Update Monday February 28: Warner Bros. this evening announced that “The Batman” will not open as planned. This follows the announcement from the Disney Company that Pixar’s “Turning Red,” being released theatrically in most of the world (Disney+ in the U.S.) will not open on March 10. Sony later added that “Morbius,” set for March 31 there, also will not open.
Russia’s top box-office grosses for 2021 reflect something we rarely see on international charts: near-total domination by major U.S. studio releases. (#1 was “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.”) The two local titles in the top 10 — “Upon the Magic Roads” and “The Last Warrior: Root of Evil” — were Sony and Disney co-productions, respectively.
A check of key Moscow theaters’ websites shows multiple venues set to open Warner Bros. release “The Batman” on March 2, with tickets on sale for specific showtimes. Top films usually open in Russia parallel to worldwide release as they often do in Ukraine, including “Uncharted” last weekend. Per IMDb Pro, Ukraine had not set an opening date for “The Batman” prior to the invasion.
The invading country has been kicked off the Eurovision Song Contest. Formula 1 canceled the Russian Grand Prix. Ukrainian filmmakers are asking that Russian films be denied access to international festivals. Twitter has blocked Russian Federation users from registering new accounts. At this writing, it remains business as usual for U.S. studios — including the release of “The Batman,” based on the DC Comics character who has dedicated more than 80 years to an endless crusade against all criminals.
Disney-owned distributors have no films opening next week, but in its standard Sunday box-office email Disney noted that Russia was the third-strongest international market for “Death on the Nile.”
Given the studios’ weak short-term release schedule, “The Batman” is the sole immediate release in question. Sony opens “Morbius” March 31, with Paramount planning to open “The Lost City” April 7.
The Motion Picture Association, which represents American studios’ interests both in the U.S. and internationally, declined comment. It is reasonable to believe that as MPA members, Warner Bros. and other studios would coordinate responses through the organization rather than act alone.
The major studios are not alone in stonewalling their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a series of tweets, Ukraine Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov directly called upon Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix to take actions against Russia and in support of Ukraine. At this writing, only YouTube has responded by disabling monetization of Russia Today channels.
In 1999, when Google was based in Susan Wojcicki’s garage and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey still thought he was inventing a way to hail cabs, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman created the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention: “No two countries who both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.” Internet globalization has long since proved Friedman unduly optimistic: Shared products and platforms have nothing to do with maintaining peace.
Russia does not prioritize homegrown productions and its more than 2,000 theaters depend on American studios. Russian production, exhibition, and distribution are privately held with no direct government supervision; American companies maintain their own operations. By contrast, production, exhibition, and distribution in China are under partial or total control of a central authority; studio involvement is limited to providing films for approval.
“The Batman” is set to open in Russia through Karo Premiere Films, which holds the license for Warners and New Line titles. International license holders usually receive the bulk of the film rental earned in theaters and pay most, if not all, of the marketing expenses. Sanctions on Russia banks and their delinking from international banking transaction system SWIFT could complicate studios’ ability to collect revenue — not to mention any restrictions that the Russian government might impose.
Under that arrangement, it’s unknown how much control Warners has over the release. Pulling the film would be a political act — but can the studio extract itself, even if it wanted to?
At under $1 billion annually, box office represents a tiny portion of the $1.484 trillion Russian economy — but it’s one determined almost entirely by Hollywood.