With all the recent turmoil in Russia, there was bound to be some spillover to the entertainment industry. But are reports of a draft bill to set a 50% limit on the amount of Hollywood movies imported per annum worth getting upset over just yet? Executives I’ve spoken to in the past day don’t think so.
While Hollywood already faces a quota system in China, and while Russia seems to be acting at will these days, it would be premature to sound any alarm bells in Tinseltown, I’m told. The bill being readied at the State Duma on limiting Hollywood imports was written by Deputy Robert Schlegel of the United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin. His view, according to the Izvestia daily, is that “We basically show American films that promote the stereotypes, national interests and values of the United States… Many of these are low quality. Russia can produce its own films, which will be interesting to viewers.”
A bill aiming to cap foreign films at 20% was unsuccessful last year, and it looks unlikely a move to limit them to 50% would go forward, although Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has previously made noise about cracking down on Hollywood hegemony. Never say never, but one studio exec I spoke with feels it “doesn’t sound realistic.” Russian exhibitors, “would all be pissed off. They don’t have the movies” to fill the void that would be created. The same person added that if the aim were to blow back at the U.S. for its recent sanctions against certain officials over action in Ukraine, there are bigger fish to fry like the energy or automobile sector. “It would piss us off… It would hurt Hollywood, but doesn’t hurt America.”
Outside potential political posturing, a key consideration is that the local Russian industry isn’t developed enough to make up for a deficit of U.S. movies. The biggest hit in Russian history was last year’s Stalingrad; a handful of other local movies made the Top 50, and Russian market share was about 17.4%. Undeniably, the local industry was juiced by the success of Stalingrad, but I’m cautioned that it was based on a historical event that has been used before as source material. “There aren’t that many massive properties. They can’t keep working through the same one. It’s not an industry that’s ready to pop up,” says an observer. Art-house movies make the festival rounds, but one of the local industry’s most commercially successful filmmakers, Timur Bekmambetov, despite continuing to work in Russia, also helms Hollywood movies. Further, Russia doesn’t have the same kind of censorship issues that a country like China has. Russians are used to Hollywood movies being available. Whether tastes change due to a rising tide of nationalism will need to be played out. The bill won’t be presented for about another two weeks.
So far this year, Universal’s English-language local title VIY 3D is the top-grossing movie in Russia — but Hollywood films are still big at the box office. Russia is considered a fast-burn market because movies open hot and cool off quickly. Increasingly, however, Russia turns up as one of the key ex-U.S. territories for Hollywood films — that’s been the case recently with Need For Speed and 300: Rise Of An Empire. Fox’s Rio 2 opened in Russia and Ukraine last weekend to a soaring $10.43M, and Paramount’s Noah is released there tomorrow.
Chris Marcich, who is president of the Motion Picture Association, Europe, says, “This is a very emotional time,” in Russia. But, “The studios have been very supportive of Russian cinema” and the rapid expansion of movie theaters. “If you look over the past quarter, Russian films have been doing very well. There’s no interest in restricting the market from a Russian point of view or from the point of view of the studios.” The local government, I’m told, has been taking a “level-headed view towards developing the market. From their own point of view it wouldn’t make a lot of sense” to impose quotas. Also, Russia has been moving up the charts of the world’s biggest box office territories. It’s expected to land among the top five markets, leapfrogging Britain and France, by 2017, and it’s hard to believe they would want to see that growth stymied.
Meanwhile, reports that Hollywood studios are refusing the release of their films in the Crimea appear to be misleading. Marcich says, “There is no question of not servicing Crimea or Russia.” It’s a transition period, he allows. “The reality is changing and somebody has to figure out where the licenses apply and how exhibitors are serviced. There are technical issues to be sorted out… issues that will naturally occur” in this type of situation. But, he says, “There is no question of studios boycotting any country… The MPA is certainly not involved in or encouraging anything of the sort.” I understand that in some cases exhibitors in the Crimea have asked for Russian-language prints of films from studio reps in Moscow but have been referred back to their usual partners in Ukraine, who have the right only to license Ukrainian-language prints. That may be causing some of the confusion. As one person put it, “When a region belongs to one country on a Monday and changes by Friday, there’s bound to be some overlap,” in what is clearly an awkward situation.