Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week we’re speaking to super-producer Alexander Rodnyansky in advance of his upcoming fall festival run. His latest title, Mama, I’m Home, is premiering in Venice’s Horizons section while his Cannes Un Certain Regard winner Unclenching The Fists is set to screen in Telluride.
When independent producer Alexander Rodnyansky reflects on his prolific career in the media business so far, he quips that he’s “had five lives.” If you know the well-respected mogul, you’ll know that he’s on the mark. The Ukrainian-born producer is behind a slew of esteemed international festival hits, with projects like Leviathan and Loveless, from Russian helmer Andrey Zvyagintsev, both earning Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Best Screenplay and Jury Prize in Cannes respectively. Rodnyansky also produced 2013 Russian blockbuster Stalingrad, which grossed nearly $70M worldwide.
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His career spans across decades, continents, formats, genres and political walls from his early days as a documentary filmmaker to founding Ukraine’s first independent television network 1+1 to managing CTC Media, the first Russian media company to publicly trade on NASDAQ. He has been a master at developing and packaging Russian, English, German and Arabic-language film and TV content through his Moscow-based Non-Stop Productions and Los Angeles outfit AR Content.
Unafraid to tackle the most sensitive of subject matters, Rodnyansky has spent the latest chapter in his career championing young and distinctive talent largely from, but not exclusive to, the former Soviet regions. The producer took a punt on rising Russian helmer Kira Kovalenko for her second feature Unclenching The Fists, an earnest and intense project about a young woman’s desire to escape her father in a bleak mining town in North Caucasus. That title won Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year and is screening in Telluride. Mubi is releasing that film in North America and the UK.
In Venice this week, he’ll be launching another second feature from a director from Caucasus with Mama, I’m Home, which is playing the Horizons Extra section. Directed by Vladimir Bitokov, it tells the story of Tonya, a bus driver living on the outskirts of Nalchick, who is eagerly awaiting the return of her son from Syria only to be told that he’s been killed in action. Both directors, notes Rodnyansky, were students at Alexander Sokurov’s esteemed directing workshop.
“My strategy is very simple,” Rodnyansky tells Deadline. “It’s talent-driven – always. I’m always keen to explore the new talents. I’m very open to work with the young filmmakers. I love to support them and give them a chance and let them have their opportunity because hopefully with my support they can achieve much more.”
The need to support and bring a voice to these challenging stories feels like something that is very much embedded in Rodnyansky’s DNA. Born into a family of filmmakers in Kiev, Ukraine, Rodnyansky was exposed to the industry from an early age. His grandfather was a documentary filmmaker, his grandmother an actress in silent cinema. His mother was a producer and film critic, specializing in reviewing 1930s and 1940s Hollywood movies – “that’s why I know old Hollywood films so well,” he says. “I probably know them better than I know Russian movies from that time” – while his father was a technical director.
Rodnyansky, who says he never felt pressured by his family to follow the same line of work, was always more interested in science and history. “I was obsessed by it,” he says. And when one of his grandfather’s colleagues told him that documentaries could be a great way to satiate his hunger for the subjects, Rodnyansky decided to enrol himself in Kiev’s National University of Film, Theatre and Television as a documentary director. There, he was taken under the wing of prominent Soviet Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Felix Sobolev.
“He did everything to make me attracted to and obsessed with documentaries,” says Rodnyansky. “It was all about telling stories on scientific challenges, ideas and the actual activity of the brain. It’s something the BBC does so brilliantly now but at the time it was a pretty fresh area and I was part of a new generation of filmmakers who were willing to explore these areas.”
In the mid 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika (Russian for “restructuring”), his progressive reform of the Soviet Union, this opened the door for Rodnyansky and his counterparts to start tackling more political subject matters.
“It was a trigger for change,” Rodnyansky recalls. “So, I started doing documentary films on social issues and challenging issues, issues that audiences at the time wanted to see and came to cinemas to see regularly. It was an amazing period.”
It was at this point in his career when he became emboldened to tackle more difficult material, a thread that has been sewn intricately through many of the projects he’s leaned into during the years. Indeed, Rodnyansky was living in Kiev when the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant erupted just 60 miles from the Ukrainian capital. While the Soviet government initially denied the accident, Rodnyansky had already begun filming in the disaster zone the day after the tragic event occurred. This year he finally released a historical drama based on the catastrophe, dubbed Chernobyl 1986.
