In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Hollywood studios announced the withdrawal of their films from Russian theaters. At the time, it was considered a major blow to Russia’s entertainment industry – during 2021, Hollywood fare made up 70% of Russia’s cinematic offerings and eight of the top 10 grossing films were Hollywood products, with Sony Pictures’ SONY “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as the most commercially successful title with more than $32 million in ticket sales.
However, if one takes a look at the current cinematic line-up in the Russian capital of Moscow, there’s something a bit odd going on. There are no current U.S. titles in official release, but reports have surfaced that these works found their way into Russia via digital piracy. Also being offered are older American films which are getting a second wind via unauthorized re-releases.
The Pirates’ Voyage: The pirating of American works for a Russian audience goes back to the Soviet era, which involved film reels and later VHS videotapes being smuggled into the country. Today, Russian theater owners take advantage of bootlegged copies that proliferate in the less savory corners of the internet – and all it takes is a steady online connection to download these films for exhibition.
The screenings are reminiscent of the Soviet era, when the only way to see most Western films was to get access to a pirated version. Whereas those movies made their way to Russians in the form of smuggled VHS tapes, today, cinemas in the country have a simpler, faster method: the internet. Numerous websites offer bootleg copies of movies that take minutes to download.
The New York Times NYT reported that such titles as the Walt Disney Co.’s DIS Pixar animated feature “Turning Red,” Warner Bros. Discovery’s WBD “The Batman” and Sony Pictures Releasing’s “Uncharted” found Russian audiences even though their respective studios barred their export to Russia. Exhibition varies between venues – some brazenly show the films despite Hollywood’s ban, while others rent out their auditoriums for private screenings advertised on social media.
But internet-borne piracy can only go so far, and some theaters have resorted to older films to lure in audiences. According to the Wall Street Journal, Martin Scorsese’s 2013 “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio has resonated with audiences in a re-release that was not authorized by its studio, Paramount Pictures PARAA.
Empty Seats Galore: However, the Hollywood boycott has gut-punched Russia’s film exhibition space dramatically. Variety reported data from Russia’s Association of Theater Owners that ticket sales dropped by nearly 50% year-over-year in March after the boycott shut down the cinematic spigot, adding that at least half of Russian movie theaters will be doomed to permanent closure as the year progresses.
Complicating matters is the absence of films to fill the American void. The domestic film industry has a rich history ranging from Sergei Eisenstein's innovative masterworks to Sergei Bondarchuk's Oscar-winning epic "War and Peace" to Andrei Tarkovsky's innovative and challenging cinematic art to contemporary award-honored works by Andrei Konchalovsky and Ilya Khrzhanovsky, but its current output is relatively minimal.
The Guardian reported that some theater owners have imported Chinese films to occupy screen time while OpIndia.com noted that Latin American films and productions from other Asian countries were showing up in greater quantity. But while the effort to fill the cinematic void in Russia has been valiant, Russian moviegoers are not responding to these substitute efforts.
"We will be lucky if we make it till autumn without shutting down," said an unnamed manager of a Russian movie theater to the Guardian. "People simply don't want to go to see 'The Wolf of Wall Street' for the fifth time."
Photo: Oleg Shakurov / Pixabay
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