The coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on cinema chains across the globe, with protracted lockdowns, limited seating capacity, and delayed releases of Hollywood blockbusters sending the likes of Alamo Drafthouse into—and out of—bankruptcy and pushing giants like Cineworld and AMC to the brink.
Yet for Russia’s Karo Cinemas, the past year has hardly slowed pre-pandemic growth; at the rapidly expanding cinema chain, which is among the country’s largest, it’s currently full speed ahead. “We still have quite an aggressive expansion program,” says CEO Olga Zinkayova, who recently presided over the opening of Karo’s 33rd multiplex. “Our [plan] for the next few years is to almost double the amount of locations we have right now.”
The past year has underscored the strength and resilience of the box office in Russia, where despite a nearly 60% drop in total B.O., to $341 million, during a pandemic-impacted 2020, industry observers are largely optimistic about the year ahead.
After a brief lockdown last spring, Russian cinemas reopened in July, and have stayed open ever since, albeit with limited seating capacity that varies from region to region. (Moscow theaters are currently capped at 50%.) The government threw the industry a lifeline early on, with the Ministry of Culture offering relief packages for movie theaters hit by closures and capacity limits. It also enticed producers to help bring audiences back into cinemas by doling out 2.1 billion rubles ($29 million) in subsidies for films that were released during the pandemic.
This year the audiences have been coming back in droves, with the Russian box office roaring out of the gates in 2021 after a busy holiday season, led by “The Last Warrior: Root of Evil,” which was released by Disney Russia on New Year’s Eve and has grossed nearly $30 million to date. In the first quarter of 2021, Russia was the fourth largest theatrical market in the world, according to Comscore, with a total B.O. of $172 million that trailed only China, Japan, and the U.S.
“We did expect that people would come back quite fast to cinemas. But we didn’t expect how fast that would happen,” says Zinkayova. “We see right now that in the prime time, we don’t have enough space to welcome all the guests.”
Buoyed by a lack of competition from studio blockbusters, the domestic industry has reaped the benefits, enjoying a hearty 49.6% market share in 2020—a figure that typically hovers around 17-20%, according to Zinkayova. Russian titles have likewise opened strong in 2021: Along with “The Last Warrior,” a Disney co-production with Russian indie studio Yellow Black and White, this year’s top performers include the family fantasy tale “Upon the Magic Roads,” from CTB Film Company, which has grossed nearly $16 million, and “Fire,” a high-octane action film from Central Partnership, which has grossed more than $12 million.
Despite box office returns that have at times hinted at pre-pandemic levels, Central Partnership CEO Vadim Vereshchagin stresses that this has hardly been a typical year, calling the experience of releasing “Fire” in the midst of a global health crisis an “adventure.”
“It was a huge risk on our side,” he says. “We didn’t know how the situation might roll out with COVID. We needed to be 100% sure that we could go ahead and risk spending media dollars for this film.”
In a normal year, the production and distribution powerhouse might have begun building anticipation for such a big-budget actioner months in advance; instead, the pandemic-era marketing blitz around “Fire” started just three weeks before opening night.
“Could we have done more in terms of admissions, in terms of box office? Yes,” says Vereshchagin. “[But] given the situation, we were happy with the result.”
Hype Film’s Ilya Stewart, whose family road trip comedy “The Relatives” (pictured) has grossed nearly $7 million since its February release by Sony, admits that “pre-pandemic our film could have enjoyed twice as much success.” Yet coupled with the government subsidies, the release was a net positive for Hype.
“We were among the first wide post-pandemic releases, but fortunate to not be the very first,” Stewart says. “We had a good indication that the Russian public was more than happy to return to theaters.”
That trend is likely to continue as vaccination rates tick upward, and cinemas across the country continue to increase seating capacity. “The market is very healthy. Once the movies are there, we’re going to be at 2019 levels,” says Vereshchagin. “We’re seeing that across the board, everywhere that the cinemas have reopened, once they start releasing big movies. I think the whole industry is going to rebound really quickly from all of this.”
The question remains how the backlog of studio releases for the second half of 2021 will impact local titles. “Even for this year, let alone next year, we’re not 100% sure that the current release schedule is going to stick,” the Central Partnership topper adds. “That’s a big difficulty for us.”
While Stewart says that “a lot of local players have definitely enjoyed the lack of competition until now,” the release of studio blockbusters such as Disney’s “Black Widow,” Universal’s “F9,” and Warner Bros.’ sci-fi epic “Dune,” “will definitely be a welcome addition for the theater chains, who need all the help and support they can get.”
“What is currently missing is a variety of offers for the public to keep their belief in the cinema experience at a high level,” he continues. “The Russian industry is still growing, so it cannot be expected to be enough on its own, and competition is an integral part of the entire ecosystem.”
Despite the uncertainty, Stewart is looking ahead to the theatrical rollout of “Petrov’s Flu,” the latest feature from Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov (“Leto”), which will world premiere in competition in Cannes next month.
“I strongly believe that ‘Petrov’s Flu’ is a film that is entirely dependent on the theaters being fully functional, as is all auteur-driven cinema,” he says. “These films are made with the big screen in mind, which is why, like many other filmmakers who find themselves in this space all over the world, we postponed our plans for the film until we had a chance to make sure it is a collective theatrical experience.” That, adds the producer, “remains the most effective means of marketing for a certain brand of cinema.”