Yet for the last 18 months, multiple threats to legalize piracy of Western movies have not only faltered, but have thus far reached no obvious conclusion. From former president Dimitry Medvedev who called for mass piracy out of spite, to reluctant cinema workers with no movies to screen but families to feed, the value of Hollywood’s movies was there for the taking.
At what point the conversation changed isn’t clear, but at least in the media there appears to be momentum building against the idea that piracy of Western content would be good for Russia. It seemed to take much longer than it should have, but the realization that a Western content free-for-all would hurt demand for local content arrived eventually, right in the middle of nothing out of the ordinary on the piracy front.
Piracy Plan Receives Little Support
Among those in favor of state-sanctioned piracy of Western content is Alexei Sinitsyn, the First Deputy Head of the Federation Council Committee on Economic Policy.
After being hit by Western sanctions, Sinitsyn and department head Andrei Kutepov prepared a bill that would deny foreign rightsholders protection under the Civil Code, if they refused to grant licenses for their movies to be shown legally in Russia.
The proposals included shipping unlicensed foreign films in via Belarus and issuing them with a Russian distribution certificate, regardless of paperwork. The Ministry of Culture didn’t like the idea, ostensibly because that would violate foreign rightsholders’ exclusive rights.
According to a report published Tuesday, these piracy proposals face new objections on both legal and moral grounds.
Cinema Fund: We Oppose the Plan
Cinema Fund (Фонд Кино) is a body through which the Russian government funds movies and TV shows that benefit the state. The official line is that Cinema Fund supports local filmmaking and “provides conditions” for creating high-quality films “that meet national interests.”
Interestingly, Cinema Fund’s position on Sinitsyn’s failing piracy plan, outlined in a letter seen by Izvestia, suggests that overt piracy of Western movies isn’t viewed as acceptable.
“The implementation of any mechanisms for legalizing the display of audiovisual content without the consent of the copyright holders (‘piracy’) creates additional legal and reputational risks, [and] currently seems inappropriate,” writes Cinema Fund Executive Director, Fedor Sosnov.
Moral Values vs. Good Movies
It transpires that copyright is just one of the reasons behind Cinema Fund’s decision to oppose piracy of foreign content.
Sosnov’s letter states that allowing distribution of foreign films risks “providing access to content on the territory of the Russian Federation that is contrary to the fundamentals of state policy to preserve and strengthen traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.”
Given that escapism is why people love movies in the West (and perhaps why just one film supported by Cinema Fund turned a profit in 2022), Roman Isaev of the Council of the Association of Cinema Owners is clear: Russians want blockbuster foreign films and if local cinemas can’t offer them, they won’t survive.
“The Cinema Fund and the Ministry of Culture have a well-established, formulated position of protecting the interests of Western copyright holders, following in line with the Geneva and Vienna conventions for the protection of copyright,” Isaev says.
“For some reason, they believe that in the current geopolitical situation and pressure on Russia, our country must sacredly support and comply with all requirements for copyright protection.”
Russian Cinema Industry on the Brink
In comments published by NSN, AVK member Comscore said that if Russia’s film industry is to survive, it needs an injection of at least 40 billion rubles. To get properly back on track, around 60 billion rubles (around $629 million)
“The viewer determines the success or failure of a particular film and the state of the industry as a whole. He wants to watch world blockbusters, as they are shown in the cinemas of the CIS countries, appear on the news agenda, in particular, the sensational ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’,” Isaev adds.
“Russian cinemas cannot offer them. Some of the viewers will go to see a Russian film or foreign films that are legally available, but most will watch a pirated copy on the Internet.”
Copyright disputes have a tendency to become more complicated as the stakes increase, but nobody in Russia feels confident enough to address the elephant in the room. Cinema wasn’t collapsing in the hours preceding Thursday, Feb 24, 2022, and answers to the “geopolitical situation” won’t be found during the closing credits of Barbie, paid for or not.