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Russian Cinemas Go Pirate as Hollywood Movie Pipeline Dries Up Over Ukraine War

THE BATMAN, from left: Jeffrey Wright
Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Russian cinemas have responded to international sanctions over the war in Ukraine by going pirate.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a brutal assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24 — a war officially dubbed a “special military operation” — hundreds of major western corporations, including the Hollywood majors, withdrew from the Russian market.

More than three months into the war, reports are surfacing about illicit screenings of Hollywood movies at Russian cinemas, with initial reports naming “The Batman,” “Red Notice,” Disney animation “Turning Red” and Michael Bay crime actioner “Ambulance.”

According to the Russian edition of Esquire, “The Batman” has been screened at Moscow’s WIP theater, as well as at Greenwich Cinema in the Urlas city of Yekaterinburg and at regional theaters in the Far East of Russia.

The latest reports indicate that pirate screenings are becoming more sophisticated in order to evade detection: a movie theater in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, screened “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and “The Batman” under different Russian-language titles, according to a report in online news outlet Life.ru. Those titles differed from these films’ standard titles but were still recognizable. Handwritten tickets were sold to viewers.

Those screenings took place in May, just as controversy rocked Cannes over the inclusion of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” in the official selection. Although there were noticeably fewer Russians on the Croisette this year, it’s understood that some Russian buyers were indeed present.

The reappearance of piracy in Russia comes after the practice was all but eradicated during the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s. RAPO, an MPAA-backed anti-piracy organization staffed by former security service officials, had major success in combatting piracy in the early 2000s, targeting retailers and manufacturers of illicit discs and tapes.

While the current practice isn’t believed to be widespread just yet, it’s still proving to be a cause for concern among distributors and exhibitors in Russia.

None of the theaters mentioned in the Russian media reports have responded to requests for comment, but industry analysts have told Variety that the situation is complex.

Oleg Berezin, who runs a St. Petersburg-based film industry analytics company — and until February 27 was chairman of the Russian Association of Cinema Owners (RACO) — said the picture was complicated as some theaters already had DCP copies of “The Batman” from distributors who had pre-existing contracts to screen the movie in Russia.

Hollywood majors’ decision to pull their releases from Russia in early March had dealt a major blow to Russian cinemas, he said, with RACO figures showing that more than 300 movie theaters closed in April, while at least 50% of those still operating risk shutting down over the next two months.

“After a couple of difficult years due to the pandemic, distributors and exhibitors were suddenly faced with another challenge — how to respond to a situation when sanctions were swiftly imposed,” Berezin told Variety.

Where licenses were already held, exhibitors decided to pay money into what are effectively escrow accounts, pending possible new laws making this legal in Russia. In other cases, pirate screenings have simply been organized by companies or private individuals who rented theaters, with owners apparently turning a blind eye.

Such screenings allow theaters to avoid reporting ticket sales, which is automatic under the current exhibition system. Organizers of private screenings have also claimed tickets were sold for drinks and refreshments only — with the screening being a free perk of turning up.

Although there have been demands by some members of the Russian parliament to legalize piracy, more moderate members were pressing for a legal recognition of force majeure and allowing cinemas to screen pre-licensed movies and pay fees owed into an escrow account.

The issue around films that had not yet been licensed was more complicated, Berezin said.

“The key business issue currently facing exhibitors in Russia is low attendance – just 5% of a potential audience of some 95 million people aged 10-70 living in urban regions with cinemas actually go to the movies on a weekly basis,” Berezin added.

Another issue is the pipeline of movies hitting Russian cinemas. Although the Russian Ministry of Culture has been giving strong support to domestic producers, many prefer to make low-budget TV movies. Yet what the industry needs to survive the sanctions, said Berezin, is stronger support for Russian films, rather than the Hollywood fare most cinema chains have favored in recent years.

Berezin, who quit RACO in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noted that any cinemas that do screen pirated copies of Hollywood and other films now will be blacklisted in the future.

So far, state authorities in Russia have done nothing about any alleged pirate screenings.

Pavel Ponikarovsky, a RACO co-founder who remains a member of the organization, told Variety that pirate screenings were “isolated incidents caused by the desperate situation in which many of our colleagues find themselves.”

Alexei Ryazantsev, general director of distributor Karo Premier, which until recently distributed Warner Bros. fare in Russia, suggested the moves to legalize screenings under force majeure would enable Russian theaters to screen Hollywood movies.

“Hollywood movies accounted for 80% of Russian box office,” he said in a recent podcast interview. “Why should we let that go? Technically, there could be alternative exhibition of Hollywood movies.

“We can open an account in a Russian bank and royalties for film exhibition will accumulate in that account. If [rights holders] take rubles, we’ll be able to pay them in full, as exhibition will continue totally legitimately, just without their consent.”

However, that scheme has some problems, said Ponikarovsky: “This would be a complicated model, and we don’t yet understand how it could work. Distributors used to provide us with professional-quality, [dubbed] film copies. Where would theaters get content now? Download from torrent trackers? Quality would be very poor.”

It also begged the question of how authorities could regulate the situation, Ponikarovsky added, before concluding: “There are too many question marks here.”