With major film publishers halting their distribution in Russia, many movie theaters have become deserted. But that has given other forms of cultural entertainment a breath of fresh air
Most Russians haven’t seen the biggest films of 2022, at least not at the movies – the new ‘Top Gun’, that Elvis biopic, the most recent MCU installments – and they’ve never had the chance to take part in the bizarre “going to see the new ‘Minions’ in a suit” trend. The cutoff of the Russian market happened so quickly, with publishers pulling the plug on their projects overnight. These companies threw away all of the work that they and their contractors had already done on these releases. Translations into Russian had been made, the marketing was in, and the films were ready for rollout. There is no doubt that the decision to stop showings was expensive for all parties. There is no doubt that there were urgent high-level meetings discussing what is more financially devastating: scrapping all that was done and paid for, or going through with releases and facing the possible outcry and boycotts in the West.
Since March, most movie theaters have hardly seen any business. It’s not all bad, though – Moscow cinemas, for example, were subsidized by the city to screen Russian-made movies. Soviet classics returned to the big screen in some theaters. Some suggested including Indian and Korean productions given their popularity both in the past and today. But this has yet to produce any meaningful projects or engagement, and the theaters still have very little to offer their viewers.
It is not clear what fate awaits the majority of movie venues in Russia. Turns out, there may have been too many of them, and many possibly had a business model that was unsustainable without a steady flow of Hollywood projects. There are rumors of using the parallel import strategy, making unofficial translations with the same actors who usually voiced the characters and restoring the repertoire, at least in part. But for now, there are some obvious legal hurdles to overcome first, and, for the theaters, every idle day counts.
In the meantime, a trend started emerging – all of a sudden plays were getting more attendees than usual, along with zoos and museums. To my surprise, there was an almost sold-out screening at the Moscow planetarium about how the universe can be seen in UV or IR light. And it was a regular showing on a regular Thursday, just like in any movie theater. The only difference was that it was not about superheroes or a cliche love triangle, but about the world we live in. And you could walk around and see an exhibition on the history of space exploration while you waited for the film to start. It was basically a school field trip. And people were thrilled to go!
For many Russians, this sudden detox from Western entertainment – which had basically taken over the space – feels like a much-needed and much-deserved break. Many people are using this to expand their outlook on life, to learn that there are other countries whose culture has so much to offer, and rightly so. For example, the Spanish-Argentinian comedy ‘Official Competition’ managed to gross more in Russia than in the US, and even more than in its native Spain! Looks like not everyone likes to see the same action films with the same characters again and again … or at least many are open to alternatives, if they can only be seen behind the mainstream’s bright marketing.
Jokes have been made that by taking away superhero movies and fast-food chains, the West is only making Russians more cultured and educated – and there may just end up being some truth to it. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with stuffing your face with popcorn while watching a movie with clear moral instructions on which character is good or bad and where to feel sad or proud. Such is entertainment – it’s a form of escapism from your woes and a way to relax. But it is nice to see that, for once, the scales are not so one-sided, and that more people are finding other ways to spend their evening and enjoy something deeper.