US Shows Make a Hit in USSR
Hollywood eyes promising new market - warily - as Soviet producers discuss quotas. TELEVISION/FILM
NEW YORK — IN the Soviet Union, the demand for American movies and television programs has hit an all-time high. This year Soviet filmgoers will see ``Gone With the Wind,'' ``Rambo, First Blood, Part 1,'' and ``Angel,'' among other Hollywood films new and old.
And starting in the fall, Soviet TV-watchers will be able to tune in a series as quintessentially American as ``Adam Smith's Money World'' (dubbed into Russian).
Moscow has even expressed interest in American sitcoms like ``The Cosby Show.''
In all, Hollywood is poised to invade the potentially lucrative Soviet market in force, but so far the profit motive is keeping the flow of American-made entertainment from becoming a veritable flood.
While clearly fascinated by the potential of the rapidly decentralizing Soviet market and eager to obtain an early foothold there, the Americans are hesitant to sell their movies and TV shows for rubles, for which they can see virtually no practical use.
But even with the stringent shortage of hard currency in the USSR, sales of American films to Moscow and a rise in the number of European pictures also being sold to the Soviets signal a quantum change.
All this has created such concern among Soviet producers that they are now talking about a possible quota to protect their own industry.
Yuri Solotsinski, head of the New York office of Sovexport - the Soviet agency that exports, imports, and distributes films in the USSR - says he used to buy five American pictures a year. But between 1986 and 1989, Mr. Solotsinki bought a total of 50 features, all paid for in hard currency.
Other Soviet agencies and studios, notably the big Mosfilm Studios, also purchase and distribute American films under different kinds of arrangements.
AMERICAN distributors report many Soviet requests for films, but Moscow - pleading dollar poverty - wants to pay in its non-exportable currency or suggests vague ``barter'' deals in various commodities.
What good are these rubles in actuality? ``You can use them as most durable wallpaper,'' jokes Solotsinski.
The big American studios won't sell a picture to the Russians for less than $125,000. The independents, looking to the future, are at times willing to let films go for less.
The barter deal that will take ``Adam Smith's Money World'' to Moscow is unique so far. The Soviets, eager to arrive at a better understanding of a free-market economy, asked for ``Money World,'' which they will get for free. In turn, they provide the ``Money World'' producers with free advertising time on the network, time which can be sold to American companies operating in the Soviet market.
The same kind of arrangement won't bring ``The Cosby Show'' to Moscow, however.
``They want to buy action and adventure shows from us,'' says Raul Lefcovich, president of Viacom International, a leading producer of TV programs, including ``Cosby.'' ``I am really not interested in talking with them at this stage. They pay peanuts, and we are not into barter deals.''
The situation is slightly different in the Eastern European countries - Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany. Movie industry executives report that these countries - particularly Hungary - do have some dollars available to buy movies and TV programs.
But the big potential market, the one which holds the lure of future millions, is the Soviet Union, which, under perestroika has dropped virtually all political censorship and has allowed the Soviet industry much greater leeway in initiating individual business deals with the West.
In fact, according to Mort Segal, the vice chairman of an American public relations firm who has just come back from Moscow, ``There are tremendous changes coming at the end of this year. Agencies like Sovexport and even Goskino, the Soviet Ministry for Film, could be disbanded. Studios like the sprawling Mosfilm, which makes 50 pictures a year, will be given their head.''
Mr. Segal went to Moscow to deliver three lectures on American marketing, promotion, and advertising know-how, virtually unknown concepts in the Soviet film business. ``They were amazed to hear about it all,'' he said. ``It's all new to them. I think I opened up a lot of new horizons.''
The Soviets not only want to acquire American movies; they also want to arrange more joint productions.
A good many American companies are listening. At this writing, 10 American-financed films are on location in the USSR, several in conjunction with local Soviet studios.
The pictures include ``The Russia House,'' with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer; ``The Final Warning,'' for which the government made available an atomic plant like Chernobyl; ``900 Days, the Siege of Leningrad''; ``Crime and Punishment''; a TV series on ``Trotsky,'' and others.
However, it's not all smooth sailing. There are language and communications problems. Also, the Soviet work ethic differs radically from the American way of doing things. And facilities aren't always what they should be, or what was promised.
Still, says Yuri Spilny, who heads USSR Film Service, which arranges American co-ventures with the Soviets, ``There are improvements all the time. With sufficient notice, you can now have a direct fax line. Also, these days we give workers a much better incentive - like hourly pay - which means things get done faster.''
ULTIMATELY, the main obstacle - even in the joint ventures - is the ruble. The Soviets insist that Hollywood companies pay with dollars for just about everything.
When it comes to buying movies, Moscow wants to pay for them mostly in rubles, which the Americans can accumulate but whose use is sharply restricted.
``A lot of things are unclear at this moment,'' says Jonas Rosenfield, president of the American Film Marketing Association, to which most independent producers, distributors, and foreign sales agents belong.
That leaves the Americans with a lot of frozen funds for which they have no practical use, although some innovative alternatives are surfacing.
``An American company selling a feature picture to the Soviets made a deal with a Russian company, Paritet, which is taking the rubles and using them to produce documentaries,'' says Solotsinski. These programs will then be available to the Americans, who can sell them to television in the US and elsewhere.
In the past, Hollywood has sold a few pictures to the Soviets, but always on a ``flat fee'' basis, and for dollars.
Now, the Soviets are considering film rentals, a radically new concept for them, involving royalties to the US producer and the distributor, based on a film's box-office returns. Here, again, the Soviets insist that payment can only be in rubles.
YET the situation in the USSR is so fluid, no one knows what tomorrow might bring. For instance, ``Gone With the Wind'' was sold to the Soviets - reportedly on a film rental basis - but with at least some of the money coming out in hard currency, in this case British pounds as the picture was handled by a Soviet-British joint venture.
Hope springs eternal when it comes to dealing with Moscow, however. The Time-Warner company is spending $28 million on building two modern, multi-screen movie houses, one in Moscow, the other in Leningrad. The theaters will feature restaurants, concessions, shops, game rooms - and air-conditioning.
With state control disappearing, and the element of competition being introduced, the future of Soviet film and TV looks both uncertain and exciting.