As people in much of the world flocked to see Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film “Barbie” this summer, viewers in Russia were left out. At least officially.
Along with other studios, Warner Brothers, the producer of Barbie, stopped releasing movies in Russia shortly after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But that has not stopped Russian viewers from watching Western films. Last year, Russian theaters were openly screening illegal copies of “The Batman” and “Turning Red.”
“Barbie” has been no different, with movie theaters employing a workaround to give audiences access to the Western films they want to watch. Russian cinemas in cities large and small are offering viewers tickets for short films or documentaries, but these come with screenings of the full effervescent, bubblegum-pink “Barbie” film that technically plays during the previews slot. At least 14 theaters in Moscow were openly offering such screenings on their websites on Wednesday, with tickets about 400 to 500 rubles, or $4 to $5.
The screenings are just one example of how Russians have been forced to improvise after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the war, the West imposed a host of sanctions on Russia and companies fled the market. The Kremlin has also discouraged these screenings as Moscow seeks to paint an all-encompassing picture of an existential battle with the West.
Movies produced in the United States made up around 70 percent of the Russian film market before the war, according to state media. Their exit has caused a crisis among Russian movie theaters, whose revenues dropped by 44 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to Russia’s Association of Theater Owners.
The association wrote on its website that it has made repeated pleas to government agencies to issue theaters distribution certificates that allow them to screen films like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” from “unfriendly countries” without the consent of the copyright owners.
But the Ministry of Culture turned down the request, saying that the two films “do not meet the goals and objectives set by the head of state to preserve and strengthen traditional Russian spiritual and moral values,” and that the Russian box office is “saturated” with domestic films anyway.
This year, the Ministry of Culture announced that it would provide financial support only to films focused on one or more of 17 approved themes, including “traditional values”; “heroism” of Russian soldiers in the war with Ukraine; and “the degradation of Europe.” The ministry earmarked 11.6 billion rubles, or $116 million, for film production.
Some domestic films have successfully attracted large audiences. “Cheburashka,” a live-action film based on a popular Soviet cartoon character, became the highest-grossing film at the Russian box office this year, with earnings of about 6.8 billion rubles, or about $68 million.
But others have fallen well below expectations, including “The Witness,” a propaganda film about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that premiered in August and had a budget of 200 million rubles, or $2 million. The film made only 14 million rubles, or about $140,000, at the box office.
“This summer, there isn’t a single major Russian film that could collect even half a billion rubles and enough viewers,” said Roman Isaev, a member of the theater owners’ association, in an interview with Gazeta, a Russian newspaper.
Nevertheless, a Russian short film called “Three Good Deeds” managed to generate 990 million rubles, or nearly $10 million, in ticket sales since January, according to RBC, a Russian business daily. How? “Trailers” played before the 6-minute movie included the full-length movies “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”