hard", the fifth (and final?) one in the "Die Hard" franchise, was nominally set in Moscow and included a few obligatory shots of some of the major landmarks, but the bulk of the movie was actually shot in Budapest simply because it was cheaper.
Nearly all the domestic Russian movies are in 2D, but these command a smaller share of the total box office revenue, which this year is expected to rise a little to RUB43.2bn ($1.4bn). Local industry experts say that Russian-made films will increase their share of the take, but by only 2%. Russians produce about 200 films a year, of which 60-70 actually get shown and only 10-15 of those go on to make a profit, says Bachurin. "The domestic industry is too small to support much development, so we are dependent on support from the government and it's surviving thanks to financial help," says Bachurin. "The TV business is totally different, as the economy there is healthy and the advertising revenue is more than enough to pay for new projects."
Still, the studio is slowly building up its experience. Glavkino is doing the post-production on Bondarchuk's war movie "Stalingrad" - a Hollywood treatment (in English) of one of the crucial battles of the World War II that has largely been ignored by western studios (even "Enemy at the gates" starring Jude Law that covers the same ground was made by a French, not American, production team.) Glavkino has all the computers and 3D technology to produce what they hope will be an international smash hit. The film looks spectacular and will be out in September.
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