Movie Theaters in Ukraine Are Making a Surprising Comeback

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viewers watch shining light in the cinema - Credit: Alexander/Adobestock
viewers watch shining light in the cinema - Credit: Alexander/Adobestock

On the morning of May 18, hours after the Cannes Film Festival kicked off, Polina Schlicht huddled with fellow international film buyers on the lawn of Le Grand Hôtel. As the managing director of Berlin-based Monumental Pictures, a company that licenses films for Ukraine via UFD, its distribution arm in the besieged country, Schlicht was surprisingly busy. The previous night, she had attended the premiere of the festival’s opening-night film, a zombie comedy called Final Cut from French director Michel Hazanavicius, and was considering making a deal to release it in Ukraine.

“The film is so funny I was crying tears yesterday,” she said. “Actually, I wanted the funny moments to stop because I was tired of laughing.”

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The fact that Schlicht is looking to acquire any projects at all might come as a surprise to many given that Ukraine has endured more than 100 days of shelling as the Russian invasion continues to rage. But Schlicht says Ukrainian moviegoers have slowly returned to theaters as of late March. After film distribution came crashing to a halt on Feb. 24, when Russia began a so-called special military operation against its neighbor, two-thirds of movie theaters in Ukraine are now back up and running. Out of about 200 cinemas, Schlicht says, 125 were back online as of the end of May, mostly located in Western and Central Ukraine, with more preparing to reopen. Only 20 percent of the country’s cinemas are located in combat zones and will remain closed indefinitely.

“People are 100 percent looking to be distracted,” says Schlicht. “It’s mostly the hardcore moviegoers. The ones who are risk averse, they stay at home.”

Schlicht’s figures are backed up by data from industry tracker Box Office Mojo, which, indeed, shows that Hollywood movies are once again playing in the country. After a one-month lull, Ukraine began reporting box-office revenues again in late March, with the Jennifer Lopez rom-com Marry Me holding down the top spot for three weeks; between March 24 and April 10, it brought in a little over $11,000 in revenue. For the period of May 5-8, Box Office Mojo shows that the No. 1 film was the latest James Bond entry, No Time to Die, while Schlicht’s data — culled from a weekly trade report circulated to distributors operating in the country — has it in the second spot, following the Tom Holland adventure flick Uncharted.

Children outside a cinema in the Podil district on October 6, 2020, in Kyiv, Ukraine. - Credit: Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Children outside a cinema in the Podil district on October 6, 2020, in Kyiv, Ukraine. - Credit: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Before 2014, Russian and Ukrainian box-office revenues were lumped together as one territory, dubbed CIS for the Commonwealth of Independent States. But that year, as tensions between the two countries mounted amid Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, Schlicht’s company began carving out Ukraine distribution deals separately. To date, she has licensed more than 60 movies exclusively for distribution in Ukraine, including 2019’s Knives Out, 2018’s Deadpool 2, and 2016’s La La Land, and will distribute John Wick: Chapter 4 there next year. Before Disney bought Fox in 2020, UFD was the exclusive licensee of 20th Century Fox films in Ukraine and is also now one of the biggest distributors of independent and local content in the country.

At the onset of the 2022 Russian invasion, which has thus far resulted in more than 4,000 civilian deaths according to the U.N., Schlicht, who is of Russian, Ukrainian, and German descent, hopped a flight from Moscow to Berlin via Istanbul because there were no direct flights. (Her company previously operated out of Moscow, Kyiv, and Berlin.) In late March, independent cinemas in Ukraine began operating, followed by the chains. As of late May, cinema chains Planeta Kino and Multiplex are active again, albeit in a limited mode given that a curfew has been imposed throughout the country. (Cinemas must close at 9 p.m., Schlicht says). Exhibitors have significantly reduced their ticket prices. Pre-invasion, the average price was $4. Now it’s about $2.50.

The first major studio tentpole to launch in Ukraine post-conflict was Warner Bros.’ The Batman on May 12 — which “performed low because everyone [had] watched it already online,” Schlicht says. That was followed by Universal’s Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Ambulance on May 19, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore on May 26, and Top Gun: Maverick on June 2. On the horizon are Morbius (June 9), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (June 16) and Jurassic World Dominion (June 25). As of now, all of the Hollywood majors have new films playing in Ukraine, though they are making around 10-15 percent of their pre-invasion estimates.

Before heading out for a day of back-to-back screenings at the festival in Cannes, Schlicht struck a hopeful note: “Seven million people left Ukraine since Feb. 24 and many of them were the key cinema-going audience — children, young adults, and women between 26 and 45 years old. But people have started coming back to their cities and towns. The service sector is reviving slowly. Viewers are gradually returning to the cinemas. June will show if we will continue seeing a significant increase in admission rate with films like Fantastic Beasts, Morbius, Top Gun, Jurassic Park. And we should continue to feel optimistic. Movies are what make us feel normal again.”

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