Hollywood Is Still in Bed With Putin’s Pariah State — and the Russian Box Office Is Booming

The war in Ukraine has taken center stage this week at the Berlin Film Festival, which is taking place for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.

At Thursday’s opening ceremony, Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy appeared via satellite to encourage festival-goers “not to remain silent” over Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression. Sean Penn, who this week premiered his docu-portrait of the Ukrainian leader, “Superpower,” lashed out at Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who he described as a “war criminal” and a “creepy little bully.”

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Moral outrage has not been in short supply since the start of the war, as the global film community — in a show of near unanimous condemnation of the Kremlin’s criminal attack — has rallied behind the Ukrainian war effort. But many U.S. and foreign companies quietly continue to do business with Putin’s pariah state or have resumed the deal-making that was put on pause once the war began.

Though Hollywood tentpoles were pulled from Russian cinemas in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, more than 140 U.S. films were released in Russia last year after the war began, according to data from Russia’s Cinema Fund, which tracks ticket sales at the country’s exhibitors.

After teetering on the brink of collapse after last winter’s Hollywood pull-out, the Russian box office is nevertheless off to its best start ever, with January going down as the exhibition industry’s highest-grossing month of all time.

Guy Ritchie’s spy action comedy “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” released globally by STXinternational, and action-thriller “Plane” (pictured, top) currently rank among the 10 top-grossing films of 2023 in Russia, according to Box Office Mojo data. More than 130 international titles are so far slated for release this year.

A rep for STXinternational declined to comment for this story. When asked about the Russia releases of Lionsgate titles including Jennifer Lopez starrer “Shotgun Wedding,” a company spokesperson declined to comment, though a person familiar with the matter told Variety that the company has paused new business with Russia but continues to honor contracts signed before the war with entities not facing international sanctions.

Three Thousand Years of Longing
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” grossed more than $4.3 million in Russian cinemas last year.

Other companies, however, have been inking new deals since the war began. A major U.S. sales agency maintained it was not doing business with any “Russia-based entities,” but acknowledged that films sold to third-party distributors could wind up in Russian cinemas. FilmNation, meanwhile, whose “Three Thousand Years of Longing” grossed more than $4.3 million last year at the Russian box office, according to Box Office Mojo, says it defers to its content producers to decide if they want to release their films in the country.

Despite a raft of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe against Russian oligarchs and businesses with Kremlin ties, there are no laws prohibiting American companies from doing business with Russian entities not on the sanctions list. Many leading Russian distribution companies have set up shop or already had bases elsewhere in Europe, allowing them to sidestep a freeze on international payments from Russian banks when signing foreign contracts.

The Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Market followed in the footsteps of Cannes, Venice and other festivals in allowing independent Russian filmmakers and industry reps to participate at this year’s event while banning those affiliated with or supporting the Putin regime.

Top Russian distributors have punched their tickets to Berlin, with at least half a dozen companies taking meetings outside official EFM venues. Despite public grandstanding, it seems “more and more companies who were not working with Russian distributors decided to start again,” said Daniel Goroshko, of arthouse distributor A-One, which released Ruben Östlund’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning “Triangle of Sadness” in Russian cinemas last December.

Among European sales agents reached by Variety, several said they categorically refuse to work with Russian buyers, though others are still willing to deal with long-standing clients that have no ties to the Putin regime.

French sellers, meanwhile, haven’t been shy about their Russia dealings: Last month, a group of French sales agents banded together to cover hotel costs for Russian distribution companies attending Unifrance’s Rendez-Vous in Paris.

Russia was the third-biggest international market for French films in 2022, with 2.6 million admissions, according to Unifrance, after ranking in the top two each of the previous three years. Pathé’s swashbuckling epic “The Three Musketeers” is among the high-profile French titles slated for theatrical release in Russia in the coming months.

The Three Musketeers
Pathé’s “The Three Musketeers” will be released in Russian cinemas.

One French sales agent who asked not to be named defended the industry’s position to Variety, noting that a complete blackout of foreign films will only serve to further isolate Russia — including the many Russian citizens who object to the Ukraine war — from the international community. “This is what Putin wants,” they said.

In fact, the Russian industry has found no shortage of willing partners eager to do business with what was the world’s sixth-largest theatrical market in 2021.

In India, which continues to buy oil from Russia and has steadfastly refused to denounce the Ukraine war, Russian companies were out in force at the Film Bazaar market in Goa last November, where film promotion body Roskino and the Moscow Export Center hosted two pavilions for Russian executives looking to court local partners. (Both state-backed bodies are banned from the European Film Market.)

Meanwhile, top production and distribution outfit Central Partnership, which is owned by Gazprom-Media, recently inked a pact with leading distributor Four Star Films to bring a slate of Russian titles to cinemas across the Middle East and North Africa. Central Partnership CEO Vadim Vereschagin said the company is also bringing its “whole slate” to Latin America, where there is a robust appetite for Russian action-thrillers and other genre films.

That much of the global film industry continues to do business with Putin’s Russia casts the public posturing of the past year in sharp relief. Nevertheless, many filmmakers insist they won’t budge on their anti-Russia stance when the stakes are so high.

Sean Penn  "Superpower"
Sean Penn is in Berlin to promote his pro-Ukraine documentary “Superpower.”

Asked by Variety in Berlin how he would feel to have his unapologetically pro-Ukraine “Superpower” released in Russian cinemas, Penn was defiant, maintaining that “there is no room for anything that involves [a single] ruble” changing hands in the global entertainment industry.

Ukrainian producer and distributor Denis Ivanov echoed that sentiment, drawing a direct line between the deals Russian film companies are inking with Hollywood and other foreign partners and the weapons laying waste to his country.

Noting that Russian taxpayers are directly financing the war effort, Ivanov called for a blanket ban on all deals with the Russian industry, insisting that’s the only way “to stop the massive killing in Ukraine.”

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