When Russian actor Oleg Vidov defected to the United States in 1985, the man touted as "the Robert Redford of the Soviet Union" attracted international headlines and speculation that he would do for Russians in cinema what Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov did in ballet.
In the time since, Vidov has indeed made appearances in American films but not exactly in the sort of roles that Redford would have accepted. He played Arnold Schwarzenegger's Russian partner in "Red Heat," and has held roles in such forgettable flicks as "Wild Orchid" and "Love Affair."
But if Vidov isn't yet a household name in this country, it's still possible that he will make a lasting contribution to the American entertainment industry. Not necessarily as an actor, but as the man who introduced Russian animation to the U.S.
Vidov's Studio City-based production/licensing company Films by Jove Inc. acquired the rights in 1992 to a library of animated short films created between 1952 and 1980 by Soyuz Multfilm, the former Soviet Union's primary animation producer.
The carefully restored and redubbed cartoons are a relative secret in this country, even though Films by Jove released a 12-hour home video anthology called "Masters of Russian Animation" in 1993.
But a new anthology of children's stories developed with the help of Baryshnikov not to mention the distribution deals signed with animation powerhouses Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co. may be about to raise Films by Jove's profile.
Animation industry executives are intrigued because new animation libraries are scarce, and Russian animation, at its best, is considered nearly as good as anything ever produced by Disney. That may be because, in the 1950s and 1960s, Russian animators set out to imitate Disney's formula.
"(The cartoons) look dated, they have that style that was done back then (in the '50s). But the animation is as good as anything being done now," said Phil Roman, chief executive of animation production company Film Roman Inc., which helped Films by Jove with the restoration and dubbing work on the "Masters" anthology.
Soyuz Multfilm artists were subsidized by the Soviet state, and given considerably more time to lavish on their creations than American animators, Roman points out. The result is a cartoon library that Roman calls "amazing."
The story of how the cartoons ended up in Films by Jove's hands began in 1991, when Vidov was back in his native country playing the starring role in a film about the real-life coup engineered against former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. While on location, Vidov met with officials of Soyuz Multfilm and laid the groundwork for a deal giving him the rights to distribute its films outside Russia.
It took five trials in international courts before the rights were cleaned up. When Films by Jove finally unveiled its treasure trove, it discovered reels of film in disastrous condition, with much of their soundtracks lost.
"I think that when they made these films, they sort of made them for the moment. No one thought that 20, 30 years later they would still have value," said Joan Borsten, a former journalist who met Vidov in Rome soon after his defection, married him in 1988 and is now president of the company.
Borsten said about $1.5 million has been spent restoring and redubbing the cartoons for the "Master's" anthology, and an equivalent amount on its newest creation a 13-hour video series called "Mikhail Baryshnikov's 'Stories From My Childhood.' "
Considering the top-tier talent lending their voices to the Baryshnikov project, that $1.5 million seems fairly cheap. The videos star the voices of Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Martin Sheen, Shirley MacLaine and Kathleen Turner.
Borsten said the actors did the job for union scale, mostly as a favor to Baryshnikov a friend of her husband's to whom Borsten simply refers by his nickname, Mischa.
In total, Films by Jove has the rights to 365 hours of animated programming; of that, about 80 hours are expected to be used.
Borsten said the company has nearly recouped its investment on the "Masters" anthology, which has been sold around the world to television networks and on home video although it has scarcely been seen in the U.S.
Later this year, however, Disney's Buena Vista Home Video will release the series in America, and television rights have been purchased by cable networks Bravo and the International Film Channel.
Meanwhile, Live Entertainment has released the first three titles from the "Stories From My Childhood" series on video in the U.S., and Warner Bros. is distributing the anthology overseas. Live is expected to release more titles from the series later this year.
"At the beginning, the reaction (from Hollywood distributors) was like, 'Oh, it's Russian, who cares,' " Borsten said. "But as more and more mainstream distributors become involved with the library, it becomes more and more acceptable."
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