Russia may have been cut off from much of the international film community, but here at Cannes, members of the country’s media business are quietly trying to line up deals.
Nearly three months into the war in Ukraine, the leadership of the film festival has spent its opening week fielding questions about its stance on Russia. Festival chief Thierry Frémaux, for instance, was grilled over the inclusion of competition title “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” a movie with financial ties to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. At the same time, Ukrainian filmmakers on the Croisette called for a total boycott of Russian film.
Despite the festival’s public posturing — Cannes has decided to ban state delegations and any Russians with ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin while allowing individual filmmakers to attend — Russian buyers are meeting with top sales agents at the Marché du Film. Their numbers are substantially down, but there’s no question that Putin’s Russia is open for business on the French Riviera.
“All the sales companies, they are welcoming Russians,” said Armen Dishdishian, head of acquisitions at leading Russian distributor Central Partnership, which is owned by Gazprom-Media. “They know me. They know other [Russian buyers]. They know where we stand, so they have no problem to sit down [with us].”
Russia faced a swift backlash in the wake of its brutal invasion of Ukraine, with foreign governments moving to impose sanctions on Putin, his inner circle, and a range of business interests including banks and state-run companies, such as Gazprom-Media owner Gazprombank.
Hollywood studios joined the ranks of foreign companies such as Netflix and Amazon by pulling the plug on their Russian operations and scrapping the releases of blockbusters that make up an estimated 70% of the Russian box office.
With the industry in freefall, distributors are desperate for content to keep theaters operating. The country’s Assn. of Theater Owners projects a loss of $179 million this year, a 25% drop in the world’s sixth largest theatrical market in 2021. Half of Russian cinemas could close this summer without an immediate bailout, with the association noting in a dire warning that “by the end of the summer, there will be no one to save.”
At the Cannes Film Market, some industry insiders are puzzled by the Russian presence on the Croisette. “We’re still getting offers from Russia. I can’t believe it and I don’t understand it, but we are still getting offers from Russia,” a senior U.S. agent told Variety.
Dishdishian estimates that the number of Russians on the ground in Cannes has dipped by 90% compared to previous years. Despite mixed messages from foreign sales agents, though, he insists there are deals to be made. “Some groups said, ‘No, we can’t. Don’t even ask,’” he said. “Some groups say ‘Listen, let’s make a deal. Shake hands. But let’s see how the situation [plays out].’” Several other Russian distributors rumored to be on the ground in Cannes did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.
With wide-ranging sanctions and other efforts designed to shut Russia out of the international financial system, the dealmaking isn’t quite cut and dry. Though it’s still possible to move money in and out of Russia, according to a leading European sales agent, such transactions are subject to close scrutiny by many governments. The legal ramifications of doing business with Russian entities is also often unclear.
Many of the corporate monoliths whose sprawling interests extend into the entertainment industry have ties to sanctioned companies and oligarchs, including Severgroup, an investment company whose holdings include the powerful National Media Group. Gazprom-Media’s interests include not only Central Partnership but a range of broadcasters, production houses and a leading streaming service.
On Saturday, European Film Academy president Agnieszka Holland was the latest to slam the Cannes Film Festival for its reluctance to take a hard stand against Russia. The Polish-born director, who fled to France in 1981 when Communist authorities imposed martial law, called for a total boycott of Russian culture, saying: “If it were up to me, I would not include Russian films in the official program of the festival.”
Contacted by Variety about Russia’s presence at the Cannes Marché du Film, market boss Jerome Paillard declined to comment.