Though it's sometimes hard to tell who's romancing whom--and difficult to separate a carefully orchestrated public relations gambit from reality--Soviet and American film makers are engaged in a heavy flirtation.
The courtship between film-making contingents of the two superpowers began heating up well before "The Entertainment Summit" in Hollywood ever began. (The summit--in which 10 representatives of the Soviet film industry, headed by director Elem Klimov, are meeting their American counterparts--ends Wednesday.) Though the summit is symbolically important, the real action lately has been in Moscow, where the Gorbachev regime would like to establish a Hollywood on the Volga.
American executives and actors who've trekked to Russia to talk showbiz with Soviet bureaucrats claim that more progress has been made between the two sides in the last four months than in the last two decades.
Among projects with some degree of Soviet-American cooperation that are under discussion:
An MGM remake of "Anna Karenina," to pair American actress Meryl Streep with revered Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov, and to begin filming, with Lawrence Schiller producing, in the Soviet Union in December.
"Allies," a CBS-TV movie, in which a Russian pilot and an American pilot, each shot down during World War II, become friends while fighting side-by-side in the Italian underground. Allegedly based on a true story, the movie will be developed from interviews conducted by Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner and adapted for the screen by Schiller.
"The Life of Margaret Bourke-White," a CBS miniseries based on the late Life magazine photographer. Bourke-White traveled extensively in the Soviet Union during the 1930s as the first foreign correspondent hired by Soviet authorities to photograph the industrialization of Russia.
"Hamlet," for which Kevin Kline was in Moscow last weekend to meet Gleb Panfilov, a Soviet director who plans to adapt Shakespeare's classic in a contemporary manner and hire an American star. Kline said that he is "exploring the possibilities" of working with the Soviets.
"Siege of Leningrad," a Soviet-inspired project that the Russians have discussed with producer Schiller and Italian director Sergio Leone.
And, although the Soviets would not even admit to their nuclear disaster at Chernobyl when it first happened last year, they are now considering a CBS proposal to make a movie about the affair.
Each side has its own ulterior motives for the thaw in relations, of course. The U.S.S.R., desperate for hard currency, wants to lure expensive American productions to the Soviet Bloc countries--and to find more outlets here for its films. And American movie makers, ever hungry for foreign markets, covet the largely untapped audience in the Soviet Union.
"It isn't an intimate business anymore," said New Yorker Gerry Rappoport, who for nearly 30 years has virtually monopolized Soviet-American film distribution, partly because dealing with the Soviets can be so difficult that no one else was very interested in trying. "Now, everybody is romancing the Eastern Europeans. And the Soviets are going for the big dollars." At the moment, the cash-poor Soviets have much more to gain from an increase in business with the Americans than the Americans do. And they have been bending over backwards to make accommodations. They are taking cordial transcontinental meetings with big-name movie stars and directors. Russian actors and directors are spending their free time boning up on English. And the Soviets have begun making movies in English, rather than Russian, even when Americans are not involved.
The reason is simple: English-language films are the most profitable in the world.
Meanwhile, many Americans are doing their part to cooperate: Schiller, whose "Peter the Great" miniseries for NBC was filmed in the Soviet Union in 1984, speaks no Russian. Schiller's entourage these days includes three interpreters--one educated in culture, film and drama; one who specializes in negotiations and legal areas, and one who is a historian on the Soviet Union.
"The Russians appreciate anyone who does their homework," Schiller said.
To be fair, there is more than just business at the heart of the Soviet-American mating game: Many American film makers cherish Soviet film makers as survivors of a system that has managed to produce occasionally brilliant films despite decades of repression and isolation from the rest of the world. And some see in cultural exchange a hope for ongoing communication and understanding regardless of the vagaries of international politics.
The ripening relationship is due in large part to a shake-up of the Soviet film hierarchy under the new regime of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. "Artists have replaced bureaucrats" in key slots in the Soviet film bureaucracy, as director Norman Jewison ("The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!") puts it.