The period movie Dawn of the Great Steppe, directed by celebrated filmmaker Akan Satayev, gathered full halls in Kazakhstan’s cinemas.
The movie tells the story of Kasym Khan, a 16th century leader mythologized by modern historians as one of the founders of Kazakh statehood.
"Great film!” Kenzhebek Isatayev, a security officer for Halyk Bank, told Eurasianet as he came out of a viewing of the Kazakh-language feature. “We need more films of our own, about our history, about our people, so that the new generation can preserve its national and cultural identity.”
The release of the movie in May arrived just as Kazakhstan was experiencing a surge of wounded patriotic sentiment in the wake of remarks by politicians in Russia questioning Kazakh claims to their northern territories, which are heavily populated by ethnic Slavs. The irredentist barbs took on a particularly sour quality against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
But the future success of movies like Dawn of the Great Steppe and other output of Kazakhstan’s movie production machine are going to be spurred on by more than just patriotism.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a slew of U.S. film companies – Walt Disney, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Universal, Paramount and Lionsgate – suspended distribution deals with their Russian clients.
That had implications for many of Russia’s neighbors too. Cinemas in Kazakhstan typically screen copies of Hollywood movies already dubbed by Russian distributors, who used to sublicense distribution rights to partners companies across much of the former Soviet space.
When the news broke in early March, Almaz Maldybayev, chief executive of KinoPark Multiplex Cinemas chain, announced that his company’s screens would close from April 1 since international film production companies had not yet established deals with distributors in Kazakhstan.
Two weeks later, however, Maldybayev broke the news that the closures had been forestalled. Some of the films that had already been dubbed by Russian companies could be shown after all, he said, although that left open the question of what would happen when that backlog of films ran out.
At the end of March, the Culture and Sports Ministry stepped in to say that it would subsidize local dubbing so as to “support cinemas and prevent a shortage of film content.” The ministry did not respond to Eurasianet’s attempts for more clarification of its plans.
As the situation evolves, U.S. movie companies are looking to see where to find the most suitable distributors who can take up the slack of doing the dubbing work. One early alternative solution was applied to the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which was dubbed into Russian in Georgia. The movie arrived in Kazakhstan at the end of May, two months after it had initially been expected.
Serik Abishev, the vice president of state-run movie studio Kazakhfilm, believes Hollywood will eventually choose multiple countries for dubbing because not one country likely has the capacity to handle all the new content.
And Kazakhfilm intends to compete for lucrative business. The company is redesigning its recording studio, fitting state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos surround sound equipment to meet the stringent demands of American filmmakers.
“There are real chances that Kazakhstan will be on the list of future partners,” Abishev told Eurasianet. “Modernization will be completed by the end of the year. Our studio will significantly reduce the cost of dubbing.”
There is also a window opening for Kazakhstan’s own filmmakers to broaden their appeal to an audience that continues to prefer Hollywood.
Earlier this year, a locally made comedy, Business Kazakh-Style in Turkey, topped the box office charts for several weeks. The movie is part of a much-loved series about hapless entrepreneurs trying to make it overseas. An earlier entry in the series, Business Kazakh-Style in Korea, was made with $400,000 and was released to much success in 2019, becoming Kazakhstan’s highest-ever grossing movie. In doing so, it displaced the flashier Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame from its perch.
Producer and lead actor Nurlan Koyanbayev told Eurasianet that his Kazakh Business Style series plays with humor on the differences between the mentalities of Kazakhs and those of other countries.
“Our viewers really like it,” said Koyanbayev. “We are already considering new countries for the next films.”
The Business franchise is something of an outlier, though.
Abishev of KazakhFilm noted that cinema in Kazakhstan is rarely a profitable business and that only around a quarter of releases make a profit. Any budget exceeding half a million dollars is unlikely to be recouped.
“If a film in Kazakhstan has grossed more than a million dollars, this is a great success, because the budget has been covered. And what’s more, the film producer must use more than half of the profits to pay cinemas and cover other expenses,” he said.
Despite these difficulties, there is optimism in the industry. Another well-known film producer, Zharaskhan Kulpiyenov, is heartened by the trend of the last few years, which has seen an uptick in the number of domestic films being released.
“It has always been difficult for our films to compete with more professional Hollywood and Russian productions, but with the reduction in the repertoire of foreign films, Kazakhstan’s film business finally has a chance to win over the domestic audience,” Kulpiyenov told Eurasianet.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.