EXCLUSIVE: Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Hollywood swore off the booming and lucrative box office territory, with the first studios, Disney and Warner Bros, respectively pulling their big movies out of the country, Turning Red and The Batman.
However, this past weekend, Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 4 made it through the Iron Curtain, an overseas territory that has historically been rich to the Keanu Reeves action franchise in what reps the biggest Hollywood tentpole to play theaters there since the unofficial boycott of the market began. The pic posted a record debut of $4.3M which was a 33% increase over John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum‘s start in Russia based on today’s exchange rates. Worldwide, off 71 offshore territories, John Wick: Chapter 4 posted a franchise record opening of $137.5M, $73.8M domestic. In the wake of Hollywood largely refusing to do business in Russia, pirated versions of films have flooded cinemas with some first-run titles busting their way into the country.
How did John Wick: Chapter 4‘s Russia release come to be?
Lionsgate Motion Picture Chair Joe Drake told Deadline, “We had prior contracts, we had obligations to meet.” Lionsgate only self distributes their movies abroad in the UK and Latin America, selling off foreign rights to raise capital on their theatrical slates; the fourth movie here costing an estimated $100M before P&A spend. Lionsgate’s Russian pre-sales on John Wick: Chapter 4 predated the country’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
“As part of meeting those obligations, we did extensive research that there were non-sanctioned parties (involved),” Drake added.
That non-sanctioned distributor releasing John Wick: Chapter 4 in Russia was Unicorn Media Limited, a Maltese company that is not sanctioned and which Lionsgate has had a previous working relationship. Unicorn oversaw the marketing for the Chad Stahelski directed action movie in the territory as well.
Drake told Deadline that the studio worked with the U.S. State Department in regards to getting the pic released in Russia. The U.S. and UK government entities maintain lists of sanctioned companies with whom U.S. corps can’t conduct business.
“There were a number of steps that we needed to take,” Drake said, “We felt comfortable in delivering the movie and consulted talent.”
Lionsgate, we hear, has an overall studio policy by which they’ve paused new business with Russia, however, they’re honoring previously existing contracts with parties that aren’t sanctioned in the country.
Prior to John Wick: Chapter 4, Lionsgate had one previous release in Russia, that being the Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy, Shotgun Wedding, which went straight to streaming stateside on Prime Video. That movie, released by Global Film in Russia, opened to $310,5K and finaled at $1.1M per Box Office Mojo. We’re told Global Film is also an unsanctioned distributor.
While Lionsgate had the Gerard Butler movie, Plane, and the Guy Ritchie directed action title, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, stateside, those pics’ Russian releases weren’t pre-sold by the studio. Plane was released by Central Partership in Russia, while the AZ Celtic Films/Miramax/STX Films/Tencent Pictures production of Operation Fortune was handled by Global Film.
The studio declined to comment on whether their upcoming fall tentpole, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would get a Russian release. However, it’s Deadline’s understanding that unlike John Wick, there is no pre-existing agreement to distribute the Hunger Games prequel in Russia.
As an example of what’s been going on in Russia, we’ve also been told that there has been encouragement to see pirated copies of movies in cinemas, and even to wait for higher-quality non-sanctioned versions. In a December 19 article posted to Izvestia, it was announced that Avatar: The Way of Water would be hitting cinemas on Dec. 22, even though Disney was not releasing the film there. A translated version of the article reads, “It is promised that the movie will be professionally dubbed in 4k quality. The only problem is that it will be 2D, without glasses and immersion. We found only one cinema that promises full-fledged 3D, but not everyone will be able to enjoy this spectacle – the screenings will be in Krasnoyarsk.” The report further noted that in Yakutsk, “Cinema-Center guarantees high quality copies, but, unfortunately, only in 2D.”
The same article cautioned, “This film does not and cannot have a distribution certificate: the Disney copyright holder does not work in Russia.” And then suggested, “Most likely, higher quality copies will arrive by January 12, and it will be easier with 3D.”
Interestingly, box office has been fairly healthy in Russia despite the lack of major studio movies. OpusData figures compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence showed that January’s box office was the largest in Europe (NB: Russia is sometimes considered an APAC market). According to those numbers, January was worth $99M, a 390.6% surge over the comparable period in 2022. Leading the charge was locally produced animated kids comedy Cheburashka with $84.4M that month. The second-biggest grosser was the Guy Ritchie-directed Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre with $7.2M (now an estimated $9.7M).
Overall, and per Gower Street Analytics, Russia’s 2023 box office through March 18 stood at 12.6B rubles ($163M), a 14.5% hike over 2022’s similar period, and 11.3% behind the 2017-2019 pre-pandemic average.