Ten years ago, documentaries disappeared in Russia. No longer funded by the state and unwanted by broadcasters suddenly forced to chase ratings, docs dried up like neglected cans of archived film and seemed at risk of disappearing forever. ‘In 1994, it was very difficult here,’ says Vitaly Fedko, founder and CEO of Corona Films, a production company in St. Petersburg. ‘There were no rules; it was an organizational mess. When we made one of our first documentaries, we called one of the channels in St. Petersburg and they said, ‘You pay us and we’ll show it.”
Grigory Libergal of Internews, a non-profit in Moscow that supports independent media and acts as an intermediary between filmmakers and broadcasters, says in 1994 – three years after the Soviet Union became extinct – his main focus was to get broadcasters to air legitimate programming. ‘At that time, it was all pirated,’ he explains. ‘This was before copyright law, so technically they were on safe ground, and nobody disputed it.’
Internews started by buying the best of Russian documentary and offering it to stations free of charge. Libergal says that for a short spell, the strategy worked. ‘We had agreements with stations that promised to stop pirating and start paying royalties,’ he explains. ‘It was quite successful, but by ’96 we had difficulty acquiring new Russian films, because there were no new Russian docs.’
The production industry didn’t steady itself until 2001, when the country’s chaotic stab at capitalism started to give way to a more balanced business environment. ‘The evaluation of things is improving,’ says Fedko, ‘Everybody is understanding that media is crucial – that it’s not just gas and oil that are important industry sectors. Last year, the TV ad market grew about 50%. This year, the prediction is another 30% to 40%. In three or five years, there will be significant growth.’
The figures Fedko quotes are significant to the doc sector; although Russia’s broadcast stations are state controlled, they depend on advertising for revenue. ‘We don’t have public television here,’ says Libergal. ‘There’s nothing like PBS or ARTE,’ he continues. ‘Imagine a country the size of the U.S. with only NBC, Fox and that type of network.’
Yet, as media ascends to its rightful place in a democratic society, docs are managing to carve out a niche on TV. ‘Six or seven national channels [including the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (RTR), Ren TV and NTV] are commissioning, acquiring or producing in-house,’ says Libergal. ‘But, we still have to prove to them that even if docs can’t get big ratings, they can get some ratings.’
Channel One Russia, which made its first trip to MIPCOM last October, is already convinced. Between 2001 and 2003, the Moscow-based broadcaster doubled the number of non-fiction hours it produced from 70 to 150. In 2004, it plans to increase its output to 350 hours. ‘We started with films that would bring in audiences, such as crime and the history of the KGB.’ explains Oleg Volnov, Channel One’s deputy general director of political programming. ‘When the documentaries proved successful, we were able to start doing different topics and genres.’
Channel One’s 140 million viewers can now find docs in two slots that run from Monday to Thursday. One is a primetime slot for doc singles and series on contemporary life. The other, called ‘New Day’, airs at midnight and features 2 x 30-minute or one-hour programs on topics ranging from science and technology to history and culture. Another doc slot runs midday on Saturdays, and a BBC branded strand is broadcast on Sundays at 5 p.m.
About 80% of Channel One’s factual fare is generated by independent producers, with the remaining 20% produced in-house by the station’s three doc departments: Political and Social, Popular Science, and Documentary. ‘The in-house producers usually work closely with the independents on coproductions, because there’s a lack of quality professionals,’ says Volnov.
The dearth of funding towards the end of the last century decimated the creative sector. In an effort to rebuild it, Channel One will award study grants for a professional course – Directors of Non-Fiction Cinema – to be taught this spring by Channel One’s creative director, Tenghis Semenov. At the end of the second year, the top students will receive money and a commission from the broadcaster.
Also, Channel One and Russia’s Ministry of Culture recently funded Set in Russia, a doc competition that awarded five projects $40,000 each. The winners include vet and novice directors: Alexandr Rastorguev of Rostov-on-Don for Contract; Maria Solovtsova in St. Petersburg for I am a Soldier; Moscow-based Sergey Soloviov and Eugene Grigoriev for Architects of Their Own Fortunes; St. Petersburg-based Newsreel North-West for Hawks of the Airport in Nizhni Novgorod; and Alexey Pogrebnoy in Kirov for Outskirts.
‘This was the only case when [films received] both state money and channel money,’ says Libergal. ‘It is considered a success, so we’ll definitely be seeing more of this joint co-financing.’
State financing in general is beginning to reappear, providing a welcome injection of money into Russia’s cash-strapped doc community. Budgets from the TV stations remain lean – Volnov says Channel One’s range from US$10,000 to $100,000 per hour, while sources estimate they average between $15,000 and $30,000 – and Libergal says the lack of resources is evident onscreen. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘it’s a huge progression from what it was three years ago.’
And, while most production companies in Russia remain dependent on local financing, a few are starting to explore international opportunities. Denis Neimand began his career at the St. Petersburg Documentary Studio. When that dissolved, he founded Znaky Studio to provide production services to foreign film crews. ‘Now we are trying to produce,’ he says. Unimpressed by what he deems formulaic docs aired in Russia, Neimand hopes to tap into funds from the international market, to pursue fresh topics and ideas.
Corona Films went this route 12 years ago, and has collaborated with ZDF in Germany, YLE in Finland, Belgium’s RTBF, France 5 and others. ‘Our strategy is to do specials,’ says Fedko, who estimates Corona produces five or six docs annually. Budgets average between $100,000 and $350,000 per hour, but can rise as high as $500,000. In 2001, Corona was the only company to secure official permission to produce a film about the Kursk submarine incident. Two docs resulted, The Kursk and Raising the Kursk, with funding from Bethesda, U.S.-based Discovery Channel and Paris-based pubcasters France 3 and France 5, among others. No money was raised within Russia. ‘I focus on international coproductions,’ explains Fedko, ‘because there are more clear rules.’
Improved support in Russia for docs is encouraging, but it’s important the trend continue for Russian producers to tell their own stories abroad. ‘There’s an elite group that is able to coproduce with the international market,’ says Libergal. ‘But, in most cases it’s 100% Western financing, and Russian only in the name of the director.’
There are other problems. Distribution is limited while quality lags under tiny budgets. And, censorship lingers. Contends Ilze Gailite, head of the Russian development fund at the Baltic Media Center in Copenhagen: ‘The recent domination of state controlled media has made it almost impossible to fund and broadcast documentaries with a critical approach to the governing power or processes.’
A theatrical run for docs is also rare. ‘The only thing in theatres was Winged Migration, and it did well,’ says Libergal. ‘But, there were only two prints.’ Libergal is now trying to get three prints of a one-reel, Russian-made doc into cinemas. ‘We’re working step by step,’ he says. ‘You set a goal. When you get that, you set another.’