Russian Cinemas Resume Pirated Screenings After Distributors’ Ultimatum Fails

By J. Sperling Reich | May 20, 2024 11:48 am PDT
Piracy in Russian Cinemas

The RBC Group is reporting that Russian cinemas have resumed the practice of showing pirated Hollywood films through “pre-show services,” pairing them with Russian short films, after a month-long attempt by distributors to boost domestic movies fell short of expectations.

Many major film distributors, including Hollywood studios, stopped releasing films in Russia after the country’s military invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February of 2024. It didn’t take long before some cinema chains began showing pirated versions of big global blockbusters.

The Russian Association of Theater Owners (AVK) had proposed eliminating shadow distribution from April 18 to May 12 to “support Russian films.” Several major distributors, including Central Partnership, Karro, and Atmosphere Film, issued an ultimatum, threatening to withhold legal Russian releases if cinemas retained pirated content.

Despite the release of domestic films like “One Hundred Years Ahead,” “Dugout,” and “How I Met Her Mother,” their box office performance was underwhelming. “One Hundred Years Ahead” took nearly a month to cross 1.2 billion rubles (USD $13.2 million), while “Dugout” earned only RUB 104.7 million rubles (USD $1.2 million) against a RUB 426 million ruble budget (USD $4.7 million), and “How I Met Her Mother” made just RUB 36 million rubles (USD $400,000) in its first week.

Russian Films Failing at the Box Office
Pavel Ponikarovsky, head of the Lumen cinema chain and AVK board member, revealed that his company recorded losses in April, with Russian content earning only RUB 2.3 billion rubles (USD $25.4 million) compared to RUB 4.2 billion (USD $46.4 million) in March. “For the first 12 days of May, with a large number of days off and the absence of alternative content, the collections are very sad – RUB 1.1 billion rubles (USD $12.1 million),” he said.

Alexei Voronkov, AVK chairman, admitted that the May holidays’ box office receipts fell short of expectations, with the two four-day weekends bringing in far less than anticipated. Meanwhile Denis Kuskov, head of TelecomDaily agency, believes it’s too early to rely solely on domestic films to fill cinema programming, suggesting the issue can be revisited in a year.

It’s worth noting how the issue has been normalized; not whether a film should be pirated and shown without a license, but whether not doing so will be a detriment to theatre operators. Indeed, Russian Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova praised the record of seven domestic films grossing over a billion rubles since the beginning of 2024, thouygh she had previously threatened sanctions and closures for cinemas illegally showing foreign films.

Cinemas Return to Pre-Show Service
As a result, cinema chains like Cinema5 and Comfort Cinema, along with non-chain cinemas, have resumed offering pre-show services on the posters of films being released 14 May, announcing the screenings of pirated copies of titles like “Planet of the Apes: The New Kingdom,” “The Fall Guy,” “Kung Fu Panda 4,” “Dune: Part Two,” and “Godzilla and Kong: A New Empire.”

Evgeny Safronov, head of InterMedia agency, argues that cinemas are commercial enterprises focused on income, and without world-class content, they may have no choice but pre-show services or closure. “Russia may well create enough world-class content, but now, even in terms of the number of films being made, we are twice behind Nigeria and eight times behind India,” he added, referring to the prolific Nollywood industry.

J. Sperling Reich