“I have never changed my first preferences,” he says. “I love the stories based on real-life events. That’s my love. I always wanted to bring together the genres of documentary and fiction and I never did this as a director but that’s what I’m trying to develop as a producer.”
In the midst of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Rodnyansky worked as a producer and film director at German broadcasting powerhouse ZDF. Gaining experience in the television space, he soon saw there was a gap in the marketplace in Ukraine and subsequently moved back to his homeland and set up the first independent Ukranian TV network 1+1.
“I know it sounds ridiculously strange to say this today but at the time, everything was possible,” recalls Rodnyansky. “I set up this tiny company and we signed a contract with the state TV in Ukraine and in a few months we became the most popular [network] in the country. I found myself in a position at the age of 33 running a major TV network, privately-owned in the Ukraine. It was crazy.”
While running the network, which he co-owned with Ronald Lauder and Mark Palmer’s Central European Media Enterprises, he continued to produce movies – “around one a year, because movies were always my obsession” – including Oscar-nominated Russian-French co-production East/West, starring Catherine Deneuve. Years later, he was approached by shareholders at burgeoning Russian indie broadcasting company CTC Media to manage its operations. CTC, which was founded by U.S. entrepreneur Peter Gerwe, had seen the possibility of growth in the Russian market and was driving the expansion of entertainment networks in the region.
Intrigued by the possibility of focusing on pure entertainment and expanding the footprint of a company in a market ripe for opportunity in the sector, Rodnyansky stepped down as CEO at 1+1 and grabbed the reigns at CTC.
“I got exhausted with political television and I wanted very much to focus on something else and something different,” he says. “CTC was purely an entertainment TV network with no news and it made me think seriously because news was such a headache in that part of the world, and it still is. It was an amazing opportunity for me to completely focus on the production of movies and series.”
Under Rodnyansky’s management, CTC Media became the first Russian media company to publicly trade on NASDAQ and he shaped it into one of Russia’s most powerful TV networks, driving its worth to around $4B in 2008.
After six years, it was time for Rodnyansky to turn to his passion: making independent movies. His years in television gave him the capital to pursue projects he wished to champion and develop.
“I always felt my basic advantage was the ability to develop,” he says. “That’s why I believe I was quite successful with television because we developed a lot of original content. We were doing whatever we could with a very modest budget and we were very innovative in trying to come up with some formats.”
Since then, Rodnyansky says he’s sought out “international premium content” and his works have remained eclectic and thought-provoking. He’s a longtime partner of Zvyagintsev, having worked with him on Elena in addition to Leviathan and Loveless and is currently working on the director’s English-language debut What Happens, a contemplation on the nature of human relationships and the fragility of human life. Rodnyansky has been no stranger to English-language content, having worked on titles such as Jayne Mansfield’s Car and Cloud Atlas but remarks he feels more at home producing “movies from my own world.”
He’s also collaborating again with Beanpole filmmaker Kantemir Balagov, who’s currently wrapping filming HBO’s The Last Of Us. The helmer’s third film is set to be about the complex relationship of a father and son. Rodnyansky is also teaming up with Steven Soderbergh for a new feature from impressionistic filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, dubbed NEOOONOWWW, featuring music from Philip Glass.
Recently, Rodnyansky’s L.A.-based AR Content banner struck a first-look deal with Apple for a slate of Russian-language and multilingual shows for Apple TV Plus, set both inside and outside of Russia, creatively led by Russian and international writers and directors. The producer says he feels invigorated by the opportunities the streamers are bringing to the international marketplace, giving platforms to stories from his neck of the woods that have not been possible in the past.
“I feel a strong demand for authentic stories, not necessarily just Russian ones, but strong powerful stories from all over the world,” says Rodnyansky. “I believe in this streaming revolution. [Streamers] have changed the so-called centralized model of Hollywood content being distributed across the world from just one place. Right now, thanks to these platforms, international filmmakers have been able to share their experiences cinematically on these universal platforms.”
He adds: “The most exciting thing I feel with these filmmakers I work with is their ability to tell a story in a unique way that makes you completely identify with the characters. Audiences may have nothing in common with the people on the screen but they feel how challenging life is and they can make the experience their own – it’s very powerful.”