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Stars in the east: Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with Russia

Stars in the east: Hollywood's love-hate relationship with Russia

In new action thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Branagh plays a classic Russian baddy. But such Slavic skullduggery is now the exception not the rule, Michael Idov argued last September on The Calvert Journal, as rouble-hungry Hollywood panders to the Russian audience

28 January 2014
Text Michael Idov
Image Valentin Ramon

I am sitting in an ill-lit suite at the Moscow Ritz Carlton, across a low coffee table from Jerry Bruckheimer. The legendary Hollywood producer is here to hand-sell me The Lone Ranger, the latest resurrected media property retooled, at great expense, into a Johnny Depp vehicle (after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows and, of course, Pirates of the Caribbean). In fact, the Lone Ranger team is hitting Moscow twice: once to service long-lead publications like GQ, and the second time for the premiere.

The cause for such attention is simple. Russia is half the reason The Lone Ranger exists. (The other half is China.) The Pirates’ franchise has continued overperforming here even as it’s run out of steam back in the US, and The Lone Ranger is being sold as a kind of Pirates of the Caribbean Go West. In reality, the place where this movie and others like it increasingly have to go to justify their enormous budgets is east. Russia, where 20 years ago, movie theatres still carried hand-painted posters and competed with black market “video salons” (one basement, one VCR, two TVs and a few rows of chairs) now gets its Hollywood films released on the same day as the US or earlier, with custom title graphics, top-shelf voiceover translation, and sophisticated marketing campaigns. Yet it still feels weird to see Hollywood play directly to the Russian market.

“Russia is the new globalised Hollywood’s dream: a giant country with new infrastructure that hates its own movies”

That said, it has no other choice. Since the Eighties, international revenue has gone from 20% to 70% of the Hollywood studios’ income; the US is now virtually a niche market. A movie, Bruckheimer explains to me, thus has to come essentially pre-sold into several individual markets in order for the studio to underwrite its budget. And the only movies guaranteed to sell globally, the Hollywood logic goes, are the ones with strong “pre-awareness”, ie based on a character or a story people already know. Hence all the superheroes, sequels and reboots that have critics groaning. “But the Russians don’t know The Lone Ranger,” I can’t help but note. Hell, neither do Americans under 60. It doesn’t matter, Bruckheimer parries. Johnny Depp — one of the last internationally bankable movie stars — comes with all the pre-awareness you need.

Russia’s road to becoming a key Hollywood market was a remarkably fast one. Between 2006 and 2011, its number of screens had doubled. In response, film revenues here have been rising at a compound rate of 27% a year. And, unlike China, Russia doesn’t have a quota for foreign releases, although conservatives in the government love to talk about instituting one. (China, meanwhile, has grudgingly raised its foreign-movie quota from 20 films a year to 34 — but the additional 14 have to be in IMAX or 3D: score another one for megaspectacles). Most importantly, however, Russia manages to combine a growing appetite for foreign films with — how shall I put it? — more subdued enthusiasm for domestic product. In 2009, Hollywood outperformed Russian studios on their home turf for the first time ever. By 2010, it was winning almost five to one. Russia, in short, is the new globalised Hollywood’s dream: a giant country with new infrastructure and little oversight that hates its own movies.

“Stars’ itineraries are more or less exactly the same: photo call at the Ritz, premiere at Oktyabr, then dinner at Nobu, followed by an optional foray into vice at Soho Rooms”

In May 2011, Disney held its first real red-carpet premiere in Russia. The movie was, you guessed it, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The film’s subsequent box-office take in the country — $5m on the first day alone — opened the floodgates for the rest. Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Dark of the Moon arrived here with no less than 80 names associated with the film, including Bay himself. After Earth had not one but two red-carpet premieres, in Moscow and St Petersburg. It has become exquisitely routine to see someone like Brad Pitt or Robert De Niro flogging their latest on Ivan Urgant’s late-night talk show Evening Urgant, Russia’s equivalent to Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon. (Ironically, Moscow does not yet have a premiere-ready movie theatre on par with Mann’s Chinese in LA or the Ziegfield Theatre in New York; as a result, most stars’ itineraries are more or less exactly the same: photo call at the Ritz, taping with Urgant, premiere at Soviet-era cinema Oktyabr, then dinner at Nobu, followed by an optional foray into vice at Soho Rooms.)

This big-boy status carries some significant implications. For one thing, as Hollywood studios get comfortable here, Russian studios are becoming “partners” as opposed to exporters: domestic films now get distributed through local divisions of giants like Sony and Universal. It’s not unusual to see the familiar Universal globe spin over the first frames of last year’s Russian hit Soulless, or the Columbia lady torch lady greet the viewers of Vysotsky: Be Thankful You’re Alive. The most peculiar case to date is the upcoming Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s IMAX 3-D extravaganza that Sony is going to distribute worldwide. Its Russian publicity campaign has been built around an American trailer filtering back home through YouTube, as if it were a major Hollywood movie and not a Russian one that has looped around the world.

“Russia, once the Oliver Twist of movie markets, now finds itself being flattered so nakedly that it’s actually kind of embarrassing”

More fascinatingly, Russia’s market muscle has begun bleeding into the films’ content. As producer Lynda Obst writes on Huffington Post, “For one thing, we won’t be seeing many Russian or Chinese bad guys in the next decade, so viva la North Koreans and rogue terrorists.” For another, the hot markets just keep popping up in scripts as locations, and on casting directors’ spreadsheets. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Pacific Rim has prominent Russian characters and takes place in Hong Kong. Red 2 has a prominent Asian actor (Byung-hun Lee) and partly takes place in Russia. The Wolverine has a prominent Russian actress (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and takes place in Asia. And what about the next film to feature Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past? Let’s go to director Bryan Singer’s recent interview: “It takes place in the future and the past and then all over the world, from Russia to China.”

The sweetest side effect, of course, is that Russian stars now find more or less routine employment in Hollywood. Danila Kozlovsky of Soulless has snagged the lead in Vampire Academy and seems heading, at 28, for international-teen-heartthrob status. Yuliya Snigir was just about the only watchable thing about A Good Day to Die Hard. The brilliant Konstantin Khabensky had a major part in World War Z until the film’s last-minute retooling. As much as one would love to credit an explosion of domestic movie talent with this development, it is just as much about bankability back home: a familiar face and voice means further insurance from failure. When I gingerly run this notion by Kozlovsky, he doesn’t object: “You’re partly right. But it’s not like they take anybody.”

The pandering does not stop there. Russia, once the Oliver Twist of movie markets, now finds itself being flattered so nakedly that it’s actually kind of embarrassing. In the animated Planes, Disney’s sort-of-sister property to Pixar’s Cars, the love interest is an anthropomorphic Russian plane with the colors of the Russian flag on her wings — but only in the Russian release. In China, one assumes, her wings will be red. In a way, we are back to the era of early talkies, when a film’s main English cast would film a scene and then be immediately replaced, on the same set under the same lights, by a Francophone cast, who would perform the same scene in French, then the German one and so on.

Of course, there is no such thing as certainty in Hollywood. In the end, despite the cast and crew’s ministrations, The Lone Ranger has grossed only $6.6m in Russia, and flopped worldwide. The failure was so massive that Disney ended its longtime partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer in its wake. Perhaps The Lone Ranger’s plot should have included a detour to Siberia, or a Russian character; if Jackie Chan can appear in a Western, why not a top Russian star like, say, Sergei Bezrukov? Or, far more likely, it should have just been a better movie.

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