Russian Industry Responds to Boycotts Over Ukraine War: Bans Are ‘Silencing the Russian Protest Voice’
Russia’s war in Ukraine has drawn swift and wide-ranging condemnation from the international community, which has imposed unprecedented sanctions against President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle and pushed the Russian economy to a breaking point, with the ruble plummeting to historic lows on Monday.
Amid calls for a boycott of Russian films that have received government support and a strident response from European media groups, cultural institutions, film festivals and industry confabs, the backlash has rattled Russian filmmakers with long-standing personal and professional ties to the continent’s screen industry.
“The need for Europe to make a clear anti-war statement is understandable and necessary. However, banning all Russians from the major cultural events is not only unhelpful — it’s harmful,” said one veteran producer. “Hundreds and thousands of Russian culture workers have openly disagreed with the government decision to start a war: They condemn its actions, go to protests, support Ukraine, risk being sentenced for treason. Almost all of them didn’t vote for Putin.”
The producer added: “By banning these people from international events, Europe is silencing the Russian protest voice, isolating people who want to stop the war together with people who want to escalate it.”
In the wake of last week’s invasion, the Ukrainian Film Academy called for an international boycott of Russian cinema, urging pan-European institutions to exclude the country from financial instruments such as the Council of Europe’s Eurimages fund, while calling on producers, distributors and film festivals to reject “the culture of the aggressor state, which unleashed unjustified and unprovoked war in central Europe.” The group, which launched a Change.org petition, added: “Even the very presence of Russian films in the program of world film festivals creates the illusion of Russia’s involvement in the values of the civilized world.”
The response from the international film community is gathering steam. On Sunday, Series Mania announced that Russia’s state-backed film promotion body, Roskino, would be barred from taking part in the international TV showcase held later this month in Lille, where it was expected to host a presentation of buzzed-about Russian dramas. MipTV organizer RX said on Tuesday that it would follow “government sanctions and policies in each territory where [it] operates,” effectively ruling out a Russian presence at the April event in Cannes. U.K. screen trade body Pact also called on its members to suspend all co-operation and trade with Russia.
On Monday, Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures said they would be pausing all theatrical releases in Russia, including those of upcoming blockbusters “Turning Red,” “The Batman” and “Morbius.” The Stockholm Film Festival, meanwhile, announced that it would not be screening any Russian state-funded films at this year’s festival “as long as the current war is ongoing,” while the Glasgow Film Festival said it had withdrawn two Russian titles from its 2022 program, maintaining that the decision was “not a reflection on the views and opinions of the makers of these titles…[but] that it would be inappropriate to proceed as normal with these screenings in the current circumstances.”
As Western sanctions kicked in on Monday, and as the U.S., Britain and the European Union restricted the Russian Central Bank’s access to much of its foreign currency reserves, Russia found itself on the brink of an economic crisis. The ruble lost more than 40% of its value after trading began on Monday, prompting the government to freeze the stock market, while the central bank doubled interest rates and banned foreigners from selling local securities in an effort to protect a teetering economy. Across the country, the public rushed to withdraw money from ATMs.
The financial squeeze and mounting public pressure for companies to boycott Russian businesses are already taking a toll on filmmakers. “Co-production – especially with Europe – was one of our main instruments, and it basically doesn’t exist anymore with Russia,” said Artem Vasilyev of Metrafilms, who has this week fielded calls from partners across Europe reversing course on previous co-production agreements. “Everything that is somehow connected with Europe is either on hold or canceled.”
The producer, whose credits include Aleksey German Jr.’s Cannes Un Certain Regard player “House Arrest,” said he “respects the position” of European producers who are wary about “toxic” associations with Russian business partners.
“The situation is terrifying in Ukraine,” Vasilyev said. “The outcome of the whole situation is a nightmare.” He nevertheless expressed frustration and sadness at the prospect of the Russian film industry becoming “collateral damage” of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. “Everything I have dreamed for the last 15 years has now been canceled…We’re just holding on and trying to figure out the next steps.”
Russia faces cultural isolation after years of investment
The swift and sudden isolation of the Russian film industry comes on the heels of years of concerted efforts to bolster its global profile. Film promotion body Roskino has been a key player in boosting the visibility of Russian filmmakers through events such as the Key Buyers Event, an annual content showcase that last year drew 200 international buyers. Major film markets such as the European Film Market, the American Film Market and Cannes’ Marché du Film now regularly host Russian pavilions organized by the state-backed body, which many producers credit with unifying the oft disparate industry for the first time.
The Russian culture ministry, meanwhile, has ramped up its efforts to woo foreign producers to the country, introducing a cash rebate of up to 40% in 2019, as well as a fund to support Russian minority co-productions. One film that received such support, Juho Kuosmanen’s trans-Siberian love story “Compartment No. 6,” was a Grand Jury Prize co-winner at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Russian filmmaker Kira Kovalenko was also feted on the Croisette for her sophomore feature “Unclenching the Fists,” which won the Un Certain Regard Prize.
Yet such triumphs reflect the dizzying highs and lows of Russian cinema in the age of Putin, which were on full display in Cannes: Just days before the awards were handed out, Kirill Serebrennikov was a no-show at the world premiere of his competition title “Petrov’s Flu,” because the provocative and outspoken director was banned from leaving Russia over what he and his supporters say are trumped-up charges.
Meanwhile Series Mania’s decision to bar Roskino from attending this month’s event comes just months after the TV showcase’s ‘Forum’ industry arm handed its Best Project Award to the Alexander Rodnyansky-produced Soviet-era period drama “Red Rainbow.” (The producer, who was born in Ukraine, has spoken out passionately against the war.)
