Russian Cinemas Resort to Pirated Films to Stay Alive


Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.


Russian theatres are turning to pirated films to stay alive during these trying times – and it may not be working. According to the New York Times, some theatres in Russia have resorted to screening pirated movies to offset the Hollywood sanctions while others are practicing more caution by renting out spaces to show the films to certain individuals, with or without a fee.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hollywood has protested by putting a halt to the release of films in Russian theatres. Netflix suspended its service in Russia, going one step beyond its initial commitment to pause all future projects and acquisitions in the country, thereby putting an indefinite stop to the development of four Russian originals. Shortly after Discovery, WarnerMedia, and Amazon ceased their services in Russia, marking the general suspension of the US film and TV business in Moscow. The harsh sanctions have particularly been interesting because Hollywood has never responded quite so rigorously to a distant war. In fact, to ensure that their films would be released in Nazi Germany, Hollywood used pseudonyms to conceal Jewish identities from the credits during the 1940s.

Russians are avid cinemagoers and are particularly hard-hit by the sanctions. According to the European Audiovisual Observatory, Russia had the highest number of admissions in Europe – 145.7 million in 2021. Moreover, Russia’s cinema market seemed to also be bouncing back since the start of COVID. According to data from the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), represented in the table below, Russia was one of the major territories that performed strongly in its recovery in cinema admissions. Russia saw a 77.7% increase in the box office and a 63.9% increase in admissions in 2021 compared to 2020. Last September, Paul Heth, CEO of Russia’s cinema operator Karo Group, predicted that they would achieve the near $1 billion box office receipts that they saw in 2019, this year. However, the current situation with Ukraine has prevented box office receipts from approaching anywhere close to those figures.

Sally Russia
Image from The International Union of Cinemas (UNIC)

So far, there seems to be no consequences for these illegal showings. In March, Russia reportedly eased its copyright laws in an effect to mitigate sanctions imposed by Western nations, thereby legalizing piracy of several entertainment forms, including films. With the US’ suspension of association with Russian patent offices, the Russian government has announced that its companies will no longer be required to pay patent holders from countries that have sanctioned the country for the use of intellectual property, effectively legalizing piracy throughout the country.

But despite efforts to keep the industry alive, the results have not been encouraging – ticket sales dropped about half in March compared to the same time last year. Moreover, the Association of Theatre Owners has predicted that “at least half the movie theatres in Russia would go out of business in the next two months”. Russia is encountering further issues with screening costs, according to Screen Daily, there has been a sharp increase of about 80% in the cost of lamps and components for projectors, with an estimated 50% of the Russian cinema screens already dark because of the lack of films and equipment. For now, pirated films continue to keep the theatres dimly lit, but it might not be too long before the Russian cinema industry faces a total blackout.

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