The year 2021 marked 10 years in the industry for Mars Media, the leading Russian content company founded by Ruben Dishdishyan, who previously created and operated a major player Central Partnership.
At Mars, Dishdishyan and his team initially focused on producing television, but have since moved more into the film industry at a time when most of the industry seems to be moving in the other direction. However, the focal point for big screen production has paid off with his family film Palma prove a local hit and create a sequel while its war image T-34 was both a local ticket success and also created waves in China. On the horizon, Mars’ projects include Woland, the $ 15 million drama starring Incredible Basterds actor August Diehl in a loose adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel The Master and Margarita.
Deadline sat down with Dishdishyan to cast our eyes back over a decade of operating in the Russian market. We also discuss the influx of streamers into the local industry, and whether the Russian content biz is maturing to the extent we could see a Play squid-size hits emerge from the country in the coming years.
DEADLINE: Congratulations on your 10th anniversary – what have been the highlights?
RUBEN DISKHYAN: These were very bright years, although they were not necessarily always easy. We have done a lot in this time. To put things in perspective, the company has completed 160 projects; 35 movies and 125 TV series. They have given us more than 130 awards at international and Russian festivals. The total ticket office for our films in Russia has reached 4.1 billion rubles (56 million USD), and revenues from our projects abroad have increased by more than 50%.
One of our films – the war drama T-34 – was a huge success in China, not the easiest area for foreign film releases. It ran for a record nine weeks, earning $ 3.4 million. Next year, we’re releasing another hit movie in China, Family Romance Palma.
As for the brightest period, I think it is the last 18 months: in the face of crisis, lockdown, uncertainty and market downturn, Mars Media has not only survived but also grown stronger. And it celebrated its 10-year anniversary in full force and looked with great optimism to the future.
DEADLINE: You started primarily as a television company and recently moved into film as a large part of the industry goes the other way, tell us about that decision.
DISHDISHYAN: For us, it was a logical move. TV series are a less risky and more stable business. From day one, Mars Media had success in the TV market, enabling us to gain strength quickly. This showed us in the direction of feature films, especially since my colleagues and I already had extensive experience in producing feature films in our previous company – the one I founded and headed for many years, Central Partnership.
The turning point for Mars Media turned out to be the movie T-34, which not only became an audience hit, but also one of the biggest ticket successes in the history of Russia’s film distribution business, with revenues of 2.3 billion rubles (31 million USD). Thanks to this success, the company joined the leaders of Russian film production and gained confidence.
Now the company is in rapid development and increasing its stake in terrestrial TV programming as well as in the film industry and online platforms. We try to work in each segment, each of which has its own market dynamics. And terrestrial television is an important part of Mars Media’s creative endeavors.
DEADLINE: How is the health of the local Russian cinema market?
DISHDISHYAN: Lockdowns, hybrid distribution or the release of major films online immediately (which in my opinion is a wrong thing to do) have all had a detrimental effect on the current state of cinemas and have changed the structure of film distribution. I think there should be support for cinemas.
DEADLINE: You have done business with the streamers – how much do the streamers target the Russian market and how often do you work with them? Apple has just bought its first Russian show [Container].
DISHDISHYAN: We have been actively working with Russian platforms for several years. Our company was one of the first to notice the growing interest in VOD services and began to develop in this direction. So by the time the platforms got stronger, we had something along the lines of 20 projects waiting for them. Our TV series Storm, Whirlpool and Chickens became groundbreaking and they had great success with audiences and festivals.
I welcome the arrival of overseas streaming services to our market as it helps to increase competition and overall product quality. We are in close contact with all major western platforms. I hope that in 2022 we will announce which film series will be produced for them.
DEADLINE: How has the Russian market developed over the last decade?
DISHDISHYAN: The business model has changed dramatically with the advent of streaming services, which have now become the strongest players in some areas. Three years ago, there was no way you could see it coming. There was a time when shooting was very problematic [during the pandemic], which had its effect on the amount of content, but it seems that we are witnessing a very rapid recovery now.
DEADLINE: Do you think Russian content can start to break out more internationally in the coming years, as we have seen with countries like South Korea?
DISHDISHYAN: I really want to believe that will be the case. I see the growing interest in Russian projects, which has most to do with the increase in the quality of our content and the level of our film industry as a whole. It has grown significantly in recent years – this applies to both movies and TV series. I attribute it to the fact that a new generation of young filmmakers has come into the business.
Also the world is opening up and people all over the world want to see interesting content. Language is no longer a big issue as audiences are getting used to subtitles. We have access to the diversity of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO. We see the current trends and benchmarks that tell us in which direction we should move. All of this is already bearing fruit, so more successes will follow. I’m happy to witness all that, and I think our contribution to this process will not be small.
DEADLINE: How much public funding is available in Russia, and to what extent are you using this? Is there any political influence on these funding decisions?
DISHDISHYAN: Mars Media is one of the major film companies, allowing us to receive partial state support for our projects. In all this time, we have never experienced pressure or censorship. It is the potential and quality of the submitted project that is always crucial to the decision to support it.
DEADLINE: What else are the main sources of local funding?
DISHDISHYAN: They vary, including our own resources, private investment, various funds, support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation as well as online platforms. In addition, collaborating with our partners. This year we signed a strategic five-year agreement to co-produce 10 feature films with Leonard Blavatnik’s Amedia Production. With his company, we have already successfully co-produced a number of TV series and film projects, including The Golden Horde, T-34, and Palma. Two more major films are currently being worked on, Woland and See, which has cinema releases scheduled for 2022-2023.
DEADLINE: Tell us more about the projects you have on the way.
DISHDISHYAN: We have something like 25 films at different stages of development, it is a program for three to four years ahead. Among them: the film adaptation of Ruslan and Ludmila, one of the most popular works by Alexander Pushkin; Palma 2, the successor to the family blockbuster; and The Dead Mountaneer’s Hotel, the film adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel. We also have about 25 TV and streaming platform projects underway for 2022-23. In the next two to three years, we plan to achieve leadership in all segments of the industry and enter international markets with our content.