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Movie studios are abandoning Russia, a far cry from how they handled Nazi Germany

During World War II, movie studios went to pains not to alienate the Nazis.

The Walt Disney Co.'s Mickey Mouse logo on a fence at the company's studios in Burbank, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine flouts international law and threatens the post-World War II global order. In the past week, the corporate world — from credit card companies to oil giants to social media companies — has taken unprecedented steps to punish Russia economically. And Hollywood studios have also joined the backlash in a way that demonstrates the complexity of navigating the globalizing, interconnected world of 2022 while exposing inconsistencies in how it responded to similar situations in the past.

The entertainment giant Disney announced that, due to the “tragic humanitarian crisis” in Ukraine, it would “pause” its scheduled Russian release of the upcoming Pixar animated feature “Turning Red.” Hours after the Disney announcement, Warner Bros. declared that it was “pausing” its Russian premiere of “The Batman” in response to “the humanitarian crisis.” Sony jumped in minutes later, “pausing” the Russian release of “Morbius.” Then came Paramount, which “paused” “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and the Channing Tatum flick “The Lost City.” Now Netflix paused its service in the country.

Russia is a major market for American films, so such actions will hurt Hollywood’s bottom line. The first “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie earned almost $11 million in Russia. The recent Sony blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home” raked in a staggering $45 million.

Making these moves even more remarkable, the American movie industry has a long history of trying not to anger foreign business partners. Taking sides, therefore, is very much out of step with Hollywood’s history. But the Hollywood giants recognize how much they benefit from global stability. And while Hollywood's “pause” is unlikely to change the war’s outcome beyond dealing another blow to Russian morale, it is a significant statement of the industry’s willingness to risk profits when that stability is imperiled.

Of course, this is not the first time that Hollywood has encountered an aggressively nationalistic dictator who used a fanciful version of history to justify invading a democratic neighbor. Indeed, when Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, studio moguls responded very differently.

Casual film fans, perhaps recalling Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1940 sendup of Hitler, “The Great Dictator,” might believe that Hollywood led the charge in denouncing Nazi militarism. It did not. Before the U.S. entrance into the war in 1941, the big studios made only a few anti-Nazi pictures, including the largely forgotten “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939) and “The Mortal Storm” (1940). Even those films pulled their punches by minimizing critical elements of Nazi ideology such as antisemitism. The films didn’t even use the words “Jew” or “Jewish.” Hollywood moguls were too afraid of angering the Nazi regime and risking access to the German market.

But efforts to cling to German markets went even further. In 1933, weeks after the Nazis assumed power, they expelled Jewish employees from U.S. studios’ German offices. In subsequent years, their censors barred Hollywood productions without explanation and blocked exports of profits from American films.

Amazingly, Hollywood executives accommodated these provocative moves. Studio reps routinely ran scripts past Nazi diplomats. When Universal Studios head J. Cheever Cowdin visited Berlin in 1937 seeking relaxed censorship rules, he reminded Nazi officials that Universal’s board had recently sacked studio founder Carl Laemmle as part of a corporate shake-up, so a Jewish person no longer ran the company.

In summer 1939 — months after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia — MGM invited Nazi film editors to tour the studio. Meanwhile, an ever-dwindling number of American-made features screened in Germany. The Americans still wanted in; it was the Nazis who tightened the screws. The last Hollywood studios still active in Germany finally closed their Berlin offices in 1940 after concluding that censorship and currency restrictions made it impossible for them to turn a profit.

Hollywood stuck with Germany even though its workers, including studio chiefs, despised the Nazis. A-list actors joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and contributed to refugee relief charities. Many film workers urged their bosses to make more anti-Nazi pictures.

Several factors influenced Hollywood’s compliance with tyranny. Money played a role. Around half of Hollywood’s revenue was generated overseas. Germany was among the larger foreign markets, and it boasted more movie theaters than any other European country. Abandoning it would not only surrender potential short-term profits, but might also open the entire European film market to Nazi productions long term.

But more than money was at stake.

Politically, it was safer for studios to stay than to leave. Although most Americans considered themselves anti-Nazi, they were also profoundly opposed to their country intervening in the war. Economic retaliation and anti-Nazi films exposed studios to charges of warmongering, whether by provoking a German response or by convincing movie fans to become pro-war.

As late as August 1941, the U.S. Senate held hearings to investigate alleged anti-Nazi propaganda in Hollywood pictures. By retaining its slender ties with Germany, studios parroted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to push the Nazis just hard enough to avoid a complete rupture of relations.

Other realities also played a role. The movie moguls, most of whom were Jewish, feared that making anti-Nazi films or exiting Germany might arouse domestic antisemitism — something they had long faced from a public that loved their films but questioned their Americanism. Finally, Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s operated under a self-imposed but rigorously enforced production code that required moviemakers to respect the citizens of other nations, a mandate Hollywood executives interpreted as “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Given this history, it might seem surprising to see Hollywood take a stand against Vladimir Putin’s aggression. But most of the factors that shaped Hollywood’s response to Hitler are no longer relevant. The Production Code is no more, fears of triggering antisemites play no discernible role in the Russia pause and the outrage from the Biden administration and the American public toward Putin means that not disengaging from the Russian market would pose far greater political risk.

The industry’s current “pause” is partly a punishment for violating the international order and partly an attempt to pressure the Russian people into demanding an end to the war. It also may be a tacit acknowledgment that being in business with the Russians right now is morally indefensible — just as making money for the Germans would have been in the 1940s.

From the American studios’ perspective, ideally the horror in Ukraine will end quickly so that they can go back to business as usual. The use of the word “pause” and not “cease” certainly indicates that Hollywood doesn’t want this act of protest to be permanent. It’s also worth noting that Russia’s invasion is such a profound disruption to the international order that the studios felt safe in responding. Two years of supply-chain disruptions, whether forced on us by the pandemic or imposed voluntarily as a response to conflict, have reminded us that a global economy in turmoil is bad for business everywhere.

Still, the studios have opened a door that may prove hard to close, especially in an Internet-connected world where — unlike in the 1930s — the potential audience for movies has taken note of atrocities happening around the world. Going forward, what will constitute an act of aggression so egregious that industry leaders have to take a stand? And does it matter how much money the aggressor brings to a film’s bottom line? For example, given how often Hollywood studios have altered their products to accommodate requests from the Chinese regime, it is hard to imagine they would cut off China in retaliation for invading Taiwan.

These are questions Hollywood hesitated to confront before World War II. Now they’re being asked again — and they’re trickier than ever to answer.