Russia 2015 in Review: 'Leviathan' Wins Golden Globe, 'Fifty Shades' Banned in Some Regions

Best Foreign-Language Film

Leviathan (Russia) (WINNER)
Force Majeure (Sweden)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (France)
Ida (Poland)
Tangerines (Estonia)

Economic challenges and new restrictions affecting Hollywood film and TV companies loomed large, while an Elton John prank call also made headlines.

After a tumultuous 2014, threats again loomed large over the Russian film industry in 2015: from a recession and the continuing ruble collapse that sliced profits for distributors and exhibitors, to continuing calls to curb Hollywood releases to help the domestic industry.

In the end, cinema proved resilient, and calls to introduce taxes on tickets for U.S. blockbusters and quotas for foreign films came to nothing.

But, as Russian officials flagged a much closer relationship with its huge southeastern neighbor China, plans to restrict foreign ownership of television outlets went ahead, and a conservative attitude toward Western values remained high on the agenda.

Here is THR's look at the big media and entertainment stories of 2015 in Russia:

Leviathan Competes for Oscar, Wins Golden Globe

Andrey Zvyagintsev's controversial film about the brutal destruction of a man's life by local government officials had already caused a sensation among critics and controversy at home after its Cannes premiere in 2014, so it seemed natural that Leviathan was nominated for both the foreign-language Oscar and a Golden Globe.

When the film won a Golden Globe it looked like it might get an Oscar, too, and repeat a feat last achieved by Sergei Bondarchuk in 1969 for War and Peace. In the end it was beaten to the Oscar by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's black-and-white film Ida. 

The world would have to wait until the end of the year, and the new edition of producer Alexander Rodnyansky's book Enter the Producer, to learn details about how the team behind Leviathan outwitted Kremlin loyalists on the national Oscar committee to win the nomination for a film that culture minister Vladimir Medinsky had famously said "spat on the souls of officials."

Ukrainian Director Oleg Sentsov Sentenced to 20 Years

Moscow's forceful annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in the spring of 2014 continued to exert a powerful effect on international political and diplomatic relations that reached into the heart of the film world.

Ukrainian director and Crimean resident Oleg Sentsov was finally put on trial by Russian military prosecutors more than a year after he was seized and flown to Moscow by Russian security agents. The director is facing terrorism charges that he has vigorously denied. Top film directors worldwide have brought attention to Sentsov's plight, rallied by a vocal European Film Academy campaign for his freedom.

The calls fell on deaf ears, and in August Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A subsequent appeal was rejected.

Russia-China Relations Build

closer cooperation with China started becoming a reality for Russia in 2015. The success of Russian war movie Stalingrad in 2013, which grossed more than $11 million at Chinese theaters, helped pave the way for a slew of deals that look set to open China's tightly regulated movie market to Russia.

In April, state-owned China Film Group took a $15 million stake in the sequel to Russia's top-grossing local movie of 2014, Viy, starring Jason Flemyng and Rutger Hauer. The investment covered just under half the movie's $36 million budget.

In May, during the Cannes film festival, Chinese distributor Lotus Film International Culture closed a deal for the September theatrical release of war film Battle for Sevastopol. And in July, Snow Queen became the first Russian cartoon to get a wide release in China on  3,400 screens.

Elton John Prank Call Makes Headlines

When Elton John said he would like to talk gay rights in Russia with President Vladimir Putin, he hardly expected to hear from the Kremlin. But just days after his comments, broadcast by the BBC during a visit by the British singer to Ukraine, John received a call. Believing he had spoken with Putin (with his English-speaking press secretary Dmitry Peskov translating), the singer published details of the conversation on social media, commenting that "it is a great privilege to be able to talk to one of the most influential people in the world; it is amazing."

When it emerged that he had been fooled by a pair of notorious Russian pranksters and comedians, John took it in stride, saying he was "happy to be pranked" and that it had put "vital" LGBT issues back in the spotlight.

Life turned out to be stranger than fiction, when a week or so later John's wish was granted — and Putin really did call him, saying the singer was hugely popular in Russia and that he would be glad to meet with him to "discuss whatever areas are of interest."

CNN Returns to Russia

CNN International returned to Russia in late April after a four-month break.

The news network, part of Time Warner's Turner unit, announced that it would end distribution in Russia in November 2014, following the adoption of a law banning commercials on pay TV.

In early 2015, Turner's top executives had a meeting with officials from Russia's communications ministry, after which news of the network's possible return to the market was unveiled. In compliance with Russian law, CNN International is available on Trikolor without commercials.

Foreign Networks Take Steps to Comply With New Ownership Law

Another controversial law recently adopted in Russia stipulates that foreign ownership in local media companies cannot exceed a 20 percent stake.

The legislation, which comes into effect Jan. 1, primarily hit Disney Channel and Discovery Communications, which operated in Russia as foreign-owned, locally registered networks, and Sweden's Modern Times Group, which owned a 39 percent stake in Russian TV company CTC Media.

Disney and Discovery complied with the law by re-registering their Russian assets to their local distributors. MTG sold its CTC Media stake to tycoon Alisher Usmanov's company in a deal that signified the company's complete pullout from Russia. CNN wasn't affected by the legislation as it didn't have a Russia-registered subsidiary.

Fifty Shades of Grey Banned in Muslim Regions

Fifty Shades of Grey was banned in Russia’s predominantly Muslim Caucasian region due to public pressure, becoming the first Hollywood movie to be banned in a specific Russian region.

Public calls for a ban of the movie claimed that it "contradicted the mentality and religion" of the majority of the region's population. The movie was eventually pulled from theaters in Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya just days before its Feb. 12 release date.

Still, the erotic drama, released with an 18-plus age restriction, did well in theaters elsewhere in Russia, grossing $16.6 million and becoming the year's eighth-highest-grossing movie.

Government Looks to Boost Local Films, Restrict Hollywood

Although early in the year the Russian government said it would not introduce quotas on Hollywood movies, there have been steps toward protecting local fare throughout the year.

First, the culture ministry obtained the right to move releases of Hollywood and foreign films to avoid collision with major local releases. It hasn't used the power yet, but in late April, Disney voluntarily moved up the Russian release date of The Avengers: Age of Ultron to avoid clashing with a major local film A zori zdes tikhie (The Dawns Here Are Quiet).

Later in the year, the government encouraged the main cinema chains, including Luxor, Five Stars, Kinomax and Mirage Cinema, to sign an agreement voluntarily allocating 20 percent of all screenings in 2016 to homegrown movies.

Several Russian Distributors Shut Down

A few Russian distributors, which until recently had played a major role in the industry, folded during the year.

The most notable closure was that of West, one of the oldest players in the film distribution market. Founded in 1994, West was one of Russia's major film distributors, with such movies as American Pie, Sin City, The Green Mile, Scary Movie, Kill Bill, Twilight and The Wolf of Wall Street among its releases. As recently as 2014, West was among Russia's top 10 film distributors. However, the company had been accumulating debt since 2009 and finally ran out of steam in early 2015.

Among other Russian distributors that recently folded are A Company and Caravella DDC.