MOSCOW — A very British bear has found itself stuck in the middle of a Russian battle between public entertainment and limiting foreign influence.
The day before the animated family film “Paddington 2” was scheduled to debut in cinemas, Russia’s Ministry of Culture postponed the release from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1, sparking backlash from the country’s Association of Cinema Owners. In a Facebook statement on Wednesday, the organization called the decision to delay “Paddington 2” a “gross interference” by the government, and the Ministry of Culture ultimately relented with the film opening in theaters Saturday.
But the incident illustrated Russia’s ongoing initiative to prop up its own film industry, one where nine of 10 films are government-funded and often cast Russia in a positive light. The movie theater is just one domain where the modern Russian system walks a fine line of sheltering citizens from Western ideals that may not agree with President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world and Russia's role in it.
A law allows the Ministry of Culture to bump foreign films, such as “Paddington 2,” if their release dates coincide with that of a locally produced film. The rule was enacted two years ago. At the time, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky seemed to make a veiled threat regarding the content of Russian cinema.
“We won’t fight for every [Russian] film,” he said then. “We will set financial, political or ideological priorities.”
In 2015, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” a movie about Russia produced by Russians, had its release date postponed by the Ministry of Culture even as it was a hit at international film festivals and won a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. The bleak tale of a man’s battle with a corrupt local bureaucrat was criticized as anti-Russian and undermining Putin. In response, Russia outlawed movies “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.” The Ministry of Culture ultimately reversed its course on that legislation, and public curiosity led to the film’s wide release in Russia.
Medinsky said at the time that the characters, shown taking swigs of vodka, “are not Russians,” and that films “filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness over our existence, should not be financed with taxpayers’ money.” Russia banned swearing in arts and media in 2014, which meant that a sanitized version of the film ran in theaters.
“Let all the flowers grow, but we will only water the ones we like,” Zvyagintsev quipped to the Guardian, referencing a quote from Medinsky himself.
The release of “Paddington 2” was not postponed because of its content, but because of what appeared to be an attempt to eliminate some box office competition for the homegrown “Scythian,” a historical drama also scheduled to debut on Jan. 18, and “Going Vertical,” a patriotic Soviet sports flick about the U.S.S.R.’s Olympic basketball triumph over the U.S. team in 1972. Amid heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, “Going Vertical” is now Russia’s highest-grossing film ever.
“We will do everything in the interests of the industry, Russian cinema, but not in the interests of Hollywood,” said Medinsky, according to Interfax.
In its statement, the Russian Association of Cinema Owners said this is not the first time the government has intervened in a movie’s release date, but it found the last-minute nature of the decision especially outrageous, citing economic damage to the theaters and distributors, who had advertised a Jan. 18 date for “Paddington 2.” Tickets that were bought in advance had to be refunded to spectators.
“You, with your own initiatives, have turned the standard state service for issuing a rental certificate into an instrument of censorship,” the Association of Cinema Owners’ statement said.
Several Russian producers, directors and actors penned an open letter arguing that the government support has led to a 120 percent increase in box office revenue for local films since 2011. The practice of granting Russian movies the best release dates while foreign films are occasionally “moved” to a different date is one manifestation of that backing.
Just three years ago, Medinsky considered introducing a cap on the number of movies imported to the country each year, according to the Guardian. Then last year, he proposed to lawmakers that one way to boost the Russian film industry would be to make tickets for foreign movies more expensive than local ones, as the state budget for cinema is less than half of what Hollywood spends on a single blockbuster.
In 2016, just two Russian films, “The Flight Crew” and “Viking,” cracked the country’s top 25 bestsellers, a 17.8 percent share of the $727 million market. In 2017, four films finished in the top 25, not including “Going Vertical,” which is still in theaters and succeeding.
“Viking” came under some scrutiny for how it distinguished between the dirty and violent pagans and the civilized Christians, another ode to the influential Russian Orthodox Church and the government’s agenda. Putin and Medinsky were reportedly among the first viewers, both apparently fans.