Russians are going to the movies again. They're talking about films, reading about cinema and discussing the future of the country's film industry. After several years huddled round the TV screen watching pirated video cassettes, they're queuing for movie tickets and buying popcorn.
Moscow has 97 movie theaters, but only a handful are equipped for modern movie-going or screen money-making blockbusters. The modern movie theaters are all in central Moscow. They have been renovated, fitted with stereo sound, and have convenient "accessories" like cafes.
A ticket costs on average 100 rubles ($4), a steep price for most Russians. But they seem willing to pay. The proof is that it be can near impossible these days to get a ticket to a prime time showing of a popular movie. After being nearly killed-off by the video boom of the early nineties, some Moscow movie theaters are now making a profit. The director of the "Zvyozdnii" movie theater said that one week's screenings of Nikita Mikhalkov's "Barber of Siberia" brought in 600,000 rubles.
But outside the city center, movie theaters face glum prospects. Moscow City Duma deputy Evgenii Bunimovich says the situation is paradoxical. There is no lack of investors willing to put money into new movie houses and even multiplex theaters. They are confident that they can turn a good profit. But their interests ignore the fact that both the central city and the suburbs already have a whole network of movie theaters. Therein lies the paradox, for it would be surely simpler and cheaper to renovate an existing movie theater than build one from scratch.
Meanwhile, old movie theaters continue their struggle to survive. Many are forced to rent their space or even switch to new businesses altogether- furniture, for example. Better yet, some movie theaters are relinquishing their space for "creative experiments" in the name of art.
One such example is the well-known Progress theater, near the Universitet metro station. It is now the Dramatic Theater under the direction of Armen Djigarkhanyan.
Some conjecture that the reason many movie theaters are having trouble today is that several years ago, when movie theaters were given their "freedom" from government funding, they found themselves in a "sink or swim" market economy with which they were not prepared to deal.
At the same time, filmmakers began to concentrate on "elitist" movies, which led to falling ticket sales as mainstream audiences turned to videos instead.
Aleksandr Chelishev, Chairman of the board of the movie theater workers guild which brings together 74 of the 97 movie theater directors, believes that free market models don't work in the movie business. He pleads for state support and nostalgically recalls the 'eighties when movie theaters were under state control and had enough money to pay for wages and maintenance.
Chelishev would like to see Moscow's movie theaters taken under the wing of the city budget. He argues that movie theaters could bring money into the city's coffers.
But the Moscow city government has not exactly greeted the guild's proposals with enthusiasm, and no money has come from the budget yet. This does not mean, however, that the authorities are not at all interested in wielding influence in the cinema world.
Traditionally, cinema was more than just entertainment, it was an instrument with which to educate citizens, especially young people.
It is almost ten years now that the state has been unable to use this most effective of ideological "weapons." Instead, given the lack of patriotic, or just plain watchable Russian films, Russians spend their money on films like American "Armageddon," in which a Russian space station is blown up.
Optimists hope that if something is done to revive movie theaters in Moscow and other Russian cities, Russian directors will be inspired to make good movies. Perhaps it should be the other way round? But someone has to take the first step. If they don't, Russians will just go back to their videos.