Russian animation production is booming thanks to government spending and strong demand while shorts dominate the creative end abroad. By Tom McLean.
Animation has long been popular in Russia, where the first efforts at the art form date back to the time of the czars. The tumultuous history of animation production in Russia, however, has been on the upswing the past few years as government support and growing popularity of the art form have seen rapid growth — and a few growing pains.
The growth is easily told in the numbers. According to the Russian Animated Film Association, formed in 2012 to promote the growth of Russian animation, there are about 30 studios, the largest being Riki Production Centre and Melnitsa Studio.
In the feature realm, a handful of Russianmade features are released to theaters each year, achieving a modest level of success and bringing in growing of box office revenues.
Overall, box-office receipts have more than doubled over the past five years, fueled largely by successful releases from Melnitsa. Last year’s Three Heroes on Distant Shores, the most-recent entry in Melnitsa’s popular series, set a box-office record for an animated feature with an estimated $31.5 million in ticket sales.
Several recent features have grossed in a mid-range of $6 million to $7.5 million, with some films at the lower end grossing in the $1 million to $2 million range.
Critical reception to Russian features has been mixed — within Russia, there appears to be an element of local pride involved. “People in Russia today go to theaters to watch Russian animated films more willingly than 15 years ago,” says Konstantin Bronzit, a Melnitsa animator whose 2007 short film Lavatory Lovestory was nominated for an Oscar.
George Goloviznin, brand manager for Marmelad Media, Riki Group, says it’s common for studios to have one established brand and he expacts that to grow. “In the future, we expect that the company will have a portfolio of brands, and there will be a few key majors,” he says. “Also in the future there will be tougher competition.”
Other films have found markets abroad more successful, such as Wizart, whose fairy tale features like The Snow Queen and its sequel have done big business overseas. “Onehundred percent of our content is made for the international market, but it works in the Russian market as well,” says Diana Yurinova, head of international distribution.
As the number of films has grown, so too has production budgets. RAFA says budgets have nearly doubled in the past five years — much of it coming straight from the government. In recent years, around $25 million has been allocated to Russian studios, with slightly more than half going to features and the rest to debut animations, shorts and series.
“Without this support, Russian cinema would be dead,” says Bronzit.
Private investments do exist, though the numbers are less clear. RAFA places it at anywhere from 35 percent to 50 percent of animated budgets. Private funding is harder to come by for the artistic shorts.
Television animation also has seen robust growth, with about 15 Russian animation series — mostly aimed at children — beaming to the nation’s televisions, up from about five in 2008. Among them are: The Pooshers (Melnitsa Studio), Space Dogs Family (Kinoatis Studio), Lucky (Metronomfilm Studio), Qumi Qumi (Toonbox Studio), Flying Animals (Da Studio), Masha and the Bear (Animaccord Studio) and Kikoriki (SKA St. Petersburg).
Russia’s more artistic animators and shorts continue to be well-regarded and celebrated, as at the just-concluded Cartoons on the Bay festival in Venice. Among the guests was Leonid Shmelkov, whose short film My Own Personal Moose was among the fest’s nominated films. “The audience for my films is larger in foreign countries,” he says. “Because the network of short film and animation festivals is more developed, there are more distributors of short films.”
He describes Russian animation as a tad insular. “From one side, it is good: We have our own traditions!” he says. “But from the other side, each year I see Russian films that could have been made 20, 30 or 40 years ago.”
While the industry is growing thanks to government funding, those quality issues remain a concern especially as the Russian fare increasingly has to compete with movies made by more experienced filmmakers abroad. Some studios, like Wizart, train their own animators and, when needed, hire freelancers from abroad, says Wizart producer Yuri Moskvin.
Shmelkov says he expects the talent pool to grow. “It seems, if everything goes in the right direction, our commercial animation will be much better,” he says.