Russia was the top market in terms of admissions for French cinema last year, cinema export agency Unifrance’s annual international box office report for 2023 revealed on Tuesday.
Given that Russia’s relations with Europe are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War in 1991 as its ongoing war on Ukraine rumbles on, the finding was a surprise.
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Per the data, Russia accounted for 7.09M, or 20% of the overall 37.4M international admissions for French cinema, but generated a smaller gross than Germany.
The Russian figures were driven by feature animation Miraculous: Ladybug and Cat Noir, The Movie, which was released on a record 1,877 screens for a French film and sold 3.53M tickets.
Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, co-starring Johnny Depp, also did well in Russia, selling just over one million tickets.
While U.S. Studios are boycotting Russia, European Union sanctions do not include films sales to the territory.
French sales agents addressed Russia’s pole position in a panel after the presentation of the report within the framework of Unifrance’s annual Paris Rendez-vous.
Miraculous producer Anton Soumache, whose company On Entertainment is part of the Mediawan kids and family group, stood by the film’s release in Russia.
He said the deal with Moscow-based distributor Exponenta Film and the country’s main TV channel Rossiya 1 had been done prior to the outbreak of the war in 2022.
“Animation is a long process… Would we have done the deal today? I can’t say,” he told the panel.
“We’re trying to talk to children around the world and we don’t want to politicize them in the debates,” he continued.
“When we make animation, our job is to present something in an intelligent manner that sparks children and helps them to dream and imagine.”
“Miraculous already existed worldwide as a series, including in Russia. We didn’t see the point in penalizing the children there, and denying them the film.”
Soumache added he had been surprised by the success of the film in the territory.
“If it had done 100,000 admissions, we would have been happy,” he said, openly acknowledging that the lack of U.S. studio titles had undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.
Talking to Deadline after the debate, Soumache said the company would be taking a different tack with the Miraculous sequel which is currently in the works.
“We won’t do a Russian pre-sale on that one… I really don’t know how it will pan out,” he said, explaining that the film’s availability in the territory would depend on future geo-political developments.
“Animation takes time, so we have time to decide further down the line,” he said.
Alice Lesort, Head of Sales at Paris-based Films du Losange, said the company let the directors and producers of the films it handles decide on whether they wanted to sell their films to Russia.
“We take an individualized approach,” she said. “We systematically ask our directors and producers for their opinion, on whether to accept or not an offer out of Russia.”
She added that when the conflict broke out there had a been a lot of debate between French and European sales agents within the framework of Unifrance or other bodies such as French sales agent association ADEF and the pan-European organization Europa International.
“It was very complicated. There were arguments that went in every direction. Selling a film to Russia, even if it doesn’t generate many entries because it’s an arthouse film, is still contributing to the Russian economy in one way or another” she said.
“We can also sell to distributors with whom we share the same values or positions, that we know are anti-Putin, but we don’t know what will happen after the theatrical release when the film is then sold to a TV station. We can’t stop it from airing before or after a propaganda ad.”
She cited other arguments such as that selling French and European cinema to Russia provided an alternative to government propaganda, or that cultural boycotts rarely worked.
Lesort said Les Films du Losange was working on a case-by-case basis and also trying to keep in contact with Russian distributors who were not involved or in support of the war in Ukraine.
“We want to keep this contact for a long as possible,” she said.
Lesort said French clients tended to take their time to reflect on a Russian offer but up until now all had refused to allow their films to screen in the country.
This was in contrast to producers and directors outside of France, in territories such as Germany and Denmark, where it was generally an immediate, emphatic ‘no’, with some contacts even angered by the question.
Also talking in her role as co-president of Europa International, Lesort said there were different approaches across Europe.
“There are some countries where there are strict rules set in place by their culture ministries banning sales, such as in Poland. There are also countries where it is simply not acceptable. Everyone is impacted by where they’re from,” she said.
Producer Bertrand Faivre, who operates under the banners of Le Bureau in Paris and The Bureau in London and is also the founder of The Bureau Sales, joked that some of the types of films his companies make and sell did not really chime with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“With Russia, given the nature of the films we produce… films about police violence (The Monopoly Of Violence), tax evasion (Tax Me If You Can) and whistle blowers (La Syndicaliste), I would be over the moon,” he said.
Faivre recounted how an attempt to sell La Syndicaliste to Russia, where its star Isabelle Huppert has a following, had backfired due to its storyline about a woman who attempts to blow the whistle on the powers that be over a job destroying plan.
“We sent the film to a distributor that we work with regularly. They sent back a totally surrealist email, saying, ‘The Russian people aren’t too keen on whistle-blowers and wouldn’t understand her motivations.’ I nearly framed it,” he said.
Faivre added that as a matter of principle he did not like the idea of “frontiers” and preventing films from travelling to certain territories, whatever the reason.
“I love Renoir who said, ‘My homeland is cinema’. Frontiers annoy me. Culture is a way to bring down barriers between people. Out of principle, the wider we can distribute what we do, the better.”
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