It is nevertheless difficult to overstate the impact of state financing on the Russian film industry, where public money is a pillar of independent arthouse films and commercial blockbusters alike.
“In Russia, most of the films created by independent film production companies were done with the help of the Ministry of Culture,” said Vasilyev, who used state funds to help produce Michael Borodin’s modern-day slavery drama “Convenience Store,” which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Another long-time producer added that financing from the culture ministry and the state-backed Cinema Fund “are still often the critical pieces of the puzzle for any financing plan, even when it comes to utilizing private equity and streamers.”
Russian filmmakers say instances of outright censorship are rare, yet savvy producers are forced to artfully navigate the system, utilizing soft money to finance commercial projects while tapping into private equity for more challenging or controversial fare. The rapid rise of Russian streaming services such as Yandex, KION and More.tv — many backed by giants of the banking, tech and energy sectors — might soon allow producers to sidestep state financing entirely.
What remains uncertain is how wide-ranging sanctions announced by the U.S. and Europe in recent days will impact the corporate monoliths whose sprawling interests extend into the entertainment industry. Among the Russian companies targeted by foreign lawmakers is Gazprombank, the owner of Gazprom-Media, a conglomerate whose holdings include nine terrestrial TV channels; the growing SVOD service Premier; top film distributor and production company Central Partnership; and a further eight production outfits, including 1-2-3 Production, the company behind the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” Another company targeted by sanctions, banking giant Sberbank, owns Okko, one of Russia’s top streaming platforms.
Steel magnate Alexey Mordashov, meanwhile, who was among the Russian oligarchs hit by E.U. sanctions this week, is the chairman of Severgroup, whose holdings include the National Media Group, founded by billionaire Putin ally Yury Kovalchukwhich. NMG owns the country’s largest broadcaster, the pro-Kremlin Channel One; pay-TV company Viasat; streaming service More.tv; close to a dozen production companies, including industry leaders Art Pictures Studio and Vodorod; and distributor Art Pictures Distribution.
In 2020, Netflix and NMG set up a partnership to run the U.S. streaming giant’s Russian service. The National Media Group also has other interests intertwined with Hollywood’s: Media Alliance, a joint venture between NMG and Discovery, Inc., is the Russian distributor of the Discovery and Turner portfolio of pay-TV channels. Media Telecom, a joint venture between NMG and state-controlled telecom giant Rostelecom, is the exclusive distributor in Russia of the Fox Networks Group’s pay-TV channels. (Mordashov, for his part, maintains his innocence, telling Russia’s TASS news agency on Monday: “I have absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension and I do not understand why the E.U. has imposed sanctions on me.”)
Then there’s billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose $100 million Kinoprime film fund was heralded as a game-changer for the local industry when it launched at Cannes in 2019, helping to finance ambitious arthouse titles such as “Petrov’s Flu.” U.K. lawmakers have in recent days ramped up calls for sanctions against the oligarch for his allegedly close ties to Vladimir Putin and his “public association with corrupt activity and practices,” according to a leaked document from the U.K. Home Office. Abramovich has for years denied any charges of wrongdoing.
This week the Russian-Israeli tycoon traveled to Belarus, where he was reportedly involved in efforts to broker a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. It remains unclear whether potential sanctions will be imposed on him or what impact they would have on Kinoprime, a fund that Abramovich has financed through 2022.
Global industry has tough moral choices ahead
The intersection of art, money and politics is hardly unique to the Russian film business. Yet many in the global film industry are now faced with stark moral choices about how to engage with Russian filmmakers. The European Film Academy announced on Tuesday it had joined “the massive global sanctions currently in effect against Russia and fully supports the call of the Ukrainian Film Academy to boycott Russian film,” adding that it would exclude Russian films from this year’s European Film Awards.
In urging producers to terminate any business dealings with “business entities of the Russian Federation,” the Ukrainian Film Academy drew a line in the sand. “Remember that the business that will use your films pays taxes to the Russian budget, which finances the army that violated the borders of an independent state and buys missiles to bomb the civilian population of Europe,” the group said in its statement.
Such difficult moral questions, however, have underpinned Russian cinema dating back to the Soviet era; for decades, Russian filmmakers have grappled with how to live with, confront, and make art under a repressive system. Many industry professionals across Europe are showing support for their Russian counterparts, with the Locarno Film Festival saying it would not boycott Russian films at its 2022 edition but rather stand by “freedom of expression and…the cinematographic art in all of its forms.”
Aleksandra Abykova of Berlin-based sales outfit M-Appeal, which is repping Kirill Sokolov’s “No Looking Back” (pictured), one of the two Russian films pulled by Glasgow programmers, said that “a blanket ban or boycott of artists from the country would mean silencing even those rare voices and will not contribute to peace.
“I believe that art is beyond nationalities and in every autocratic regime or dictatorship there are and will be voices critical of the system, who are also risking their freedom and livelihood by expressing their views,” she said.
M-Appeal CEO Maren Kroymann added: “[Films] are an artistic expression of individuals. The films are discussing important subjects in Russian society and tackling current problems, just as in other countries, often critical or subversive. They are important voices that should not be shut.”
Dan Wechsler, of Geneva-based production outfit Bord Cadre Films, which co-produced “Petrov’s Flu” and is partnering again with Russia’s Hype Film on Serebrennikov’s forthcoming “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” stressed that Russian artists shouldn’t bear the blame for the decisions of politicians.
“They are not responsible for what is happening [in Ukraine],” he said. “This is culture. This is art. I don’t see why, for example, any festival should blacklist Russian cinema.” He added: “We have to sustain the voices and the talent in this country.”