Russian movie theaters brazenly steal Western films and face no consequences


Support independent journalism in Ukraine. Join us in this fight.

Become a member

Support us just once

Russian state television has been vocal in painting Western democracies, especially the U.S., as the reason for all of Russia’s problems. The desire for U.S.-made products inside Russia, however, remains high, with the country’s providers turning to illegal schemes to cover the demand.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hollywood’s biggest film studios stopped selling their films to Russia. Despite that, Russian movie theaters have continued showing U.S.-made films, now pirated from online platforms.

And instead of a crackdown on piracy, the Russian government is now considering legalizing theft.

Russians still enjoying American burgers and sandwiches as companies refuse to leave

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, most major Western fast-food chains closed up shop, sold off assets, and exited the Russian market. This was particularly true of the highly visible food sector. Major Western food and drink chains, including McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hu…

Post-Soviet Russia has long been a pirate haven, with The Pirate Bay and RuTracker, using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, were among the most visited websites in the country.

In the 2010s, regulators began slowly cracking down on websites allowing viewers to illegally download paid content free of charge, blocking several websites but offering no real punishment.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion and the following exodus of Western production companies, film studios and streaming services, the government had allowed pirating to cover the remaining demand.

Two years later, the government is promoting pirating, offering to legalize such practices nationwide.

And the rights owners have no way of preventing that.

Lawsuits against Russian movie theaters at Russian government-controlled courts would not yield results. It would also be very difficult to achieve any results in international courts.

But critics say that the Russian government should be held accountable, and its assets should be seized in response to its support for piracy.

An internal view of a screening room at the screening of’Past Forward’, a movie by David O. Russell presented by Prada on November 16, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Team Boyko/Getty Images for PRADA)

“Russia violated the UN charter in the full view of everyone by starting its aggression against Ukraine,” Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at New York University who also has a degree in copyright law, told the Kyiv Independent. “Russia has chosen the path of lawlessness. Why should we be surprised? I would be surprised if they cared about copyright law.”

Stephen Humphreys, an Athens-based U.S. lawyer who previously worked at law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale, agreed with this assessment.

“This Russian copyright infringement of U.S. films offers more evidence that the Russian state is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) enterprise that fosters organized crime and piracy,” Humphreys told the Kyiv Independent.

“What an irony for the Russian Duma (parliament) to pretend it can legalize the piracy of U.S. films – in other words, to legalize crime. More evidence that the Russian legal system is purely political and Russian government action is indistinguishable from organized crime.”

No information on any lawsuits by Western film studios against Russian companies for copyright violations was available. The studios did not respond to requests for comment.

Legalized theft

The film studios that cut their links with Russia in 2022 include Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Paramount Pictures.

Despite their exit, Russian movie theater chains, including Mirage Cinema, Premier Zal, and Kinomax, continued showing their films. They did not respond to requests for comment.

For example, they have been showing Avatar 2 (distributed by 20th Century Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney), Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount Pictures), Thor: Love and Thunder (Walt Disney Studios), and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Walt Disney Studios).

In 2023, Russian movie theaters received 7.8 billion rubles ($84 million), or 20% of their entire box office, from pirated copies of Western films, RBC reported in March.

One of the loopholes is that spectators seemingly buy a ticket for a little-known short film, and movie theaters show a Hollywood blockbuster “for free” before the short film.

Evidence shows recent presidential elections most rigged in Russia’s modern history

The March 15-17 presidential election was the most rigged in Russia’s modern history, according to evidence published by election experts, observers, and media. Estimates of vote rigging range from at least 22 million votes to about 31.6 million votes, without taking into account the online voting…

As a result, the box office for little-known short films Three Good Deeds and Commentator amounted to 548 million rubles and 423 million rubles in 2022, respectively, Russian independent publication Meduza reported. These short films were shown together with Avatar 2 and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (distributed by Walt Disney Studios).

Another loophole is the use of auditoriums leased by other companies. For instance, Kinomax has shown Marvel movies in auditoriums leased by Kinoteka, a Kinomax subsidiary.

Commenting on the illegal screening of Universal Pictures’ Minions: The Rise of Gru at Russia’s Cinema Park movie theater chain, its CEO Alexei Vasyatin told Russian newspaper Vedomosti in 2022 that the film would be shown jointly with a Russian cartoon.

“In this way, we’ll support our producers at this difficult time,” he said. “Among other things, it will increase the box office of Russian films.”

For illustrative purposes: A camera operator monitors a movie screening in the projection room of a Cinema Park multiscreen theatre complex at the Metropolis Shopping and Entertainment Mall in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, May 18, 2013. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
For illustrative purposes: Audience members wear 3D spectacles to watch a movie at the Cinema Park multiscreen theatre complex at the Metropolis Shopping and Entertainment Mall in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, May 18, 2013. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Vasyutin declined to comment on where the chain was getting copies of the Universal Pictures film.

Russian authorities have effectively supported this piracy.

They have not taken any action against movie theaters that publicly screen pirated copies of Western films. On the contrary, in January 2023, Russia’s Justice Ministry proposed legalizing the theft of foreign movies.

