Outside the box: how Russian TV became watchable again

Outside the box: how Russian TV became watchable again

Russians, long obsessed with US TV series, have started making their own. And they're actually pretty good. What happened?

11 August 2014

As far back as 1970, French cinema great Jean-Pierre Melville predicted that “by 2020, cinema will have vanished and only television will be left”. In fact, this may well happen sooner than Melville supposed: the last few years have seen television wresting considerable territory away from film all over the world. In Russia, where until very recently television had been suffering from a crisis of ideas, this transformation really took hold last year, with long-form televisual storytelling experiencing a major breakthrough both in terms of quality and audience. Shows like Valery Todorovsky's Thaw and sitcom Fizruk have tempted disenchanted viewers back to the small screen. But how? Here's eight reasons why Russian TV series became watchable.

1. Foreign influence

An undoubted stimulus behind the resurgence of homemade TV production in Russia has been the enormous popularity of foreign series, watched online, a pastime which, in the hearts of urban young Russians, has long since replaced reading, going to the cinema and, in fact, everything else: shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards are watched with fanatical interest. In journalistic circles there’s even a trend for writing recaps of your latest viewing.

It was only a matter of time, therefore, before Russians started trying to make series of their own, along the same line. What’s more, this same culture of committed tele-fandom has been replicated too, with TV becoming the wellspring of conversations at work and after. So obsessive was the culture around Sergei Ursulyak’s screen version of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War epic novel Life and Fate (Zhizn i sudba) that it managed to divide the nation into two camps: the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists.

2. Big-name directors

It has long been the case in Hollywood that all the top actors and directors have a successful TV show under their belt. They no longer star in series to bump up their earnings, but because cable television allows them to express themselves without fear of censorship, meddling or time constraints. Exactly the same process is now taking place in Russia.

Fizruk is a sort of Russian Eastbound & Down with a Mafioso twist

This increased openness has led to the emergence of real water-cooler television — specifically Todorovsky’s Thaw, which took a remarkably multi-faceted approach to the world of film during the Khrushchev era, a time when relaxed censorship helped foster creativity. Director Pavel Bardin had several run-ins with contemporary censorship over his feature-length films — his 2009 skinhead mockumentary Russia 88 was not approved for the big screen — but he was given carte blanche by Konstantin Ernst, head honcho of flagship national broadcaster Channel One for his series Salaam, Moscow! (Salam Maskva!) about migrants in the capital. This show does, however, test the limitations of the new freedoms: despite being impressively cinematic, even by global standards, Salaam, Moscow! has been shelved in light of rising levels of xenophobic anti-migrant sentiment.

Less equivocal success has been enjoyed by one-time enfant terrible of Russian cinema Valeriya Gai Germanika, whose 2008 debut film Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut i ia ostanus) was included in the official programme at Cannes. She has not ventured onto the big screen since then, but rather spent the interim filming two controversial and extremely successful series: School, about teenagers, and A Brief Guide to a Happy Life (Kratky kurs schastlivoy zhizni), a tale of love and work in the big city made for the multi-million-strong viewership of Channel One.

3. The rise of the showrunner

Despite the migration of top directors to TV, their arrival — along with the best actors — has, ironically, heralded the beginning of the era of the screenwriter. It is increasingly common for plaudits to go to the writers who conceive different projects — the equivalent to the all-powerful “showrunner” in American TV. All the credit for TNT’s hit comedy sitcom Fizruk —a sort of Russian Eastbound & Down with a Mafioso twist, as well as a sharp script and quality camera work — has gone not to the director, but to the producer-screenwriters Anton Shchukin and Konstantin Mayer. Their company GoodStoryMedia was recently bought for $50m by Gazprom-backed channel TNT. But their success has been more than just financial: the series has been massively popular, even among a demographic not known for watching terrestrial TV — young urban professionals of an intellectual bent.

