Russia Set to Sanction Illegal Screenings of Hollywood Films

By Patrick von Sychowski | January 11, 2023 8:57 am PST

The Russian parliament (Duma) has put forward a proposal for the “compulsory licensing of foreign films.” Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, Hollywood studios have stopped distributing films in Russia. This means that only illegally obtained copies of films such as “The Batman” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” have been screened in some cinemas. The bigger cinema chains have avoided trampling on international copyright law, but the proposed law would enable them to screen Hollywood blockbusters without violating domestic Russian copyright law.

The proposal was unveiled on 9 January by Anton Gorelkin, deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, on his Telegram channel. Under the proposal cinema would still need to set aside money from the box office for the rights holder. However, this would only be paid if and when such distributors resume business relationships with Russia. The rights holders would also not have a say in the revenue share split or the terms under which the films are shown.

“I think this year is the time to put an end to the debate about the mechanism of compulsory licensing of Western films. According to my information, a bill is being discussed that will allow cinemas to legally show the latest foreign films – and not engage in the semi-legal practice of “pre-screening”. Which, according to indirect signs, is popular with viewers.” Gorelkin noted that many Russian cinemas have anyway been screening Hollywood films using quasi-loopholes:

Anton Gorelkin, deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Telegram channel.

A similar proposal was put forward in August of 2022, when bill No. 184016-8 was submitted for consideration by the State Duma, but was withdrawn due to lack of feedback from the Supreme Court and the government. There was fear at the time that such a proposal would harm Russian streaming platforms. The current proposal narrows down the scope to only include cinema screenings of ‘compulsory licensed’ films. Separately, “[t]he deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, Dmytro Gusev, proposed to mark “traitor actors” in films with yellow stars with a special die – like “foreign agents”.” 

The move comes at a time when Russia has had its biggest ever domestic hit with the family film “Cheburashka” releasing over the holiday to gross more than 3.2 billion rubles (USD $46.3 million) as of January 10. It took just nine days to cross three billion rubles, something that the previous record holder “Son of a Rich” only achieved in its 46th day of wide release. However, the film is based on a popular TV character and only faced competition from illegal screenings of “Avatar: The Way of Water” in smaller cinemas. Gorelkin also noted that, “one top-grossing film and even a successful holiday season are not enough to save movie theaters that are in dire straits.” It’s also worth noting that the original “Avatar” film took 3.5 billion rubles when it was released in Russia in 2009.

Dmitry Dyachenko's "Cheburashka" has become the highest-grossest box office film in Russia
Dmitry Dyachenko’s “Cheburashka” has become the highest-grossest box office film in Russia

Russia’s neighbour, and ally in the war against Ukraine, Belarus has already passed a law that permits the violation of international copyright agreements. The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, signed a law on 3 January called “On the limitation of exclusive rights to objects of intellectual property.”

The provisions of the new Belarusian law will come into effect if foreign copyright holders do not give permission or explicitly prohibit the use of their property on the territory of Belarus. In this case, the content will still be distributed in the country, only no one will ask its owners about it.


In addition to feature films for cinema release, the law applies to software, music and television shows. It states that money from the IP should be set aside in a ‘special account’ for three years from the date of enrolment. The law will be in force until 31 December 2024. Belarus is, similarly to the Russian Federation, subject to a boycott by Hollywood studios.

Major cinema chains in Russia have held off from showing Hollywood films without agreements in place – having abandoned plans for coming up with loopholes. Instead they have focused on a mix of Russian films, Soviet-era rereleases, films from India, Korea and Latin America, as well as the ‘parallel import’ of European and US independent films. There are indications that some larger cinemas will start showing “Avatar: The Way of Water” from 12 January onwards, when the holiday season reserved for domestic films, is over. Perfect DCPs with Russian subtitles are believed to have been obtained from cinemas in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Cinemas that are screening the film often do so under a different name and do not advertise or sell tickets for it online, presumably for fear of ending up on a black list in Hollywood.

Patrick von Sychowski
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