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Victoria Yarmoshchuk, chief executive of the Ukrainian movie studio Film.ua, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 11.Vladyslav Golovin/The Globe and Mail

Russia has launched roughly 7,400 missiles and 3,700 Shahed attack drones at targets in Ukraine from 2022 to 2023, according to data from the Ukrainian air force. During that same period, Film.UA Group, a Kyiv-based film and television production and distribution company has released 14 feature movies and sold several of them to Netflix and broadcasters across Europe.

The company is now producing several new movies at its studio in Troyeshchyna, on the outskirts of Kyiv. In addition to eight soundstages, the studio has restaurants and shops, an outdoor village, a botanical garden and a costume department that houses 50,000 items. People in Kyiv call it “Troyeshchyna’s Hollywood,” said chief executive officer Victoria Yarmoshchuk when The Globe and Mail visited the site.

Film.UA was founded in 2002 when Ukrainian lawyer Sergey Sozanovsky noticed there was a demand from Ukrainian and Russian broadcasters for locally produced television series. The shows that his company began filming were significantly cheaper than productions from abroad and, more importantly, they were better suited to local audiences.

In 2004, Sozanovsky, at the time a producer for the local Inter TV Channel, hired a famous comedy actor. His name? Volodymyr Zelensky. “He is a very charismatic man,” Sozanovsky says, although hardly anyone could imagine where he would end up 15 years later.

For the first 12 years of Film.UA’s existence, about 80 per cent of its income came from orders from Russian TV channels. But after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the channels stopped purchasing products from Kyiv. Sozanovsky had to rebuild his business and find new clients in Europe. A project launched in 2014, the detective series The Sniffer (inspired by the crime drama Lie to Me) was sold to Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Israel.

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Editor of the of the Ukrainian movie studio Film.ua during his work in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 11.Vladyslav Golovin/The Globe and Mail

Focusing on new markets required Film.UA to start working with internationally recognized actors and producers. These included cameraman Graham Frake of Downton Abbey fame; actor Robert Patrick from James Cameron’s Terminator 2; and actors James Norton and Vanessa Kirby. The switch to hiring more recognizable names led to half of the company’s income coming from international sales.

In 2019, Ukraine’s parliament introduced a cash-rebate system under which the state provided refunds to foreign and Ukrainian producers if up to 25 per cent of their budgets was spent in Ukraine. In Kyiv, Netflix started filming The Last Mercenary, an action comedy starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series was partly shot in Ukraine.

A lot of international production companies were relocating their shoots to Eastern Europe, trying to cut costs. “Ukraine was supposed to be the next such country to attract the big producers,” Yarmoshchuk says.

But the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022 forced Film.UA to go into survival mode. “We literally saw the rockets flying above Kyiv,” she recalls. In March of that year, Russians tried to hit a thermal power station located two kilometres from the studio. Since Film.UA has a big bomb shelter, they opened it up for locals.

“The families with kids were hiding for a long time,” Yarmoshchuk says. “We even had a case where one woman gave birth to a baby girl in our basement.”

All projects were suspended. “When the war started, for the first month, we cared only about the safety of our staff,” she says, adding the company had no idea if it would be able to pay employee salaries the next month. But some activities that didn’t need the physical presence of staff, such as post-production and film editing, carried on. The COVID-19 pandemic had gotten people used to working from home.

After Ukrainian troops pushed Russian forces away from the outskirts of Kyiv in April, 2022, many Ukrainians started to return to the country. Film.UA resumed production activities later that year and German distributor Red Arrow Studios International invested in a new project: the six-episode series Those Who Stayed, which chronicled the stories of Ukrainians during the first days of the invasion.

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Gates to the production complex - outdoor village of the Ukrainian movie studio Film.ua. in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 11.Vladyslav Golovin/The Globe and Mail

In November, 2023, the series reached the top of the charts on Netflix in Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and in the Baltic and Balkan regions. But despite its success, Film.UA doesn’t want to keep on doing projects about the invasion.

“Ukrainian viewers will not watch movies about the war now, because they daily watch the real war from their windows,” Yarmoshchuk says. “Instead, they want hope.”

One example is the full-length animated feature, Mavka: The Forest Song, inspired by Slavic mythology. Film.UA invested nearly US$8-million in the project, which generated box-office returns of more than US$17-million worldwide, becoming the company’s most successful film to date. At the same time, Film.ua is also selling licensing rights for spin-off products related to Mavka. “Look at Mickey Mouse or Marvel characters or the Star Wars universe. They still generate income for their creators,” Yarmoshchuk says.

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Sergey Sozanovsky, 57, founder of the Ukrainian movie studio Film.ua, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 11.Vladyslav Golovin/The Globe and Mail

But the war continues to have an impact on the industry as Polish director Lukasz Karwowski learned while filming Two Sisters in the battle-scarred city of Kharkiv. After leaving to go back to Poland, he asked the studio to get some additional shots but, by that time, the house in Kharkiv he was thinking of had already been destroyed after a rocket attack.

Film.UA is now planning to get into horror, a new genre for the studio. The Witch: Revenge, a feature film, combines current events and mythology, with Ukrainians seeking revenge for Russian aggression. “The stories, which give some hope, are more important for the people than food or the roof over your head,” Yarmoshchuk says.

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