Alexander Rodnyansky has been a TV and film producer in Russia for decades. His most recent film, the Andrei Zvyagintsev-directed drama “Elena,” won a special jury prize at the 2011 Festival de Cannes, and he has wrapped the American-made indies “Goat Island,” from D.J. Caruso, and “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” from Billy Bob Thornton. His next projects, which he also is financing, are the Robert Rodriguez genre sequels “Machete Kills” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” both of which start filming this year.
Despite his prolific output, Rodnyansky doesn’t much like what he sees in the predilections of Russian moviegoers — enough so that he has written an impassioned essay decrying what he describes as their “apathy” when it comes to confronting anything at the cinema that actually reflects the reality of Russian life. In Moscow theaters, the fantasy eye candy of “John Carter” and animated hijinks of “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” fare much better than popular films with substance such as “The King’s Speech,” “WALL-E” and “The Intouchables” as contrasted with American audiences. Here, with barely veiled disgust, Rodnyansky explains why.
(A version of this piece originally ran in the Russian business paper Vedomosti.)
I have no desire, when talking about cinema, to discuss money for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, money is the measure of audience interest in films, and so the box office becomes a kind of sociologist, never wrong in interpreting the state of the audience’s mind. What does our barometer tell us? Who are the kings of the box office, and what does their success tell us?
A very recent example can be seen with “John Carter,” the screen adaptation of the novel by fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Here in Russia, it enjoyed a phenomenal box office result, taking in USD 16.6 million in three days. At the same time, back on its home territory in the U.S., this big-budget film took in a meager USD 30 million in twice as many cinemas as it was shown in Russia. In other words, it was a flop, since it cost Disney almost USD 300 million to make, equivalent to the cost of the new terminal at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport or NTK, the telecommunications company operating in Russia’s Far East.
So why did Russian cinema-goers react so differently to the same film, promoted with the same trailers and billboard advertisements? USD 16.6 million in the first weekend is one of the best openings in modern Russian cinema history; moreover, it happened without a wall-to-wall bombardment of advertising on Channel 1. But ultimately, there is nothing surprising in the fact that a film about the Martian adventures of an historical hero has achieved such success.
It is so far from what people know that they are carried away by it. All the big box-office successes of recent years in Russia are united by this complete mistrust of daily reality in all its forms, this ostrich-like head-in-the-sand mentality. Only fantasy, fiction and animation become box office hits in Russia. Anything which bears any resemblance to the real life of this country and its people is completely ignored by Russians when they go to the cinema. Anything which has a connection with society, with reality, and not melodramatic events – if it makes it to the screen – is destined to be a flop.
And yet, generally speaking, films that really comprehend what is happening and react to it are an integral part of the repertoire of cinemas the world over. Dramas, human stories, stories of overcoming hardship, stories which reaffirm one’s faith in life – we have few of these in Russia, for reasons we understand quite well: When they do appear, they wither away unnoticed. The touching, simple, superbly made film “The King’s Speech” took in USD 6.1 million in neighboring Poland, more than “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which earned USD 3.4 million. Here in Russia, it was the exact opposite: “The King’s Speech” made USD 1.6 million, while “Transformers” brought in USD 45.5 million.
Looking toward America, “The Help” was a modest film, featuring no superstars. It is a film about the relationships between black maids and their white well-heeled employers. Yet the film took in an unbelievable USD 170 million at the box office, making it clear that the subject of race relations has not lost its edge in a country that recently elected a black president. But maybe he was elected because, for the last 60 years, Americans have been making these kinds of films and trying to find answers to difficult questions about the structure of society.
So what about Russia? We have as many inter-ethnic conflicts and points of tension as the U.S., but a film on that kind of subject not only would take no money at the box office, but would not make it into cinemas in the first place. As someone who has been making films in Russia for a long time, I can say this with confidence.
In the U.S., audience interest is a barometer of the mood of society. Films that enjoy box office success, particularly if they are not blockbusters but films made on medium-sized or low budgets, can say a lot about life in the country and the topics that are preoccupying the nation. Through the film “Rocky,” which broke box office records back in 1976, you could measure the depth of the depression into which America had sunk as a result of the relentless war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. The simple, optimistic story of the boxer who managed to overcome adversity became a national therapy session. It affected even the members of the Academy, who gave writer-star Sylvester Stallone a Best Picture Oscar, despite the fact that Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” and Sidney Lumet’s “Network” were also nominated.
We are so used to arrogantly reproaching American audiences for their mercenary spirit and lack of education, but there is an audience there that is making conscious choices, not mechanically seeking an alternative universe. Every year, six to seven films are released in the U.S. that are shot for ridiculously small sums of money and present their viewers with difficult topics, which hit a nerve and make more than USD 100 million at the box office. Russian cinema-goers demonstrate a simple, pathological disdain for reality, an overwhelming desire to turn their backs on it and avoid any discussion about anything that is not simple and that requires honest self-appraisal, individual choice or intellectual and emotional effort.
There’s a school of thought that says that the passage of time is different in different countries. There are countries that are mentally in the 21st century, and others that are in the 16th. In terms of popular cinema, we are still living in the USSR, and all our box-office successes are linked to this past: “Vysotsky,” “The Irony of Fate 2” and “9th Company.” On the day of the elections, “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” the Soviet take on “Cinderella,” received high viewing figures on TV; a few days later, “Office Romance,” the Soviet take on “Sleeping Beauty,” did the same. These films preserve the Soviet era; they offer an image of a world that people still find comfortable in its way: a place where you don’t need to take any responsibility and you’re not really in charge of your own fate, so the most terrible of dangers – the danger of the elections – doesn’t threaten you. All this is highly valued by today’s audience.
Russian viewers correctly identify – and adamantly reject – any attempt to talk to them about serious things, even in the most light-hearted manner. Any Hollywood animation, even the most undemanding, will make USD 40 million or more in Russian cinemas, but only if they contain nothing to worry the audience. Compare “Madagascar 2,” which took in USD 40 million, with the outstanding production from Pixar Studios, “WALL-E,” which earned USD 11 million. The audience related more closely to nonsensical talking animals, who didn’t burden them with hidden messages about the dangers of consumerism and the rapacious use of natural resources.
Recently, a likable dramatic comedy called “The Intouchables” was released in France, and made USD 240 million, an unheard-of amount for a French film. It told the touching story of the relationship between a black guy from the working-class suburbs and a paralyzed billionaire, for whom he works as a caregiver. The topic of social inequality is clearly addressed in the film. The social context of the film is obvious. It is an authentic human drama and contains a critical look at the state of modern society, all wrapped up in uplifting packaging. Americans, represented by the enterprising, sharp Harvey Weinstein, a major Hollywood producer, have already bought the rights to remake the film.
I got to thinking: what are the chances of a Russian version? But there’s no point thinking about it, of course: there’s no chance. Any authenticity, even sugar-coated, is anathema to our audience. This, undoubtedly, is a worrying symptom. In the best-case scenario, it is a symptom of absolute, depressed apathy.