Russian cinemas go pirate as Hollywood films dry up

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

After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal assault on Ukraine on February 24 – a war officially labeled a “special military operation” – hundreds of major Western companies, including Hollywood majors, pulled out of the market. Russian.

More than three months into the war, reports are surfacing of illicit showings of Hollywood films in Russian cinemas, with initial reports naming ‘The Batman’, ‘Red Notice’, Disney animation ‘Turning Red’ and Michael Bay’s crime actor “Ambulance.”

According to the Russian edition of Esquire, “The Batman” was screened at the WIP Theater in Moscow, as well as at the Greenwich Cinema in the city of Urlas in 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, Russia’s Far East, screened ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ and ‘The Batman’ under various Russian-language titles, according to a report in the online media Life.ru. These titles differed from the standard titles of these films but were still recognizable. Handwritten tickets were sold to viewers.

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

The resurgence of piracy in Russia comes after the practice was virtually eradicated during the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s. RAPO, an MPAA-backed anti-piracy organization made up of former security service officials , had major success in the fight against piracy in the early 2000s, targeting retailers and manufacturers of illicit records and tapes.

Although the current practice is not yet widespread, it still proves to be a source of concern for distributors and exhibitors in Russia.

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

Oleg Berezin, who runs a St Petersburg-based film industry analysis firm – 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 majors to pull their releases from Russia in early March dealt a blow to Russian cinemas, he said, with RACO figures showing that more than 300 cinemas closed in April, while in least 50% of those that are still in operation are at risk of closing. down over the next two months.

“After a few difficult 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 have decided to put money into what is effectively an escrow account, pending possible new laws making this legal in Russia. In other cases, pirate screenings were simply organized by companies or individuals who rented rooms, the 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 also claimed tickets were only sold for drinks and refreshments – with the screening being a free perk to show up.

Although some members of the Russian parliament have called for the legalization of piracy, more moderate members have pushed for legal recognition of force majeure and to allow cinemas to screen pre-licensed films and pay the fees due into an account. held captive.

The issue of films that had 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 some 95 million people between the ages of 10 and 70 living in urban areas with cinemas actually go to the cinema every week,” Berezin added.

Another problem is the pipeline 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. Still, 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 quit RACO in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noted that all theaters now showing pirated copies of Hollywood and other films will be blacklisted in the future.

So far, Russian state authorities have done nothing about the alleged hacker screenings.

Pavel Ponikarovsky, co-founder of RACO who remains a member of the organization, said Variety that the pirate screenings 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. fare. in Russia, suggested that measures to legalize screenings in cases of force majeure would allow Russian cinemas to screen Hollywood films.

“Hollywood films accounted for 80% of the Russian box office,” he said in a recent podcast interview. “Why should we give up? Technically, there could be an alternative exhibition of Hollywood films.

“We can open an account in a Russian bank and royalties for film screenings will accumulate in this account. Whether [rights holders] take rubles, we can pay them in full, because the exhibition will continue legitimately, just without their consent.

However, this scheme has some problems, Ponikarovsky said: “It would be a complicated model, and we don’t yet understand how it could work. The distributors provided us with professional quality products, [dubbed] film copies. Where would theaters get content now? Download from torrent trackers? The quality would be very poor.

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


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