Universal's Jeff Shell Briefly Detained in Russia

Alex J. Berliner

The head of NBCUniversal's motion picture unit says he was traveling to the country on business when he was briefly held and ordered out of the country.

NBCUniversal's motion picture head Jeff Shell was briefly detained in Russia for several hours early Wednesday morning before being kicked out of the country.

Shell told The New York Times that he arrived in Moscow around 11:30 p.m. and was making his way through immigration when he was removed from the line.

“I was then taken to a small room and left alone for about a half-hour before someone came back with a document in Russian that they wanted me to sign,” Shell told The Times.

He refused, saying he wouldn't sign something he didn't understand, and was then given a translated version of the document saying he was barred from the country. He was then escorted to and locked inside another room for three hours until a flight to Amsterdam was arranged, he told The Times.

“An armed guard came and got me at about 5 a.m. and walked me onto the plane and to my seat,” Shell said. “He gave my passport to the pilot and said not to give it back to me until I was on Dutch soil. It was quite embarrassing.”

Shell said he was never told why he was denied entry. The executive is known to spend part of his summer visiting Universal's foreign outposts, meeting with distributors and key executives. Russia is a major market for movie releases.

A blog post from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, on which Shell serves as chairman, confirmed his brief detention but notes that an explanation has not been given as to why. The BBG notes that Shell was denied entry despite having a valid passport and Russian visa. He was accompanied by Russian officials on board his flight to Amsterdam.

According to the BBG, Shell told colleagues with whom he was traveling that airport security authorities told him his denial of entry to Russia is permanent and "a lifetime ban."

BBG officials met early Wednesday with U.S. Ambassador John Tefft in Moscow to discuss the incident.

The Board oversees all U.S. international media with Shell serving as an official in a part-time capacity following a presidential appointment.

Further details of Shell's expulsion also appeared on Russian radio station Echo of Moscow, which noted Shell had been escorted under armed guard to a flight to Amsterdam where his passport was handed to the pilot who was instructed not to return it to Shell until the plane was on Dutch soil.

Both Russia and the U.S. have expelled diplomats from the other country in recent weeks.

Shell's detention and expulsion appears to be related to his position as BBG chairman. The BBG oversees all U.S. non-military foreign broadcasting in Russia, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service, which has a bureau in Moscow.

Shell's expulsion from Russia comes two years after a U.S. journalist who was working as an advisor to Radio Free Europe's Moscow bureau was barred for five years from the country.

David Satter, a former Financial Times Moscow correspondent, who had arrived in Moscow in September 2014 was refused a working visa in December that year by the foreign ministry because the "competent organs" — understood to mean the security services — deemed his presence in Russia to be "undesirable."

At the time the foreign ministry stated that Satter had been in "gross violation" of immigration rules as he was late in applying to formalize his visa status after receiving accreditation to work as a journalist in Russia.

Radio Free Europe is funded by the U.S. Congress and, in some Russian government circles, is viewed with suspicion.

Hollywood films dominate the box office in Russia. Last year, U.S. films dominated ticket sales even more than in recent years as box-office revenue hit a new record in local-currency terms. But the sharply lower value of the ruble last year affected U.S. and other foreign studios, leaving annual box office in dollar terms down considerably.

Universal Pictures had two of the three biggest box-office performers in Russia in 2015 as its Furious 7 brought in more than $33 million during the calendar year and Minions only slightly less.

NBCUniversal previously changed its approach in Russia. Its Universal Networks International unit said in early 2015 that it would pull out of the country following a ban on commercials on pay TV, which came into effect at the start of that year.

"Due to the challenging economic environment for our pay TV channels [Universal Channel and E! Entertainment Television] in Russia, Universal Networks International has made the decision to no longer operate in the market and is looking at alternative opportunities for its channels' business," it said back then. "NBCUniversal remains committed to the Russian market, with Universal Pictures International and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution continuing their successful operations there."

Universal declined to comment further.

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