The Culture War
Update: Since this story was published, Universal has joined Sony, Disney, Warner Bros., and Paramount in announcing that their films would not be distributed in Russia while the illegal invasion of Ukraine is ongoing. An interesting tidbit from THR: “The major studios pulling their films followed a weekend move by the European Union to Russia from the global banking system SWIFT. Without SWIFT, studios may not be able to get any money back from their Russian distribution partners.”
When the operator of a popular box-office-tracking account suggested it was time for the United States to pull out the big guns and do something that would really get the attention of the Russians—depriving them of The Batman, releasing all around the world this Friday—he was pilloried for being shallow and out of touch.
And while @ERCboxoffice’s wording was, to quote another Robert Pattinson character, a little dramatic, I thought some of the pile-on was unfair. After all, much of the world is trying to find ways to ratchet up pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin in ways that do not result in fiery holocaust by prompting a shooting war between the globe’s two largest nuclear powers. There’s no reason that movie studios shouldn’t do something as simple as withhold a much-anticipated blockbuster. It may not bring Putin to his knees, but it could serve as yet another small reminder to the Russian people that their leaders are turning their country into a global outcast.
Lo and behold, Warner Bros. seems to agree, announcing late Monday night that they’re “pausing” the release of The Batman in Russia. The full statement, via Deadline: “In light of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, WarnerMedia is pausing the release of its feature film, The Batman in Russia. We will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. We hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to this tragedy.”
The announcement came on the heels of the news that Disney would also be boycotting Russian theaters. “Given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the tragic humanitarian crisis, we are pausing the release of theatrical films in Russia, including the upcoming Turning Red from Pixar,” the Mouse House said in a statement. “We will make future business decisions based on the evolving situation. In the meantime, given the scale of the emerging refugee crisis, we are working with our NGO partners to provide urgent aid and other humanitarian assistance to refugees.”
Meanwhile, Netflix announced it would refuse to carry Russian propaganda channels as required by a recent Russian law, a move that jeopardizes the accounts of hundreds of thousands of current subscribers Netflix has in the country, not to mention hindering future growth there. And perhaps most strikingly, after several countries threatened to boycott World Cup qualifier matches if Russia were allowed to participate as planned, FIFA and UEFA announced that Russia would be banned from competing in international soccer for the foreseeable future. Russia had already been stripped of the privilege of hosting the Champions League final—arguably the most important soccer match in the world, outside of the later stages of the World Cup—in May.
On the one hand, charges of hypocrisy are easy to bandy about. Disney and WB continue to do business with China, which is engaged in an ongoing genocide. FIFA’s ban of Russia looks slightly silly when one realizes that the World Cup is taking place in Qatar (where human rights abuses are rampant) in stadiums that were built by migrant workers who were essentially slaves. Why is Russia being held to such a high yadda yadda.
On the other hand: Sure it’s hypocritical, but it’s better than doing nothing. I’d love for Hollywood to take a harder line on China, but Russia is engaged in an illegal and bloody war right now. I’d love for FIFA to be shamed out of existence, but if soccer’s most corrupt body has to exist, it’s better that it use its power to try and pressure Putin and his cronies to do the right thing.
And yes, these measures hurt the people more than they hurt Putin, at least in the sense that depriving someone of something they want “hurts” them even when that thing is as small as a movie or a soccer game. Maybe that’s not fair; Russia ain’t exactly free. Putin’s approval rating was through the roof ahead of the invasion, but what are you going to tell a stranger who calls you up to ask you how you feel about the guy who poisons his political opponents and imprisons protesters? I have about as much faith in those polls as I did in Saddam Hussein’s margins of victory.
So sure, these moves are designed to hurt the Russian people. But all efforts at isolation are going to fall harder on the general population than the elites. Even if we start bombing oligarch-owned yachts (and we should), the collapse of the ruble is going to hit the babushka harder than the plutocrat. If the people are tired of living in a pariah nation—if they want to watch The Batman in theaters or cheer for their team in the World Cup—then they better make Putin’s cronies feel their angst.
A dictator with an unhappy populace and an army tired of getting blown up in a neighboring state is a dictator who won’t be dictating for much longer.