However, the Culture Ministry, Economy Ministry, and Cinema Foundation have opposed this idea. The Economy Ministry said in January 2023 that the initiative may lead to a violation of international treaties.

But Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and a former president and prime minister, was more outspoken.

In Putin’s Russia, state violence is on full display

When the men accused of committing last week’s terrorist attack in Moscow appeared in front of a Russian court, their battered faces told a story of physical torture. The four men — who stand accused of opening fire on crowds at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall on March 22, killing at least

“If Netflix and others have left us, we’ll just download their stuff for free,” Medvedev, who has become infamous for his flamboyant and aggressive verbal attacks on the West and Ukraine, said in March 2023.

“And I would distribute this stuff all over the Web to cause maximum damage to them and to make them bankrupt.”

Continued cooperation with Russia

Meanwhile, some Western film studios have not stopped working in Russia.

U.S.-based independent entertainment firm A24 said in 2022 it had suspended its work in Russia but later continued distributing its films in the country. These include Everything Everywhere All at Once, Beau is Afraid and Talk to Me.

Hollywood film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios has also continued working in Russia. In 2022, it officially released Three Thousands Years of Longing there.

Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 4, Madman Entertainment’s The Portable Door and Vertical Entertainment’s To Catch a Killer have also been shown in Russia legally.

All lawyers interviewed by the Kyiv Independent agreed that Russian movie theaters that screen Western films without permission violate both national and international copyright law.

Ukrainian intellectual property lawyers Volodymyr Hrunsky, Yulia Semeniy, and Ilarion Tomarov told the Kyiv Independent that the movie theaters are violating the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which has been signed by Russia.

Hrunsky, Semeniy, and Tomarov work at Sayenko Kharenko, Asters, and Vasil Kisil & Partners, respectively.

“The convention guarantees the protection of all countries to all foreign authors,” Tomarov said.

Lawyers said that de jure copyright holders had a right to file lawsuits with Russian courts against movie theaters.

But Hrunsky said that “given the political situation, this would hardly work.”

Few people are pictured in a screening room of the Oktyabr cinema in Moscow on March 29, 2022. Five Hollywood giants, Disney, Universal, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros and Paramount, have all stopped releasing new films in Russia since the start of the Russian military action in Ukraine, leaving theaters in Moscow without access to the latest blockbusters. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

Tomarov agreed, saying that “in Russia, it’s meaningless to sue them, and obviously they will lose.”

Lawyers said that Western film studios could also use international arbitration to protect their copyrights. They admitted that this would be difficult.

Hrunsky said that potential plaintiffs could use international arbitration procedures to protect mutual investments.

Meanwhile, Tomarov argued that mechanisms of the World Trade Organization could also be used since copyright violations are at odds with the WTO’s rules. Russia has been a WTO member since 2012.

Humphreys also said that U.S. courts might also be used for this purpose. They are flexible in terms of jurisdiction but some strong links with the U.S. must be found in order for such jurisdiction to be accepted, he added.

Even if international or U.S. courts rule in favor of copyright holders, it is not clear if such decisions can be effectively enforced.

“Such decisions might be obtained,” Hrunsky said. “The problem is how to enforce them.”

He added that if specific Russian movie theater chains don’t have any assets abroad, there will be nothing to seize.

“It’s a long reach,” Humphreys said. “First, it is the problem of getting jurisdiction over a Russian theater in a U.S. court. Then, there is the problem of getting at assets outside the U.S. to enforce a judgment.”

Government assets

Even if movie theater chains don’t have any assets abroad, some lawyers argue that the Russian government should be held responsible because it does not prevent piracy or even supports it.

“It is my personal legal opinion that sovereign immunity protection should not extend to supposed state actors that are actually serving corrupt private and personal interests,” Humphreys told the Kyiv Independent.

“Immunity should not extend to persons and entities engaged in intentional conduct… We need more courts to follow that line of reasoning and establish new precedents.”

A moviegoer stands at a box office in a shopping mall on Aug. 8, 2023, in Moscow, Russia. (Hannah Wagner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Other lawyers said that it would be extremely difficult or even impossible to make the Russian government responsible or seize Russian government assets.

It would be hypothetically possible to seize Russian government assets only if some of the movie theaters are affiliated with or owned by the government, Hrunsky said.

Sazonov said that seizing private firms’ assets in copyright cases would be difficult, and seizing Russian government assets would be virtually impossible.

“The idea that assets of any state could be seized for lawlessness on its territory does not exist now,” he said.

Sazonov added that China has been violating copyright law for decades, and nobody can do anything about it.

“It could help to treat the infringing theaters and the Russian government as working together in a RICO enterprise,” Humphreys said. “Just as the Russians are purporting to make political and legislative decisions to allow criminal copyright infringement, it may take political and legislative decisions in the U.S. to provide for jurisdiction and attachment of frozen Russian assets.”

Whether afraid or indifferent, regular Russians enable autocracy

For global audiences watching Moscow’s tightly-choreographed “election-style event” this weekend, Russia appears to be a country transformed – a militarized society where dissent is simply no longer tolerated. But the truth is that in the two years since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion…