Disney Looks to Reanimate Russian Cartoon Sector
Published: May 2, 2006 (Issue # 1166)
MOSCOW — Walt Disney Studios and other foreign moviemakers are looking to breathe new life into Russia’s deflated cartoon industry. Their interest has been piqued by booming box-office receipts, a rise in new and renovated movie theaters and, more generally, economic growth, which has created more leisure time for the country’s nascent middle class.
Last year, box-office receipts throughout the former Soviet Union were about $350 million, according to industry estimates. That figure is likely to jump to $415 million this year.
While those numbers pale in comparison to the United States — the Motion Picture Association of America reports that Americans spent $9 billion at the box office in 2005 — they represent a new beginning for Russia.
Shortly after the Soviet collapse, the state’s animation studio, Soyuzmultfilm, more or less dissolved. Technically, Soyuzmultfilm still exists, but for all intents and purposes, it has been long dead.
Andrei Dobrunov, head of the animation studio Solnechny Dom, recalled that under the Soviets, Soyuzmultfilm had as many as 400 animators and other staff on its rolls.
Today, said Akop Kirakosyan, Soyuzmultfilm’s director, the studio employs no full-time animators. Nowadays, everybody is a freelancer, he said.
Dobrunov said it had been his dream since the late 1990s to make a movie about early Slavic history. But at the time, he said, finding the seed money and the people to make his movie a reality was an uphill battle.
He started Solnechny Dom in 1999 without much capital or many animators. Over the next few years, he cobbled together $5 million from a private investor whom he declined to name and 120 artists.
“Persuading people was colossal work,” he said. “I had to recruit people and went to Europe to meet our artists. Not everybody believed we’d get the financing.”
Eventually, Dobrunov was able to piece together a staff from the United States, Britain and Hungary.
Six years later, after much blood, sweat and tears, he completed his first animated film: “Prince Vladimir.”
The film has been a colossal success for a Russian-made animated production, reeling in more than $5 million since it was released in late February.
Today, “Prince Vladimir” is the most successful Russian-made animated film ever. In box-office receipts, it trails only “Madagascar,” the 2005 DreamWorks production that garnered $8 million throughout the former Soviet Union.
For now, Solnechny Dom is merely breaking even: Dobrunov expects his studio will garner $2.5 million to $3 million in revenue — not a lot, considering that it sank $5 million into the production.
But there are more opportunities on the horizon. Cascade, Solnechny Dom’s distributor, recently sold the rights to “Prince Vladimir” to Channel One; DVDs are selling briskly; and negotiations for international distribution are under way.
Today, Dobrunov said, his studio is learning what animation giants like Pixar — which Disney is set to buy this year — learned long ago: Television, home videos, toys and related accessories are where the real money is made.
Recently, Solnechny Dom won a contract to provide animation for “Quest for a Heart,” a film being produced by the Finnish company MRP Matila Rohr Productions. It is due out in 2007.
Pekka Lehtosaari, director of “Quest for a Heart,” said the production company had been scouring Europe for a studio that could produce a folklore-themed, animated film on a shoestring budget. Dobrunov estimated that to be $2 million.
Ultimately, Lehtosaari said, the production company turned to Solnechny Dom. “You have a long tradition of storytelling,” he said. “The way I’d put it, is there’s much more heart in these stories.”
Dobrunov said the popularity of “Prince Vladimir” was emblematic of a growing industry in Russia. “Nice things are happening to animation,” he said.
That includes, apparently, Mickey Mouse. Last month, Disney signaled that it had begun scoping out Russia for future filmmaking.
The Hollywood studio plans to “seek out local stories and local talent … that combine the Walt Disney Studios’ storytelling abilities with Russia’s rich history and culture,” said Carol Nicolau, a spokeswoman for Disney’s marketing and distribution arm, Buena Vista International.
Interestingly, Buena Vista’s distributor in Russia is Cascade, the same firm that works for Solnechny Dom.
Nicolau added: “These stories would be developed for both the Disney and Touchstone banners and could take the form of either live action or animation.”
To this end, Disney has hired Marina Zhigalova-Ozkan to oversee its strategic planning in Russia. Zhigalova-Ozkan, formerly first deputy director at Prof-Media, started as managing director for Disney on April 1.
Sergei Lavrov, a box-office analyst with Russian Film Business Today, an industry magazine, said that cartoons took more time to pay off for investors but in the long run delivered solid revenues.
“You get a new audience every six or seven years,” Lehtosaari explained. “Disney is still releasing Pinocchio and Cinderella.” Plus, he said, “animated characters don’t want a raise and are never involved in sex scandals.”
A few Russian studios are working on 10 or so animated, feature-length films, Dobrunov said.
Alexander Semyonov, editor of Russian Film Business Today, was skeptical of the industry’s prospects, saying that until Russians embraced computer-generated animation, they would not be on Hollywood’s radar screen.
But that may come sooner than expected. In August, London-based United International Pictures plans to release Russia’s first homegrown computer-animated film, Krakatuk, a modern version of the Nutcracker, said Yevgeny Beginin, head of UIP Russia.
Beginin is also trying to develop ties with another local studio working with computer-generated animation and has recently sent samples of its work to DreamWorks.
Dobrunov is also optimistic. He hopes to move from his current studio, in a tool factory in northern Moscow that boasts a statue of Lenin in front, to a state-of-the-art facility. And he’d like to build a theme park like Disneyland.
For now, he’s focused on a sequel to “Prince Vladimir.”