After Russian troops began invading Ukraine, Hollywood mobilized in protest. Major studios paused the release of films in Russian theaters. Netflix suspended operations in the country, halting future productions and acquisitions. This week, Discovery, WarnerMedia, and Amazon ceased their services in Russia. The U.S. film and TV business has, effectively and collectively, pulled the plug on Moscow.
Not allowing the Russian public to see the latest iteration of Batman may seem an inconsequential response to a dire international crisis. But cinema is a form of soft power, and American film historians told me the boycott could have wide-ranging implications at home and abroad. Here are four of their biggest takeaways:
Hollywood is more willing to respond to international crises at this moment than it used to be.
Given the American entertainment industry’s challenges at home—the pandemic’s effects on production, the shaky theater business—its response to a distant war is significant, according to Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “Hollywood is feeling that it has an obligation to take a stand,” he told me. “I don’t think Hollywood necessarily always felt that, except when [Americans] were actually fighting 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 in the future.”
Indeed, in its relatively brief history, Hollywood has typically been slow to respond to foreign conflict. In the past, studios were more inclined to play a part 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 propagandistic films, theaters sold war bonds, and stars helped rally public opinion. And yet, companies didn’t stop exporting projects to Nazi Germany, going so far as to use pseudonyms to hide Jewish names in the credits to ensure that their titles could be released. The current response to Russia proves “a lot more willingness … to step in very early,” Joshua First, an associate professor of history and international studies at the University of Mississippi, said. He added that supporting Ukraine aligns with 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 morally assert themselves.”
The boycott is largely symbolic for Hollywood—but will nevertheless take a toll because of its target.
Russia isn’t Hollywood’s largest foreign market—it ranked ninth in 2019 for foreign box-office revenue, far behind the likes of China and Japan—but America has long inspired Russia’s efforts to build its own entertainment industry. “There’s always been a fascination in Russia with Hollywood,” Rachel Morley, an associate Russian-cinema professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, explained. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union attempted to create its own “cinema city,” she said; the state studied Hollywood’s model and tried to emulate it at home. Though Soviet films began looking a lot like American ones—Morley points to Soviet musicals drawing heavily from Busby Berkeley’s—the project failed, and no such production hub was ever created. Hollywood’s current rejection must sting, she noted, for a film industry that has long taken cues from American cinema. “When big Hollywood movies are not released,” she said, “Russians feel [the weight of] that.”
The Russian film industry will suffer, while online piracy soars.
Following the end of the Soviet Union, Russia’s movie business just about disintegrated in the 1990s. In 1995, the country was the lowest-ranked in Europe in ticket sales per capita; in 1996, on average, only one in five Moscow residents made a single visit to the movie theater. Given the failing economy, the Russian public could not afford to watch movies regularly.
According to Morley, the boycott could lead to a similar decline. Unlike China, Russia requires a steady influx of Hollywood movies to sustain its film business. Russian cinema slowly recovered after the 1990s as the state began funding homegrown filmmaking, but Hollywood’s imports have continued to dominate theaters. In fact, American movies have made up at least 70 percent of the country’s exhibition business for the past 10 years. “The boycott will wipe out those profits,” Morley said. She added that younger audiences, the population that’s more likely to go to theaters, are also the ones more likely to be against the invasion of Ukraine—and therefore less interested in state-produced movies. “The infrastructure for making films, for distributing films, for showing films will start to collapse because of the lack of money.” Besides, she noted, “Russians already know how to find [Hollywood] films illegally.” And with the country reportedly softening its copyright laws, pirating American entertainment may become the standard.
Russia’s talent drain could be Hollywood’s gain.
For Russian filmmakers, the boycott has been a blow. International film festivals such as Cannes almost certainly will not screen Russian titles even though Russian directors and producers aren’t officially barred from participating. Because the Kremlin finances most projects shot in Russia, even those who protest the war may not have their work accepted. And being seen on a global platform is important for such talent: For instance, the director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who is often credited with helping restore Russian cinema’s reputation in the 2000s, furthered his career after his drama The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. Yet even his 2014 Academy Award–nominated film, Leviathan, which criticized and tackled social issues in his native country, was required to take some state funding.
The solution for such talent is obvious: Leave Russia and make movies elsewhere. “We’re going to see an exodus from Russia to Hollywood … the likes of which we saw in the 1930s, from Germany to Hollywood,” First said, referring to the filmmakers who fled west in the years before World War II began. “If Russians want to maintain their career, they’re going to come to Hollywood.” To Morley, this migration is probably already under way: 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, at the end of February, posted a statement on Instagram calling for Putin to end the invasion; he and anyone like him who’s critical of the war will likely want to leave Russia, Morley explained, if they intend to produce films without the Kremlin’s oversight. “There might well be a lot of resistance to keep working if they’re being told they can only make films if they’re [pro-war], because that’s a return to the Soviet system,” she said.
Not every filmmaker in Russia will want to leave or be able to do so. Morley named Fyodor Bondarchuk and Nikolai Lebedev as directors who have made state-supporting projects in the past, and who may continue their work in the country. At the same time, she explained, emerging artists may redefine what independent Russian cinema looks like. “I do wonder whether we might see creative responses in Russia to [the invasion], if there are young people who stayed and who have aspirations to make films,” she said. “We’ve all got smartphones … Young people are savvy, aren’t they? They know how to distribute things online.” In other words, Russia’s movie business may be in danger, but its storytelling doesn’t have to be.