Four takeaways from Hollywood’s boycott of Russia
After Russian troops began invading Ukraine, Hollywood rallied in protest. The major studios have suspended the release of films in Russian theaters. Netflix has suspended operations in the country, halting future productions and acquisitions. This week, Discovery, WarnerMedia and Amazon ceased their services in Russia. The American film and television industry has effectively and collectively unplugged Moscow.
Not allowing Russian audiences to see the latest iteration of Batman may seem like an inconsequential response to a serious international crisis. But cinema is a form of soft power, and American film historians have told me the boycott could have broad implications at home and abroad. Here are four of their biggest takeaways:
Hollywood is more willing to respond to international crises now than before.
Given the challenges America’s home entertainment industry — the effects of the pandemic on production, faltering theatrical activity — its response to a distant war is significant, according to UCLA School film historian Jonathan Kuntz. of Theatre, Film and Television. “Hollywood feels it has an obligation to take a stand,” he told me. “I don’t think Hollywood necessarily always felt that way, except when [Americans] were actually waging a war… This may be less like what we’ve seen in the past, and may be a harbinger of what we’re going to see more of in the future.
Indeed, in its relatively brief history, Hollywood has generally been slow to respond to foreign conflict. In the past, studios were more inclined to play a role if the United States was directly involved and normally contributed by working with the government on the home front. During the 1940s, auteur directors such as Frank Capra helped make educational and propaganda films, theaters sold war bonds, and stars helped rally public opinion. And yet, the companies kept exporting projects to Nazi Germany, going so far as to use pseudonyms to hide Jewish names in the credits to ensure the distribution of their titles. The current response to Russia demonstrates “much more willingness…to intervene very early,” said Joshua First, associate professor of history and international studies at the University of Mississippi. He added that supporting Ukraine corresponds to American public opinion, which today can benefit an industry as visible as Hollywood. “It’s almost like part of their business model at this point is to be morally assertive.”
The boycott is largely symbolic for Hollywood, but it will nonetheless have adverse consequences because of its target.
Russia isn’t Hollywood’s biggest foreign market – it ranked ninth in 2019 in foreign box office receipts, far behind China and Japan – but America has long inspired Hollywood’s efforts. Russia to build its own entertainment industry. “There has always been a fascination in Russia with Hollywood,” said Rachel Morley, associate professor of Russian cinema at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union attempted to create its own “cinema city”, she said; the state studied the Hollywood model and tried to imitate it at home. Although Soviet films began to bear a strong resemblance to American films—Morley points out that Soviet musicals draw heavily on Busby Berkeley’s—the project failed, and no such production center was ever established. The current rejection of Hollywood must sting, she noted, for a film industry that has long drawn inspiration from American cinema. “When the big Hollywood movies don’t come out,” she said, “Russians feel [the weight of] this.”
The Russian film industry will suffer as online piracy soars.
After the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian film industry roughly disintegrated in the 1990s. In 1995, the country was the lowest ranked in Europe for ticket sales per capita; in 1996, on average, only one in five Moscow residents made a single visit to the cinema. Given the failing economy, Russian audiences could not afford to watch movies on a regular basis.
According to Morley, the boycott could lead to a similar decline. Unlike China, Russia needs a constant influx of Hollywood films to sustain its film business. Russian cinema slowly recovered after the 1990s when the state began funding local cinema, but imports from Hollywood continued to dominate theaters. In fact, American films have accounted for at least 70% of the country’s exhibition activity over the past 10 years. “The boycott will wipe out those profits,” Morley said. She added that young audiences, the population most likely to go to the cinema, are also those who are most likely to be opposed to the invasion of Ukraine and therefore less interested in films produced by the State. “The infrastructure to make films, to distribute films, to show films is going to start collapsing because of the lack of money.” Moreover, she noted, “Russians already know how to find [Hollywood] films illegally. And with the country reportedly relaxing its copyright laws, piracy of American entertainment could become the norm.
Russia’s talent flight could be Hollywood’s gain.
For Russian filmmakers, the boycott was a blow. International film festivals such as Cannes will almost certainly not screen Russian titles, even if Russian directors and producers are not officially banned from attending. Because the Kremlin funds most projects shot in Russia, even those protesting the war may not have their work accepted. And being seen on a global platform is important for such talent: for example, director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who is often credited with helping restore the reputation of Russian cinema in the 2000s, continued his career after his drama The return won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. Yet even his 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Leviathanwho criticized and tackled social issues in his native country, was forced to take state funding.
The solution for such talent is obvious: leave Russia and make films elsewhere. “We’re going to see an exodus from Russia to Hollywood…as we saw in the 1930s, from Germany to Hollywood,” First said, referring to filmmakers who fled west in the 1930s. preceding the start of World War II. “If Russians want to maintain their career, they will come to Hollywood.” For Morley, that migration is likely already underway: Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a law punishing anyone who calls for sanctions against Russia, a move that places household names such as the actor and director Danila Kozlovsky in potential danger. Kozlovsky in late February posted a statement on Instagram calling on Putin to end the invasion; he and anyone like him who criticizes the war will probably want to leave Russia, Morley explained, if they intend to produce films without Kremlin oversight. “There might well be a lot of resistance to continuing to work if they are told that they can only make films if they are [pro-war]because it’s a return to the Soviet system,” she said.
Not every Russian filmmaker will want to leave or be able to. Morley named Fyodor Bondarchuk and Nikolai Lebedev as directors who have done state support projects in the past and who could continue their work in the country. At the same time, she explained, emerging artists could redefine what independent Russian cinema looks like. “I wonder if we might see creative responses in Russia to [the invasion]if there are young people who have stayed and have aspirations to make films,” she said. “We all have smartphones… Young people are savvy, right? They know how to distribute things online. In other words, the Russian film industry may be in danger, but its storytelling doesn’t have to be.