As the war in Ukraine grinds on, civil liberties rapidly evaporate, and a currency spirals ever downward, trips to the cinema may be the least of the average Russian’s worries. Hollywood studios pulled its films out of Russia back in March 2022, but that hasn’t stopped many Russians from enjoying them as a vibrant illegal market for screenings of globally popular films such as Barbie and Oppenheimer has emerged in Russia’s largest cities, including Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan.
Anton Dolin, who until recently was editor of Iskusstvo Kino, one of Russia’s oldest and most popular film magazines, was forced to leave the country in 2022 after being targeted by pro-war ultranationalists. Speaking from Riga in Latvia, where he is currently living, Dolin says that the popularity of these screenings reflects the attitudes of Russians who don’t agree with the war, and as a result feel that the removal of Hollywood films is another example of the privileges they once enjoyed being taken away as a result. Going to see Barbie, in a sense, represents a reclaiming of the lifestyle they had before the war. “They see watching Hollywood movies as a right,” he says.
The Hollywood boycott, which began shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, means that Russian cinema chains cannot legally show Hollywood movies. However, this has now likely been breached by circuitous means, despite the studios’ use of digital watermarks to track piracy – either by “leaks” from neighbouring Russian-speaking countries, or by hacks of officially released streams. (Barbie, for example, was released to home entertainment formats in the US and UK on 12 September, and tickets in Russia were reportedly on sale for cinema screenings a couple of days after.) Russia’s Ministry of Culture, which has the power to ban any film, has thrown a further spanner in the works by refusing to license screenings of either film, stating that neither meets the objectives of “preserving and strengthening traditional Russian spiritual values”.
All this was a radical change for what was once one of the largest theatrical markets in the world, as recently as 2019 Russia had the ninth largest box-office revenues outside North America, ahead of Australia and Brazil and not far behind India and Germany. Dolin says it is virtually impossible for anyone outside the Russian police to compile accurate statistics about how common these screenings – a significant “parallel economy” – really are. However, he suggests that the biggest hits, such as Barbie, may have grossed up to $200m in total in Russia.
A filmgoer called Alexei in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s sixth largest city, with whom the Guardian communicated via Reddit, says that romantic notions that screenings take place in heavily guarded underground bunkers, with muscle-bound bouncers, secret passcodes and payments in bitcoin, are way off. It was, he says “a pretty normal movie show”.
Still, things are fairly secretive by conventional standards, according to Viktor from St Petersburg, who spoke to the Guardian via WhatsApp. There are no posters, outdoor advertising or local TV ads as there normally would be for big Hollywood movies. Tickets aren’t advertised on the movie theatre’s websites either, and the only way to find out about the showings is via friends or the cinema’s social media. “A random visitor wouldn’t even know they were showing these films.”
“How the whole thing works is that they technically don’t sell tickets to Hollywood movies; they sell them for Russian movies and show you a Hollywood one as a ‘free preview screening’,” Viktor says. It’s not uncommon for these showings to be advertised on social media under a different name to make things all a little bit less obvious. According to Tatarstan publication Realnoe Vremya Barbie was advertised under the title Speed Dating and Oppenheimer as Dubak by a movie theatre in Moscow, while in the Tatar city of Kazan, Barbie is billed as a “pre-show service” for Boom-Boom, Fisherman’s Daughter. “This is done in order to make it seem as if they don’t earn any money from showing the Hollywood films.”
Viktor says he has seen both Barbie and Oppenheimer, and the audience was mainly young people: teenagers to people in their mid-20s; he suggests around 15-25 will attend on work nights, but much more at the weekend. “I don’t think older people are interested in movies like Barbie, especially in Russia.”
This isn’t the first time that Russians have flocked to underground Hollywood screenings; in a way, this harks back to the traditions of the Soviet era. In the late 1980s, classics such as The Terminator, Nightmare on Elm Street, Aliens and Mad Max were shown illegally all over the Soviet world – although these “video salons” were small rooms playing pirated VHS tapes with amateur voice dubbing, often with a single actor performing almost every character in the movie.
Dolin says that the authorities don’t seem to be cracking down on the current wave of screenings – unlike, say, the banning of Armando Iannucci’s 2017 comedy The Death of Stalin, or the 2006 movie Borat, which was denied a licence for offending the close Russian ally Kazakhstan. More of an issue is whether they fall foul of Russian morality laws, which have strict regulations curtailing the promotion of what they call “LGBT propaganda” – though both Viktor and Alexei say the “Ken’s kiss” scene in Barbie was shown unaltered in the screenings they attended.
The popularity of Barbie and Oppenheimer contrasts sharply with that of state-backed movie The Witness, released earlier this year. Having received funding from the Russian government, The Witness showed the war in Ukraine from a nationalist perspective, attributing many of the most serious attacks, including civilian massacres in Bucha and the shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, to the Ukrainian military. The movie reportedly didn’t attract very many viewers at all, with only four people showing up to its first screening in Minsk in Belarus.
Alexei says he will keep going to illegal screenings in the future, as he is doubtful about the potential of the homegrown Russian movie industry to fill the current void in the market. “I don’t see why I wouldn’t go to another one. For me, as a viewer, nothing has changed much. I almost never watch Russian movies, I’ve never been a fan of our movie industry. A good Russian-made film comes out once in a blue moon.”