Now the role of showrunner has proved to be so an attractive in Russia that the editor of Russian GQ, Michael Idov, quit his post to go and head up the TV division of Art Pictures, the production company founded by directing powerhouse Fedor Bondarchuk.

Trailer for Through My Eyes

4. The right to experiment

The mainstream Russian film industry tends to be fairly conservative, so experiments in technique and genre now get trialled on TV first. Ilya Naishuller’s new fantasy blockbuster Hardcore is considered a breakout movie thanks to its pioneering point-of-view use of a GoPro camera strapped to the protagonist’s head; but the technique was actually first used in TNT series Through My Eyes (Moimi glazami), in which the same events are seen form multiple perspectives, Rashomon-style. This series proved so fresh and original that rights were sold for a remake in America — in itself a coup for the Russian industry.

The outdated cops and robbers stories of the Nineties and the early Noughties have at last receded into the background

It’s not just the techniques, but the subject matter that feels fresher too. The outdated cops and robbers stories of the 1990s and the early 2000s have at last receded into the background. In their place, topics and stories have emerged which resonate with a young, urban audience: stories about people-like-us in the big city, like thirtysomething drama The Sweet Life (Sladkaya zhizn) on TNT, chefs-and-the-city semi-farce Kitchen (Kukhnya) on STS.

The makers of series have felt empowered to take risks with genre. Fizruk is a stylistic breakthrough for Russian sitcoms, a genre which rarely permit any experimentation: each episode functions like a mini-film — one in the style of a musical, one a parody of the Hangover trilogy, and so on — recalling the mini-epics of US series like Community and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Previously unseen genres have found audiences: mystical detective stories Seventh Rune would seem like a True Detective rip-off, if we didn’t know that it was filmed at the exact same time.

5. New platforms

The industry has been strengthened by the emergence of a number of legal resources offering access to foreign and Russian series in return for (very reasonable) subscriptions, like Amediateka.ru, Show.afisha.ru and Rutube.ru. Meanwhile a concerted campaign is being waged against internet piracy — one which is already bearing fruit: it’s now pretty much impossible to watch Game of Thrones illegally on the Russian internet, not least because, the main source of pirate content, vk.com, is gradually legalising its media library.

If this process continues, who knows, maybe in a few years we will see websites or cable channels such as Amediateka commanding a big enough and loyal enough audience to make their own original content, following in the footsteps of Netflix with House of Cards.

6. Cinema screenings

Another recent development helping raise the profile of TV series is screenings in cinemas — another idea which Russian cinema owners and content-distributors have pinched from their western colleagues. Todorovsky’s Thaw was shown from start to finish in the Pioneer cinema in central Moscow, helping to increase publicity and allowing spectators to evaluate the artistic merit of the project on the big screen. The premieres of the latest season of Game of Thrones — which now stars a Russian actor, Yuri Kolokolnikov — and of Vladimir Khotinenko’s Demons (Besy; based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed) both enjoyed the pomp of a cinema premiere.

7. Festival credibility

As well as securing cinema screening slots, TV series are also becoming a fixture on the film festival circuit. Globally, it has long been the case that the small-screen work of arthouse directors would be unveiled at festivals, as with Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (Sundance, Berlinale) or Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin (Cannes). In Russia, the national film festival for newcomers, Movement, in Omsk, recently created a whole separate programme for TV series. St Petersburg’s re-invigorated Kinoforum soon followed suit, introducing a Toronto-style film market, kicking off this October, which looks set to dedicate considerable attention to long-form TV.

8. A new approach to scheduling

In contrast to global practice, TV series in Russia are scheduled not “vertically” — one episode per week — but “horizontally”: all the episodes are screened successively, one per weekday). Initial attempts to roll out a vertical model, pioneered by Ernst at Channel One for the local remake of Prison Break, netted disappointing audiences. But the very fact that this sort of programming experiment took place is a big step forward. Broadcasting one episode per week forces the creators to make their product better and more self-contained: each episode must essentially be a miniature film. If at some point this becomes common practice in Russia, it will raise the standard of series even further.

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