Russia’s bootleg ‘Barbie’ viewings attract huge numbers

At a closed-door party in a Moscow bar adorned with pink bouquets and gift boxes, guests dressed in varying shades of magenta, sipped rose-flavoured prosecco and took pictures in front of a life-sized doll box.

Like many fans around the world, they were celebrating the Barbie movie. There was one catch, however: to actually see the movie, they would have to resort to bootleg copies, as it will not be officially released in Russian cinemas.

Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the movie’s producer Warner Bros announced it would be pulling out of Russia. Other big Hollywood names, including Disney, Paramount, Universal and Sony Pictures, as well as Netflix followed suit and cancelled their contracts with Russian distributors.

Still, many Hollywood films have managed to make it to Russian cinemas, in part via copies flowing in from other Russian-speaking markets that are obtaining them legally, such as Kazakhstan.

This was yet another example of the creative workarounds around some of the western sanctions and restrictions that have hit Russia — and the way that much of daily life continues as it did before the war, despite the rising death toll, cross-border shelling and uptick in drone attacks on Moscow.

The glitzy Barbie party in Moscow was organised by Sem. Aesthetic — a cosmetology salon that offers a “Barbie menu” of services to allow clients to “achieve a doll-like matt [skin] tone”. The party did not include a full screening of the film — only publicly available snippets, a PR specialist for the cosmetology office was quick to clarify.

But Russians have been able to watch the movie in cinemas across the country, mainly poor-quality pirate copies filmed in western theatres.

“People still want to go out on a Friday night and have . . . a glass of beer and popcorn in a cinema,” said a person close to one of Russia’s biggest cinema chains.

People started to go to Russian movie theatres in larger numbers this year compared with 2022, he said. “The attendance is beginning to pick up and this is actually based on some mediocre content that finds its way on to the Russian big screen.”

Viewers watch a pirated version of the ‘Barbie’ movie on Gorkiy Cinema’s pop-up rooftop in Tyumen, Russia
A pirated version of ‘Barbie’ on Gorkiy Cinema’s pop-up rooftop in Tyumen, Russia. Organisers noted that the quality might not suit ‘lovers of 4k resolution and ideal sound’ © Gorkiy Cinema

Initially, the studios’ abrupt exit last year left cinemas and distributors scrambling, with some bringing back old Hollywood and Russian films. Altogether, Russian box office sales fell by more than 41 per cent in 2022, according to official state statistics.

But the most entrepreneurial cinemas soon found a workaround for new Hollywood blockbusters: Kazakh cinemas and distributors.

To get around the official accounting system, some cinemas would sell movie-goers tickets for a little-known Russian documentary or short film and then show an entire new movie during the previews. That way, the cinemas skirted both American copyright laws and Russian laws that require distribution certificates from the Russian ministry of culture.

In June, the primary Kazakh-based distributor that had been illegally delivering Hollywood-licensed films to Russian cinemas announced it was pulling out of the business, blaming bad financials. Most Russian cinemas say they will now need to wait until Barbie’s digital release this autumn to show a version high-quality enough for the big screen.

The exit of western studios also spurred a drive to create more domestic content.

“Any war is also a revolution of opportunity,” said Zinaida Pronchenko, a Russian film critic.

While some prominent Russian actors and directors openly criticised the war and fled the country, they were quickly replaced by second-tier actors, she said. Funding started flowing to patriotic-themed movies: “Sports. War. Space,” she said. “They’ll give money to all of these things.”

Barbie, of course, falls into none of those categories. Some in the Moscow political establishment have pointed out that the film promotes the same liberal western values that Russia is fighting, including in what it describes as a “special military operation”.

Maria Butina, a Russian lawmaker convicted in the US for operating as an unregistered foreign agent, has called for a ban on the sale of Barbie dolls and the new Mattel movie, which she labelled as an “advertisement” for the agenda of the US Democratic party.

“What do we see [in the film]? Gays. Trans people. Women who have taken over the world. Nothing about the union between men and women, nothing about love,” she said in an appearance on the Russian Duma TV channel.

Still, demand for Barbie remains high, even for lower-quality viewings.

In Russia’s central city of Tyumen the Gorkiy cinema has already shown a pirated version of the film on its rooftop. Organisers noted that the quality might not suit “lovers of 4k resolution and ideal sound”.

Nikita Zabolotskikh, 17, has spent an estimated Rbs300,000 — or more than $3,000 — bringing Barbie to the big screen in the city of Perm. That process involved acquiring a pirated copy, hiring a Russian dubbing company and rolling out an extensive marketing campaign, he said. He also hired his own designer to build the iconic life-sized Barbie box that has become a staple at other Barbie premieres in the west.

In a telephone interview, Zabolotskikh, who works in the music festival industry, said he and a friend came up with the idea after reading news reports that the Kazakh company was ending its business — just as Barbie was about to hit cinemas worldwide.

The friends rented out a screen at a Perm cinema and showed a pirated copy of the movie — filmed at a Spanish-language theatre — for more than 50 people as a test run.

“The demand was unbelievable. People were losing their mind buying tickets . . . A huge number of people want to see Barbie,” he said.

They now plan to show a higher-quality, re-dubbed version of the film at Kinomax, one of Russia’s biggest cinema chains — with plans to expand to 15-20 other Russian cities afterwards.

“It’s the best-quality version on the [Russian] market,” he said confidently. “And probably will be for the next two to three months.”


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