A fight is brewing over the fate of Russia’s most storied film studio – and for the soul of the country’s movie industry.by Galina Stolyarova 24 April 2012
ST. PETERSBURG | Russia’s oldest film studio is in crisis. Once a hive of activity that produced masterpieces by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Kozintsev, Georgi and Sergei Vasiliev, and Alexander Sokurov, Lenfilm now stands virtually deserted, paint peeling from its walls.
The state-owned studio, which dates to 1918, releases only a couple of titles per year. Saddled with debt and facing insolvency, Lenfilm’s management has repeatedly appealed to the government, unsuccessfully, for subsidies.
The vast property occupied by Lenfilm stands in the heart of historic St. Petersburg, a few minutes’ walk from the 18th-century Peter and Paul Fortress – a fact that could prove to be its salvation or its undoing.
This spring two rescue plans for the studio emerged, one supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the other by the film community that has Lenfilm as its spiritual heart. The two conflicting visions have set off a national debate about the nature of the country’s film industry.
The Putin-backed plan was floated by Vladimir Yevtushenkov, president of the Sistema conglomerate, which has tentacles in industries as diverse as telecommunications, tourism, retail, and oil. It calls for Sistema to take over Lenfilm, which the Finance Ministry valued at 105 million rubles ($3.5 million) in 2011, though some analysts consider that figure a knock-down price. The studio would then move to the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
But a group of independent filmmakers proposed in April that the studio be allowed to stay put, receive a cash infusion from the government, and regain access to its valuable archives, which were taken over by the Culture Ministry in 2002. They envision Lenfilm becoming a center of art-house filmmaking.
The first plan would create a partnership between Sistema and Lenfilm, which would merge with a production company in Yevtushenkov’s empire. The state would control 25 percent of the new enterprise, which would move to a new business complex on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Yevtushenkov would turn the existing studio on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt into a new business center and parking garage.
The government initiative set many Russian filmmakers back on their heels. For some of Russia’s most respected directors, the battle for Lenfilm’s independence is a fight for the last bastion of art-house production.
“Our plan is an effort to prevent what we see as the funeral of intellectual filmmaking in Russia,” said Sokurov, whose Faust won the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
“The government plan is both senseless and pointless and appears to fall in with a certain man’s business interests rather that being aimed at reviving the studio as an organization that would produce art-house films,” the director said. “Clearly, state officials are looking at Lenfilm as some sort of expensive and complicated toy, with which they are not fully equipped to play.”
Others backing the alternative plan are award-winning filmmaker Alexei German and prominent composer and producer Andrei Sigle. They call for the government to lend Lenfilm 2 billion rubles ($68 million), to be repaid over 10 years. And they insist that Lenfilm get back control of its archives.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when state cultural funding declined across the board, Lenfilm remained profitable for a time. The losses began only after the Culture Ministry took over its archives, depriving it of a key revenue source. The studio now has debts amounting to about 60 million rubles, according to its press office.
“It has been a slow but steady degradation,” veteran filmmaker Viktor Buturlin said. He added that “lives were ruined” when the studio fell into decline.
“Many cameramen, actors, and designers were forced to find work on fruit stalls and in warehouses, in order to make ends meet. Some got depressed. Some took to the bottle. And quite a few people died far too young because they lost the will to carry on.”
Buturlin, like Sokurov, said the real point of the government-backed plan seems to be to redevelop valuable real estate. “Of course, among ourselves, we have all known for a long time that the issue at stake is the three hectares of prime land that Lenfilm occupies,” he said. “Many of us think that Lenfilm is doomed for that reason alone. Too many powerful people want to get access to the land, and nobody apart from the filmmakers themselves can oppose it.”
He is skeptical that the newly created studio would make room for the production of less profitable art-house productions. RWC, the production company that would merge with Lenfilm under the Putin-backed plan, puts out light entertainment.
“I’ve become convinced that filmmaking in modern Russia serves first and foremost the big advertisers, meaning that if your stuff is not commercial enough, you either do not get to film anything, or you will have trouble getting it shown,” Buturlin said. Reviving Lenfilm as a viable art-house studio, he added, could encourage “a renaissance of the country’s serious filmmaking in general.”
Buturlin likened contemporary filmmakers in Russia to cargo handlers whose control over their output ends when they send it to the commissioning television channels or studios.
“Even in the Soviet years, editors were obliged at least to discuss the changes they considered necessary and give reasons for shelving your work. We badly need a strong studio that would ensure that its filmmakers are treated with respect,” he said.
Prominent film critic Tatiana Tkach agreed that a resurgent Lenfilm could be a place to produce more intellectual fare than the popcorn fare that dominates the Russian film industry.
“At present, producers will support only big names and mass-market projects, which means nothing too serious. It’s extremely difficult for a novice actor or director to get their career off the ground,” Tkach said.
St. Petersburg producer and composer Andrei Sigle estimated that Lenfilm’s archives could be worth at least 100 million rubles annually in royalties and payments from advertisers for prime-time screenings of its classics.
“Officials obviously did realize what the loss of this money meant for the studio, but the temptation to control this hefty income won out,” Sigle said.
Backers of the government plan insist that the merger of Lenfilm with Sistema will not lead to disaster. In response to Sokurov’s initiative, Putin promised that “the authorities will listen to the filmmakers carefully” and will “draw them into the decision-making process.”
Yulia Strizhak, an adviser to St. Petersburg vice governor Vasily Kichedzhi, said the city government strongly backs the merger as “the most rational solution.”
“The studio will stay afloat, which is the most important thing,” she said. “Importantly, there is an investor who is keen to provide money for the studio’s development.” Yevtushenkov has not said what investment he would make in Lenfilm beyond the initial purchase.
Dmitry Meskhiev, head of the city’s Culture Committee and himself a filmmaker, also vigorously defended the merger.
“What I want to say to the protesters is, ‘Stop panicking!’ ” he said. “A merger between a studio that is essentially falling to pieces and a modern one is a good news story, not a tale of disaster.”
The main battle for Lenfilm still lies ahead. Before the end of May, Sokurov is due to discuss the alternative rescue plan with Putin.
“The final decision has not yet been made, and we will not give up,” the director said. “In many ways, this is about the issue of respect – respect for Russian history, respect for art, and our own self-respect.”