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Why Russian Cinemas Left UNIC Amid Industry Collapse

Moscow cinema
AP

A trade body representing Russian cinema owners has pulled out of the International Association of Cinemas (UNIC) as the domestic impact of sanctions over the war against Ukraine begin to bite.

The Russian Association of Cinema Owners (RACO) said it had submitted an application to “exit UNIC.” It comes after Hollywood majors exited the Russian market following President Vladimir Putin’s decision late February to invade Ukraine, turning Russia into an international pariah state. The move broadens Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world at a time when its domestic cinema is facing near total collapse.

Although the move had largely symbolic meaning — RACO joined UNIC in 2019 and UNIC membership offered Russian exhibitors a higher international status — Pavel Ponikarovksy of RACO told Variety that, “when Hollywood majors cuts ties with Russia, it was no longer clear if remaining in UNIC made any sense.”

The move comes as Russian exhibitors and filmmakers face the most serious threat to their survival since the chaos the sector experienced in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Oleg Sulkin, a film critic with Voice of America’s Russian Service, told Variety that the “double impact” of COVID followed swiftly by the war on Ukraine and Western sanctions, “could have mortal consequences for the industry.” The loss of Hollywood movies — which represented around 70% of all feature releases in Russia — and Netflix, spells disaster for the domestic industry.

“The plan to replace the overseas stuff with the local products and European imports is next to utopian,” Sulkin said. “The most realistic scenario is that many cinemas will be shut down or restructured — like in the 1990s.” The sector would see “a new rise of black and grey markets…and dubious websites will show new Hollywood releases.”

With evidence emerging of pirate screenings of films such as “The Batman” at Russian cinemas with no apparent legal sanction from local authorities, those trends are already apparent. “We can expect the sharp rise of domestic TV series, especially miniseries,” Sulkin added. “It has already become a uniquely thriving sector of the Russian audio-visual market with a lot of creative talents running into it from regular film production.”

David Shneyderov, a Moscow-based film and TV critic, television host and film school teacher, dubbed the crisis in Russian cinema as “apocalyptic.” When Hollywood studios stopped releasing films in Russia, it was a “knockout” blow.

“Cinemas have rapidly emptied,” Shneyderov told Variety. “By the end of the summer, almost 90% of cinemas are expected to close, the largest IMAX hall in Moscow is not working, and the large – 1,500 seat – hall of the Oktyabr multiplex in downtown Moscow is empty.”

With multiplex owners refusing to drop rental rates, exhibitors and producers are already facing losses estimated at over 6 billion rubles ($104 million).

“It turns out that the Russian audience, even in the absence of Hollywood cinema, is not going to watch domestic movies at the cinema,” Shneyderov said, adding that figures from the Russian Bulletin of Film Distribution showed domestic share of Russian box office over the past three years ranged between 23% in 2019, 48% in 2020 and 27% in 2021. Pre-war figures for 2022 estimated local movies would have a 21% share.

“If the audience did not watch local movies before — and some 90% of Russian films were box office flops — why should the Russian public suddenly develop an interest for domestic product?” said Shneyderov.