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From Russia With a Love of Story: Michael Dounaev, Producer

Whether you're Russian, American, French or Japanese, chances are Michael Dounaev has a story that will tug at your heartstrings. As the newly appointed CEO of Sistema Mass Media and co-founder of one of its subsidiaries, Thema Productions, Russian-born Dounaev has an eye for stories with international appeal. He has produced and co-produced hits like A Good Woman, starring Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson, and, most recently, Woody Allen's Oscar-nominated Match Point.

"It's very important to me that a film is emotional," he said in an interview at his Moscow office. "Usually the most interesting, universal stories are true stories."


Judging by his international experience, Dounaev, 38, couldn't be better suited to assess a film's potential for cross-cultural success. When he was an infant, his father, a journalist, was hired by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, where Dounaev lived until the age of seven. He returned to Tokyo to study at Waseda University in his early 20s, and later attended the IMD business school in Switzerland. Before returning to Russia last month, he lived in Paris for seven years with his wife and three young children.

"I consider myself a complete cosmopolitan," he said. "I feel extremely lucky to have enjoyed the best of each culture."

Dounaev first got involved in media as a university student in Tokyo, where he worked for NHK television. After graduating from IMD, he joined Bertelsmann as a print director for its international magazine division in Paris.

We dealt with such editions as Gala, National Geographic, Geo, and since that has a lot to do with glamour and entertainment -- Gala, especially -- my business contacts grew," he said. "That's how I met my business partner, Jimmy de Brabant, who was involved in the film industry for years. We came up with the idea of setting up a company that would deal with international co-productions in Europe, in the English language."


The idea materialized into Thema Productions, which is 75 percent owned by Sistema, with the remainder owned by non-Russian investors. Founded in April 2003, Thema has co-produced 10 feature films, as both co-financer and lead producer.

Although filmmaking is undoubtedly a creative enterprise, Dounaev has always preferred to think of himself as the project manager, the business drive behind the operation.

"Everybody knows their limitations, and I know my limitations. I was different from all my peers who were either interested in being very much creative or going into politics," he said. "I wanted to set up a team, find an interesting project, and make it happen. That was the approach of bringing the right finance, getting the right budget and getting the right team on board."

Thema only gets involved in commercial films, Dounaev said, in order to minimize risk. A mainstream film, after all, is likely to draw large audiences from various backgrounds.


This year, as Dounaev returns to Russia to head Sistema Mass Media, Thema is taking a similar plunge: For the first time, the company is filming in Russia. The latest film, a British-Russian co-production called In Transit, started filming last month in St. Petersburg and boasts an international cast including John Malkovich.

In Transit, based on events that took place during World Waw II, is about German soldiers who are accidentally sent to a Russian prison camp for women, staffed by female guards.


"These were the women who survived the Leningrad siege, which was three long years of starvation," he said. "What shocked me is that they went though this emotional journey from revenge to forgiveness. It's human nature, it's human spirit that survives, which is so great."

Almost across the board, Dounaev's involvement in his work seems emotional, regardless of his insistence that he is, at heart, a businessman.

"You love every baby that you have," he said, referring to his films. "As a filmmaker, I think it's very important to send a message which is based on a true story."

Perhaps the force behind Dounaev's success is the enthusiasm he exudes through his positive demeanor, giving the impression of a man who truly enjoys what he does.


"I think that when God closes a door, he usually opens a window. Everyday you have to be ready for a challenge," he said. "It's very difficult to judge yourself, but I think [my strengths are] an energy, and the belief -- I hope -- that I bring to the table, that we will all make the best film possible."

Dounaev has mixed feelings about his return to Russia. His wife and children, for now, remain in France, so he spends a lot of time flying between Moscow and Paris.

"I'm never home. It's really a problem. There are times in your life when your private life is in jeopardy and you just have to say, 'Wait, what's the most important thing here?'"


Dounaev said he and his wife were still considering moving the family to Russia. "It's a question we talk about."

Russia, Dounaev said, represents a wealth of opportunity.

"It's the place where things are happening right now," he said. "The Russian distribution market is growing so fast, and there might be a revival of the national cinema."

With added responsibilities as CEO of Sistema Mass Media, the continuing success of Thema and the drawbacks and opportunities associated with his recent move, Dounaev's return to Russia coincides, perhaps appropriately, with a period of reflection in his life.

"I'm almost 40," he said. "That's the time you take a look back and think, 'What have I achieved?' I've thought a lot about my roots."