If the coronavirus pandemic has been a boon to global streaming services, which saw their subscriber numbers climb in the past year as homebound audiences stayed glued to their screens, that’s only accelerated a trend already taking hold in the Russian VOD space.
According to TMT Consulting, the Russian VOD market grew by 66% in 2020 to reach a value of 27.8 billion rubles ($384 million), with revenue from subscriptions rising by 87%. This comes as a growing number of media holdings, telecoms, and financial giants enter the streaming fray.
Earlier this year, Russia’s largest mobile operator, MTS, launched the KION streaming platform, just months after financial giant Sber (formerly known as Sberbank) acquired the leading streaming service Okko as part of its push to reinvent itself as a technology company. Russian search engine and IT giant Yandex has seen explosive growth with its KinoPoisk VOD platform, while the Gazprom-backed streamer Premier and platforms such as More.tv, Wink and Ivi all stake their claims to the fast-growing market.
The surge is driving a boom in local content, as deep-pocketed streamers compete for subscribers by wooing top Russian talents to their services.
“Russian streamers had breathed new life into the production landscape: new, bold, vivid stories aimed at both wide and sophisticated audiences suddenly became hot in demand,” says Evgeniy Nikishov, head of 1-2-3 Production (“To the Lake”), which will produce the first Russian Netflix original series, the contemporary “Anna Karenina” adaptation “Anna K.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated producer Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”) signed a deal with Yandex to develop and produce seven series, both Russian and multilingual. Under the terms of the deal, Yandex will retain Russian rights while Rodnyansky and Sergey Melkumov’s Non-Stop Production chooses its partners for international distribution.
Among the projects will be “Everybody’s Woman,” a series about the porn industry written by Kata Weber and directed by Kornel Mundruczo (“Jupiter’s Moon”), as well as two Russian-language series including “Frozen Land,” which will be co-produced with Topic, the U.S. streaming service from First Look Media.
“All of the series or mini-series that I produce are developed with international distribution in mind,” says Rodnyansky. “These are all stories that can touch the hearts and minds of audiences around the world, while showcasing authentic modern Russia.”
At the Russian content showcase, which takes place online June 8-10, KinoPoisk is unveiling a slate of four original titles, including the hit series “The Swamp,” the crime thriller “The Maelstrom,” the upcoming cyberpunk animated series “Cyberslav,” and the mystical fantasy story “The Kitchenblock,” which has been a runaway hit on KinoPoisk since its release.
“We primarily try to rely on the interests of our subscribers” when buying and commissioning content, says Olga Filipuk, chief content officer of Yandex Mediaservices. “For this reason, a rather large variety of genres has been added to our catalog: from auteur and doc cinematography to adult and children’s animation.”
The KinoPoisk library currently includes more than 70,000 films and series, and is built through partnerships with both Russian and international studios and distributors. That has helped grow the subscriber base for Yandex Plus—which includes the VOD platform, a movie ticketing service, and other features—to more than nine million. “KinoPoisk has a large audience with diverse interests,” says Filipuk. “In general, we are trying to fill the main niches of those interests.”
At START, the streaming service launched by the producers behind indie studio Yellow Black and White in 2019, the content strategy has been tied from the start to the production of high-end originals. Over the past three years, the company has produced more than 30 original projects, including the dramedy series “257 Reasons to Live,” which played in competition at Canneseries, and the eight-part drama series “Russian Affairs,” which has sold to Amazon Prime and the U.K. specialty streamer Walter Presents.
“Time and events have only increased our belief in this approach,” says CEO Julia Mindubaeva. “It goes without saying that lockdown has had a positive impact on our industry, but at START, we also see our successes as being linked to our chosen strategy.”
That helped the fast-growing VOD platform’s streaming revenues jump by 172% in 2020, with the company’s topper insisting START aims to double down on its local strategy. “We plan to strengthen our position and build a lineup of original content,” she says. “There is almost no international content on START. Our focus is on high-quality Russian films, animation and TV series that are made by the best creators and artists working in our industry.”
It’s a formula that worked well for rival More.tv, whose smash dramedy series “Chicks” (pictured), about four sex workers trying to start fresh in a provincial Russian town, has racked up more than 38 million views across streaming and broadcast television since premiering last June on the streaming service.
Vyacheslav Murugov, head of the National Media Group (NMG), which owns More.tv, estimates that roughly 60% of the streamer’s programming is comprised of local content. “We are making high concept event hits that are impossible to exist on free-to-air TV,” he says. “But also we’re creating content that looks more familiar to regular TV viewers, so that they could find favorite shows and familiar patterns. We’re experimenting with these approaches, analyzing data, working together with the biggest content distributors to be as efficient as possible.”
Last year NMG inked a multi-year content licensing agreement with ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group, making More.tv the exclusive provider of ViacomCBS content in Russia and CIS territories. “What is important is that we have to supply the audience with events—no matter local or international, no matter film or series,” says Murugov. “The audience is looking for something significant, something that they would justify the time spent with it, so our goal is to deliver exactly that kind of content.”
Russia’s streaming market, he insists, is “very far from saturation,” adding, “We started later than other markets and territories, and we are only gaining momentum.”
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