Russian cinemas go pirated as Hollywood movies dry up

Russian cinemas responded to international sanctions over the war in Ukraine by becoming pirates.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a brutal attack on Ukraine on February 24 – a war officially dubbed a “special military operation” – hundreds of major Western corporations, including those in Hollywood, withdrew from the Russian market.

More than three months after the start of the war, reports are emerging of illicit showings of Hollywood films in Russian cinemas, with initial reports naming “The Batman”, “Red Notice”, Disney animation “Turning Red” and Michael Bay “Ambulance”. ”.

According to the Russian edition of Esquire, “The Batman” was shown at the WIP theater in Moscow, as well as at the Greenwich Cinema in the Urlas city of Yekaterinburg and at regional theaters in the Russian Far East.

The latest reports indicate that pirate displays are becoming more sophisticated to evade detection: a cinema in Vladivostok, Russia’s Far East, screened “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and “The Batman” under different titles in Russian, according to with a report on the online news channel Life.ru. These titles differed from the standard titles of these films, but were still recognizable. Handwritten tickets were sold to spectators.

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

The resurgence 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 made up of former security service personnel, has had great success in combating to piracy in the early 2000s, targeting retailers and manufacturers of illicit discs and tapes.

While the current practice is believed not to be widespread yet, it is still proving to be a cause for concern among distributors and exhibitors in Russia.

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

Oleg Berezin, who runs a film industry analysis company based in St. Petersburg – and until February 27 was president 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 film in Russia.

The decision by Hollywood bigwigs to withdraw their releases from Russia in early March was a huge blow to Russian cinemas, he said, with RACO figures showing that more than 300 theaters closed in April, while at least 50% of those that still operating are at risk of closing. down in the next two months.

“After a difficult few years due to the pandemic, distributors and exhibitors were suddenly faced with another challenge – how to respond to a situation where sanctions were quickly imposed,” Berezin said. Variety.

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

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

While there had been demands from some members of the Russian parliament to legalize piracy, more moderate members were pushing for a legal recognition of force majeure and allowing theaters to show pre-licensed films and pay fees owed into an escrow account.

The issue of films that have not yet been licensed was more complicated, Berezin said.

“The main business problem currently facing exhibitors in Russia is low attendance – only 5% of a potential audience of around 95 million people aged 10-70 who live in urban regions with cinemas go to the cinema weekly,” he added. Berezin.

Another issue is the stream of films arriving in Russian cinemas. Although the Russian Ministry of Culture has given strong support to domestic producers, many prefer to make low-budget TV movies. However, what the industry needs to survive the sanctions, Berezin said, is stronger support for Russian films, rather than the Hollywood fare that most movie chains have favored in recent years.

Berezin, who left RACO in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noted that any theaters showing pirated copies of Hollywood and other films will now be blacklisted in the future.

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

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

Alexei Ryazantsev, managing director of distributor Karo Premier, which until recently distributed Warner Bros. in Russia, suggested that measures to legalize showings in case of force majeure would allow Russian cinemas to show Hollywood films.

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

“We can open an account with a Russian bank and the royalties from the showing of films will accrue in that account. if [rights holders] receive rubles, we will be able to pay them in full, as the exhibition will continue in a completely legitimate manner, only without their consent.”

However, this scheme has some problems, said Ponikarovsky: “This would be a complicated model, and we still don’t understand how it could work. Distributors used to provide us with professional quality, [dubbed] movie copies. Where would theaters get content now? Download from torrent trackers? The quality would be really bad.”

It also raised the question of how authorities could regulate the situation, Ponikarovsky added, before concluding: “There are a lot of question marks here.”

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