Interview with Bob Van Ronkel – Mr Hollywood in Russia

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What bought you to Moscow?

I first came to Moscow in 1998, when a Russian producer I had met in Los Angeles asked me if I could help him distribute a movie he had made, which he had shot in English. Then he came back a few months later and said that Mayor Luzhkov wanted to build multiplex cinemas in Russia, and could I help organise some meetings with Hollywood studios? So I helped arrange for Luzhkov to meet Warner Brothers studio in 1998.

How did the Doors To Hollywood project come about?

All by accident. I had started to get into the film production business a year prior to that in Los Angeles, but before that I had been in real estate, the restaurant business, many other things. After that trip to Moscow, Renat Davletyarov, the General Director of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Moscow International Film Festival contacted me and asked if I could help bring an actor to Russia for the Festival. At that time, I only knew two actors in Hollywood, one of them was Martin Landau, who I convinced to come with me. It was a great time, a great Festival and they hired me the next year as a consultant. The following year, 2000, I brought the president of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, director Billy Friedkin and E-Television to broadcast the festival in the US. The third year I got lucky and was able to get Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Lara Boyle, Woody Harrelson and Peta Wilson, to come. I stayed an extra month because I loved Russia so much and during that month, Jim Carrey flew in on his private jet to hang out with me for a week and during that extra month the media started to interview me and write about what I was doing, and then the well-to-do Russians started contacting me and asking if I could bring actors and bands to their parties and events, and that was how I started.

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Parties became a main line of your work?

One of the first deals that I had was to bring John Malkovich and Dolph Lundgren for a Russian producing company that had opened an office in LA and wanted to announce in Russia that they were raising money to produce Hollywood films. That was the first non-festival deal, and then shortly after that, one of the most wealthy Russians at the time gave an event planner and me a $7 million budget to throw a seven day birthday party for him as he was turning 30. So we took over the Grand Lido Bracco Resort in Jamaica, invited 150 guests, and bought over Kiss, Nazareth, The Scorpions, Sugar Ray, a magician, some actors and flew in carnival from Brazil. Then his partner asked us if we could organise his 34th birthday, which was a $3 million, three day event in Cannes. Shortly after that, in 2002, I realised that nobody would pay me to do any of this in the US, so I decided that I’d move to Russia. After being here for 6 months I got the idea of opening a company called Doors to Hollywood, which would help bring Hollywood to Russia.

So you became known as Mr Hollywood in Russia?

Yes, that’s exactly what happened. I hadn’t been doing that in LA, I didn’t know anybody in that business and by accident, Russia opened that door for me. 10 years later I have over 100 friends who are actors, famous directors, Hollywood agents and heads of the biggest bands and most of them I can call on their cell phones. Growing up in Hollywood, and living within miles of them, I had never met them or had any reason to contact or work with them, until I moved to Russia.

Do you get involved in production work here in Russia?

In 10 years I have done over 300 deals, besides bringing over 100 actors and bands, I produced the Odessa Jazz Festival three years in a row and raised sponsorship financing for them, I organised the Hiro Yamagata MDM Bank laser exhibition, which was a million dollar project and lit up the Neva river with laser lights for President Putin’s administration during the 300 year anniversary of St. Petersburg. I’ve put Hollywood actors into Russian movies, I’ve put Russian actors and musicians into Hollywood movies, and I’ve put Hollywood actors into Russian music videos and commercials. I just took Antonio Banderas to Kazakhstan to do a commercial for the biggest bank there Kaspi; which Antonio is now the face of, so really I am doing casting, producing, whatever people need. I call myself a producer, but everyone’s calling me a power broker because of my access here to Presidents, government and people around them here, not only in Russia, but in some of the other countries of the previous Soviet Union.

I think everyone that I have worked with departs wishing that they weren’t going. I used to think it was only the men, but now after bringing so many actresses, models and female singers here, I realise that they all had amazing times visiting this part of the world.

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What about the other way, taking Russian talent to Hollywood?

Over the years I have been asked by so many people: why aren’t you taking Russian stars to Hollywood? This is what has given me the idea, over the past 6 months to open up the Doors to Hollywood Acting Academy. What is the point in me taking Russian actors to Hollywood if they can’t act properly on film or on television or they have such heavy accents that they can’t be understood?

Without a doubt, Russians are incredible actors, here, but they also have to understand what an American director is telling them, and work within the norms of the western acting profession. The transition to Hollywood film and television is a real challenge, and we can help Russians do that. Some Russian producer friends tell me that well known Russian actors sometimes have difficulty in switching from one role to another, because they are so strong as individuals, they tend to role play their character over and over.

I am talking about kids from drama school, even children as well as well known actors. They will be taught English by American English teachers, and stage and camera craft by people who understand the US television and film industries. Many people think they want to act, but are not sure that the acting profession is for them, so our four month beginners course will give them the chance to find out if they want to continue to the intermediate and then advanced. But if they do decide to go ahead, we can give them the basic training they need for film and television not just in Russia, but in the US as well. With all the great teachers, theatre schools and Universities in Russia, Russia doesn’t need us to teach students how to act in the theatre, so our focus is film and television.

This is a long-term project but my dream is that many Russian actors studying with us will someday be able to work in any movie and anywhere in the world, because they won’t have that heavy accent and they will understand more fully what US directors want from them. I like to make dreams a reality and that has always been my number one challenge and goal in life.

What do you really like about Russia?

The thing I love the most about Russia is that everyday is a new day. Every day I wake up here, it’s like my first day here. I never know who’s going to call, what the deal’s going to be, what somebody needs. It wouldn’t be the same in L.A. I don’t know any other country that has more beautiful women, I’ve never been married and so that is a motivation. It’s a dream come true. I thank God everyday for blessing me with such a great life and job here in Russia.

What don’t you like about Russia?

First, the traffic. Second, I don’t understand anything anybody is saying, so that’s a little difficult; I try to order chicken and get a steak. I can’t get the vegetables and the speciality foods I like. I’m still bringing so much food here every year, like Wishbone salad dressing and Star-Kist Tuna. The weather is not something that fills me with great inspiration. These are the four negatives to go with the 100 positives.