The hoped-for Russian blockbuster of 2012, a film set during the 2008 war, failed to catch fire at home while proving too hot to handle for some of the neighbors.by Vladimir Kozlov 10 May 2012
MOSCOW | The reception of Avgust. Vosmogo (August. Eighth), one of the year’s highest profile Russian films, has been a tale of two movies.
One is the story of a mother and child trying to find each other, larded with panoramic battle scenes and sophisticated computer-generated imagery.
The other is a patriotic war story deemed too sensitive to be shown in several of Russia’s neighbors for its treatment of the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict.
Coming in at $18 million, Avgust. Vosmogo is one of the most expensive Russian films ever, but its failure to build a strong base among either the critics or the public, coupled with the loss of potential foreign revenues, means that so far it has failed to break even.
The story centers on a young Russian woman who travels to Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia to collect her son and finds herself amidst the military conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. The film cost $18 million to make, and, says co-producer Ilya Bachurin, simply completing such a big project, by Russian standards, on schedule was a major achievement.
“A movie of this scale has never been produced in Russia in just one year,” he said.
Bachurin also gave credit to American screenwriter Michael A. Lerner, hired to co-write the script with director/producer Dzhanik Fayziev. “He did it on such a [high] level that we didn’t need to make any major changes while shooting,” he said.
This was Bachurin’s first venture into film production. Fayziev has a number of projects to his name, notably an adaptation of bestselling author Boris Akunin’s historical thriller, Turetsky Gambit (Turkish Gambit).
Meanwhile, despite all the preparations and careful planning, the filming turned out to be far from a cakewalk.
“The filming in Abkhazia was a nightmare,” Bachurin recalled. “This isn’t Russian territory, which complicated the delivery of various supplies. In addition, there hadn’t been such a cold spring and early summer in Abkhazia in 40 years, and the actors were nearly freezing wearing summer clothes. The location filming was really difficult.”
Fayziev, though, said the project was “nothing extraordinary.” Crucial elements such as computer generated images, animation, and battle scenes were done before the location shooting, he said.
“But we tried to combine it all in one movie. The difficulty was that our film industry hasn’t been ‘trained’ to work with a project like that.”
The movie turned out to have problems getting released in several neighboring countries, in some cases for political reasons. Ukraine’s Culture Ministry issued a theater distribution license to the movie too late, when most screening dates had already been missed. Reportedly, Ukrainian authorities responded to complaints from some nationalist organizations and the local Georgian community that the movie could instigate hatred towards the Georgian people. Scheduled releases in Moldova and Azerbaijan were also cancelled.
“People who tried to ban the film have a view of the world that was too much influenced by political slogans, and that is why they see political subtext in everything,” he went on. “They cannot project the idea of protecting the motherland to their own country. And they think that we are promoting the Russian army and Russian lifestyle. This is absolutely not true, and, overall, I consider myself a citizen of the world.”
In Azerbaijan, where at least two cinemas in Baku canceled screenings of the film “under pressure from some political forces,” the director said, the subject of the film touched a raw nerve.
“Azerbaijan has a huge political problem, Nagorno-Karabakh, and there, a story about South Ossetia choosing to struggle for independence looks like a difficult hint that not everything is fine. And I am sure that most of the people who were involved in banning the movie didn’t watch it, or if they did, they watched it not as regular viewers, but as officials who are paid for getting political doctrines across.”
According to Fayziev, the situation in Moldova was just “a misunderstanding.” The failure to receive a distribution license in Ukraine was partly the producers’ fault for filing the application too late, but even so, he said, “Apparently, they wanted to send some kind of message to the Russian government. Because the film was financed by the government as a ‘socially important movie,’ they remembered the KGB times and assumed that some guy in a gray suit sat with me while I was writing the movie, telling me what changes to make. But those times are long gone, and no one told me what to do and what not to do.”
Russian filmmakers can tap into a film fund which administers government support to the sector. In addition to channeling cash to selected production companies, the fund also supports individual films deemed to be “socially important.” August. Eighth is the biggest of these so far.
“Moreover, the film came out very pacifist, and one of its main messages is that any war is a tragedy for an ordinary person, regardless of what side of the border they live on. The story that happened to our heroine could have happened to a Georgian woman or an Ossetian woman. Where there is war, there are destroyed families and crooked fates.”
NOT BIG ENOUGH, YET
Russian critics expressed diverging views about the quality of the movie, but gave it credit for the impressive battle scenes. “The impression is that war has an independent value in the film, beyond ethical categories,” Larisa Yusipova wrote in Izvestiya.
Intense battle scenes and computer animation apparently failed to bring in movie goers in the numbers needed for the picture to break even, though. The film has grossed $9.9 million since its February release, according to the Russian movie database KinoPoisk – a figure that fell short of what the producers expected, even though the film is one of the year’s biggest domestic earners so far.
“We expected to gross between $20 million and $25 million,” Bachurin said.
Part of the problem, he added, was the situation in Ukraine – typically the second-largest market for Russian films – where the muddle over the distribution license deflated the ad campaign, resulting in lost revenues of $2.5 million to $3 million. Only 7,600 tickets were sold in Ukraine, according to KinoPoisk.
The main reason for August. Eighth’s failure to meet the target is the movie-going public’s overall lack of confidence in domestic films, Bachurin said.
“Many times, audiences have been deceived by promises of ‘exceptionally good’ movies,” he said. “This is why the viewer votes with his cash for foreign movies. This is a sad situation, and the solution is exactly in making large-scale movies.”
In 2011, Russia’s total box office was $1.1 billion, of which local movies accounted for only 12.6 percent, the lowest figure since 2004.
The producers are still hopeful the total gross figure will increase to $12 million after the sale of TV rights. Bachurin added that a deal for international sales has been struck with Fox, and there has been interest from more than 50 potential foreign distributors. “Large films take a long time to recoup the investment,” he observed.
Fayziev shares Bachurin’s faith in the big-budget extravaganza.
“If I were a state official, I would make it mandatory for our film industry to produce a large-scale, sophisticated picture every year or two, because it’s a good training experience for crews, for the film industry at large,” he said.
“If we want to be a country with a full-fledged film industry, we need to master cutting-edge technologies and practice not only the creative but also technical side. But, as far as I understand the film fund’s strategies, it doesn’t plan to support any large-scale project at the moment.”
Bachurin said he was certain the domestic movie industry has matured to the point where it can handle $20 million films. The question remains whether Russian audiences are ready.
“Another thing is whether Russian viewers are ready to put enough confidence in movies like that, which would make them commercially viable. But this is a bigger issue of confidence in Russian movies in general.”