Avery British bear found itself stuck in the middle of a Russian battle between public entertainment and limiting foreign influence.

The day before the animated family film Paddington 2 was scheduled to debut in cinemas, Russia's Ministry of Culture postponed the release from January 18 to February 1, sparking a backlash from the country's Association of Cinema Owners.

In a Facebook statement, the organisation called the decision a "gross interference" by the Government, and the Ministry of Culture ultimately relented, with the film opening at the weekend.

The incident illustrated Russia's ongoing initiative to prop up its own film industry, one where nine of 10 films are government-funded and often cast Russia in a positive light. The cinema is just one domain where the modern Russian system walks a fine line of sheltering citizens from Western ideals that may not agree with President Vladimir Putin's view of the world and Russia's role in it.


A law allows the Ministry of Culture to bump foreign films, such as Paddington 2, if their release dates coincide with that of a locally produced film. The rule was enacted two years ago. At the time, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky seemed to make a veiled threat regarding the content of Russian cinema.

"We won't fight for every [Russian] film," he said then. "We will set financial, political or ideological priorities."

In 2015, Andrei Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, a movie about Russia produced by Russians, had its release date postponed by the Ministry of Culture even as it was a hit at international film festivals and won a Golden Globe.

The bleak tale of a man's battle with a corrupt bureaucrat was criticised as anti-Russian and undermining Putin. In response, Russia outlawed movies "defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order". The Ministry of Culture ultimately reversed course on that legislation, and public curiosity led to the film's wide release in Russia.

Paddington voiced by Ben Whishaw in a scene from Paddington 2. Photo / AP
Paddington voiced by Ben Whishaw in a scene from Paddington 2. Photo / AP

Medinsky said at the time that the characters, shown taking swigs of vodka, "are not Russians" and that films "filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness over our existence should not be financed with taxpayers' money". Russia banned swearing in arts and media in 2014, which meant that a sanitised version of the film ran in theatres.

The release of Paddington 2 was not postponed because of its content, but because of what appeared to be an attempt to eliminate box office competition for the homegrown Scythian, a historical drama also scheduled to debut on January 18, and Going Vertical, a patriotic film about the USSR's Olympic basketball triumph over the US team in 1972. Amid heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, Going Vertical is now Russia's highest-grossing film ever.

"We will do everything in the interests of the industry, Russian cinema, but not in the interests of Hollywood," said Medinsky.

In its statement, the Russian Association of Cinema Owners said this was not the first time the Government had intervened in a release date, but it found the last-minute nature of the decision especially outrageous, citing economic damage to the theatres and distributors, who had advertised a January 18 date for Paddington 2. Tickets bought in advance had to be refunded.

Several Russian producers, directors and actors penned an open letter arguing that government support had led to a 120 per cent increase in box office revenue for local films since 2011. The practice of granting Russian movies the best release dates while foreign films are occasionally "moved" to a different date is one manifestation of that backing.

Just three years ago, Medinsky considered introducing a cap on the number of movies imported to the country each year, according to the Guardian. Then last year, he proposed to lawmakers that one way to boost the Russian film industry would be to make tickets for foreign movies more expensive than local ones, as the state budget for cinema is less than half of what Hollywood spends on a single blockbuster.