How Will Changes in Russia Affect Hollywood?

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets filmmakers

Anti-gay legislation, a ban on swearing and calls for a quota on foreign films has many fearing a return to Soviet-era repression.

What's wrong with Russia? That's a question on the minds of many filmmakers in Russia and around the world these days.

First, the country brought in strict anti-gay laws that only served to undermine potentially positive media coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Then, after declaring open funding support for local filmmakers, the country's Minister of Culture overruled an expert commission, apparently on ideological grounds – not once, but twice.

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And, most recently, a new law banning swearing in films has left it unclear whether there will be domestic distribution for Andrey Zvyagintseva's Leviathan, which won the best screenplay honor in Cannes and is one of the most critically-acclaimed Russian films in years.

It is set to be released in Russia in early 2015, but it isn't clear yet if language will have to be bleeped out. The film received an 18+ exhibition license before July 1, when the new rules banning bad language were enacted. Under the amendments, a film that contains swearing cannot be exhibited. An exception may or may not be made for Leviathan, but the director has said he won't edit the film further.

After two decades when directors had the freedom to make what they want, Russian filmmakers are feeling the heat again as the Kremlin turns to ever more Soviet-style laws to control social commentary.

When controversial director Alexei Balabanov -- who died last year -- made Cargo 200 in 2007, an uncompromisingly bleak and misogynistic portrayal of the disastrous effect of the Afghan war on Soviet morality, he remarked that censorship had no place in movies. "It's a film I'd gladly show [President] Vladimir Putin," he said after the film's festival screening at the Kinotavr festival in Sochi.

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It's unlikely such a film would escape official attention now.

Last year, Alexander Mindadze received funding approval from the Ministry of Culture for a Russian-German co-production Dear Hans, Dear Peter.

The film's plot starts in Moscow in 1940 in the last year of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that ensured friendly relations between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany at a time when Hitler's Blitzkrieg was silencing Europe's democracies.

When Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky found out the film's plot involved a love triangle featuring a German engineer, his Russian colleague and a Moscow woman, he intervened to get state funding canceled. Medinsky, the man now in charge of Russia's cultural ministry, including its film subsidy programs, is best known for his books blaming Elizabethan propaganda for today's negative stereotypes of Russians as lazy drunks. In one of what critics say is one of his re-writes of Russian history, Medinsky declared there had been no Germans in Moscow in 1940.

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A compromise on Dear Hans, Dear Peter was eventually reached when the director agreed to shift the action back a decade to 1930 despite the fact German public funding for the co-production had been agreed on the existing script and story.

This year, it was the turn of Vitaly Manskiy, one of Russia's top documentary filmmakers, to face the new film funding regime.

His proposal for Rodnye (Close Relatives), a film examining family ties between Russians and Ukrainians, got the thumbs up from the Ministry of Culture's expert funding committee, with the news published on its official web site. Within hours the official protocol had been taken down and Manskiy was told he would get no money, leading critics to question the committee's independence. A story of friendship between Ukraine and Russia apparently didn't fit with the official Moscow line as the two countries are engaged in what is effectively a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, critics said.

Manskiy says the Ministry argued that it could not commit money at a time when circumstances in Ukraine were so unpredictable, but he believes the reasons are more personal.

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"They know this film will show my personal position on Ukraine and support my colleagues in Ukraine," he told THR. "We've begun filming already and done some work on location in Lviv and Odessa and plan to have the film ready by the end of 2015. Now we are looking for (new) partners to finance it."

So to what extent does the situation in Russia threaten Hollywood's interests? After all, around 70 percent of Russia's $1 billion annual box office goes to U.S. films.

That could be under threat if cultural minister Medinsky bows to internal pressure to introduce quotas on foreign films. Several Russian lawmakers have called for quotas, and in March, state Duma (parliament) deputy Robert Shlegel introduced a bill to ensure half of all releases in Russia were locally produced films, although it did not receive government backing.

Medinsky has been back-and-forth on quotas since being appointed two years ago, but has always met industry resistance when the idea has been raised.
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Independent producer Yevgeny Gindilis says the Ministry of Culture system still works for most projects, provided they are not too political. 

"Our film Na Dne (Lower Depths), by Vladimir Kott, has Ministry support but we are free of any interference," he said. "But, these other highly publicized cases do send a clear signal to producers about what is possible and what not under current condition. Only a few producers can resist that kind of pressure."

Distributor and industry commentator Sam Klebanov, however, sees a darker side to the new official approach. "For years, filmmaking and distribution were relatively free areas, but it's becoming a part of ideological system (almost like in the Soviet time), and the Ministry wants to have to exercise much more control over the content," he said.

The ban on bad language and other restrictions -- such as films and television shows carrying age restriction notices -- reflect a new official morality.

"This is part of a new approach of 'moral superiority' that includes the ban on homosexual propaganda, swearing in mass media and the age restrictions," Klebanov said. "It is about keeping non-conformists at bay. It is a signal to them: 'We don’t care about your opinion or creative freedom.'"

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So far, Hollywood movies have not felt the pinch. Swearing is easily edited out in an industry that dubs, rather than subtitles, foreign movies, and most U.S. fare shown in Russia is pitched at younger audiences, with little content likely to cause controversy.

But a recent measure banning advertising on pay TV channels, designed both to boost ad revenue for state-owned channels and undermine the ability of 'opposition' channel TV Rain to survive, could impact Hollywood.

"Pay TV will have less money and some channels may go out of business," Klebanov said. "Before the political problems began for TV Rain they were discussing a weekly arthouse slot sponsored by one of the big tea brands. Now this would be illegal."

Klebanov, who was born in Russia but has Swedish citizenship, has a simple answer to the question 'what's wrong with Russia?'

"A lot. I think the prime goal of the regime right now is to ensure its own longevity no matter how much that costs the country. Shutting down dissent is obviously a higher priority than economic growth."

And as more sanctions are imposed over what the West sees as Russia's support for anti-government rebels in Ukraine, Hollywood interests may suffer, some say.

"Russia might fire back at Hollywood interests," said Klebanov. "But they most likely won't call them 'sanctions.' They could simply impose quotas on domestic films and call it 'support for the Russian film industry.'"