Half of Russia’s Cinemas Under Threat of Closure

By Patrick von Sychowski | April 28, 2022 10:49 am PDT

Russia’s cinema trade body has warned that around half of the country’s cinemas are under threat of closure following the economic sanctions against the country due to the ongoing war in Ukraine which saw Hollywood halt the release of new films. The Russian Association of Theater Owners has pointed to a dramatic fall in revenue, with films from other markets not able to make up for the shortfall, while appealing to the Russian state for aid. The association has also warned against the illegal screening of films without license or agreement.

According to the trade body the number of cinemas operating in Russia has fallen from 2,161 sites with 5,709 screens in January of this year to just 3,633 screens by 18 April, which is a drop of 36.4%. Box office and attendance figures for March 2022 dropped 44% and 49% respectively compared to the same month the previous year and 54% and 59% compared to March 2019. “A critical lack of repertoire in the next two months will lead to a drop in cinema revenue by more than 80% and will lead to the closure of at least 50% of cinemas,” the trade body said in a statement.

Russian cinemas have tried to fill the gap from a lack of Hollywood titles with films from Asia and Latin America, as well as re-releases of recent Russian and classic Soviet-era films, such as a restored version of “Ivan’s Childhood”. However, the experience of the release of Russian, Korean and Indian films in the past months is said to have been able to compensate no more than around than 10% of the loss from the absence of Hollywood films. A cumulative loss of RUB 11.1 billion (USD $154.7 million) is expected for 2022 on the current trajectory, with the total market just RUB 6.142 billion (USD $86 million).

The trade body points out that the industry currently employs around 35,000 people. It also warns that the closure of cinemas will lead to “the cessation of life of the entire film industry.” The Association has appealed to the Russian state for aid to help it through this crisis. It has also published a guide on its website about how cinemas can reduce costs by renegotiating leases or shift staff to part-time work.

“Decisions to save film screenings must be made within the next 30 days. Otherwise, by the end of the summer there will be no one to save, and we will lose the industry, for the modernization of which and the production of content for it over 10 years, more than 60 billion rubles were spent from the budget of the Russian Federation. The restoration of the entire industry in the event of a closure will require more time and significantly higher financial costs on the part of the state.”

Some Russian cinemas have taken to screening Hollywood films illegally, according to Russian business newspaper Kommersant. Warner Bros’ “The Batman” was recently shown in Greenwich Cinema in Yekaterinburg. According to the newspaper, “The organizers reported that it was a pirated copy and called such a premiere an art performance and an artistic commentary on the withdrawal of foreign film companies from the Russian market.”

Warner Bros’ “The Batman” – not showing (officially) in Russia.

Tickets to it cost between RUB 300 to 500 (USD $4.18 to $6.97). In addition there were also reported screening of the Disney/Pixar film “Turning Red”. The most recent Hollywood films to still be shown legally was “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, which was sold by distributor A24 in February before the latest Russian agression against Ukraine. Cinemas try to distance themselves form the illegal screening of film by saying that it was done by organisers renting an auditorium (so-called ‘four walling’) and that they are not responsible for the content shown.

This has prompted the Association to publish a warning on 26 April to cinemas against screening films without agreement or licence. It warns ominously that “illegal public screenings of pirated, or rather, stolen, copies of films in cinemas takes the Russian cinema business out of the legal field and returns us to the dark days of the illegal business of the 90s of the last century.” It ends the statement in a strongly worded message: “We condemn the practice of illegal screening of films in Russian cinemas and call on the entire professional film community to prevent such practices.”

The head of Russia’s cinema trade body, Oleg Berezin, resigned shortly after Russia’s renewed attack on Ukraine and would only stay on in a caretaker capacity until a replacement had been appointed. A Russian judge had recently ruled that the animated character Peppa the Pig could be freely copied in Russia without falling foul of copyright law, in a direct retaliation against Western sanctions imposed on Russia. Peppa Pig owner, the Hasbro-owned Entertainment One (eOne) had brought a lawsuit against a Russian copy of Peppa, which the judge in Kirov dimissed, “due to the “unfriendly actions of the United States of America and affiliated foreign countries.” There is a worry that films could be the next victims of copyright violations sanctioned by Russian authorities.

At a recent CinemaCon panel Warner Bros. President of International Theatrical Distribution acknowledged that Russia made up around 5% of the company’s global boxoffice on average, according to Deadline. The war “is a tragedy that’s happening. Over the last couple of years, we’ve all learned to live with uncertainty. Including theaters being shut around the world. This is for a different reason, and we have to hope there is some semblance of a solution,” he told the assembled audience at CinemaCon.

Patrick von Sychowski
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