Movie studios are abandoning Russia, far from the way they handled Nazi Germany

Entertainment giant Disney has announced that due to the “tragic humanitarian crisis” in Ukraine, it will “suspend” its planned Russian release of the upcoming Pixar animated feature “Turning Red”. Hours after Disney’s announcement, Warner Bros. said he was “suspending” his Russian premiere of “The Batman” in response to “the humanitarian crisis”. Sony intervened a few minutes later, “suspending” the Russian release of “Morbius”. Then came Paramount, which “paused” “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and Channing Tatum’s film “The Lost City.” Now, Netflix has suspended its service in the country.

Russia is a major market for American films, so such actions will hurt Hollywood’s bottom line. The first movie “Sonic the Hedgehog” brought in almost $11 million in Russia. Sony’s recent blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home” grossed $45 million.

To make these moves all the more remarkable, the American film industry has long tried not to upset its foreign business partners. Taking sides is therefore very out of step with the history of Hollywood. But the Hollywood giants recognize how much they benefit from global stability. And while Hollywood’s “break” is unlikely to change the outcome of the war beyond another blow to Russian morale, it is a significant statement of the industry’s willingness to risk profits when that stability is at risk.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has encountered an aggressive nationalist dictator who used a fanciful version of history to justify invading a Democratic neighbor. Indeed, when Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, the studio magnates reacted very differently.

Casual moviegoers, perhaps remembering Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1940 Hitler send-off, “The Great Dictator,” might believe that Hollywood led the charge in exposing Nazi militarism. He does not have. Before the United States entered the war in 1941, major studios produced only a few anti-Nazi pictures, including the largely forgotten “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939) and “The Mortal Storm” (1940). Even these films did well by downplaying critical elements of Nazi ideology such as anti-Semitism. The movies didn’t even use the words “Jewish” or “Jewish”. The Hollywood moguls were too afraid to anger the Nazi regime and risk access to the German market.

But efforts to cling to German markets went even further. In 1933, a few weeks after the Nazis took power, they expelled Jewish employees from German offices in American studios. Over the next few years, their censors banned Hollywood productions without explanation and blocked the export of profits from American films.

Surprisingly, Hollywood executives have adapted to these provocative moves. Representatives of the studio regularly passed scripts in front of Nazi diplomats. When Universal Studios head J. Cheever Cowdin visited Berlin in 1937 to relax censorship rules, he reminded Nazi officials that Universal’s board had recently fired the studio’s founder. Carl Laemmle as part of a corporate reshuffle, so that a Jew no longer ran the company.

In the summer of 1939, a few months after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, MGM invited Nazi film editors to visit the studio. Meanwhile, an ever-decreasing number of American-made feature films screened in Germany. The Americans still wanted in; it was the Nazis who tightened the screw. The last Hollywood studios still active in Germany finally closed their offices in Berlin in 1940 after concluding that censorship and monetary restrictions prevented them from making a profit.

Hollywood remained loyal to Germany even though its workers, including studio heads, despised the Nazis. A-list actors joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and contributed to charities helping refugees. Many film workers urged their bosses to make more anti-Nazi pictures.

Several factors influenced Hollywood’s compliance with tyranny. Money played a role. About half of Hollywood’s revenue was generated overseas. Germany was one of the largest foreign markets and had more movie theaters than any other European country. Abandoning it would not only mean giving up potential short-term benefits, but could also open up the entire European cinema market to Nazi productions in the long term.

But more than money was at stake.

Politically, it was safer for the studios to stay than to leave. Although most Americans considered themselves anti-Nazis, they were also deeply opposed to their country intervening in the war. Economic reprisals and anti-Nazi films exposed studios to accusations of warmongering, whether provoking a German response or convincing moviegoers to go pro-war.

As late as August 1941, the US Senate held hearings to investigate alleged anti-Nazi propaganda in Hollywood footage. Retaining its tenuous ties to Germany, the studios replicated President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to push the Nazis just hard enough to avoid a complete breakdown in relations.

Other realities also played a role. Movie moguls, most of whom were Jewish, feared that making anti-Nazi films or leaving Germany would spark domestic anti-Semitism — something they had long faced from audiences who loved their films but questioned their Americanism. Finally, Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s operated under a self-imposed but rigorously enforced production code that required filmmakers to respect citizens of other nations, a mandate that Hollywood executives interpreted as ” if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Given this history, it may seem surprising to see Hollywood take a stand against Vladimir Putin’s assault. But many of the factors that shaped Hollywood’s response to Hitler are no longer relevant. The production code is no more, fears of triggering anti-Semites play no discernible role in the Russian pause, and the outrage of the Biden administration and the American public towards Putin means that not disengaging from the Russian market would pose a much greater political risk.

The industry’s current “pause” is partly a punishment for violating the international order and partly an attempt to pressure the Russian people to demand an end to the war. It may also be a tacit acknowledgment that doing business with Russians right now is morally indefensible – just like making money for Germans would have been in the 1940s.

From the perspective of American studios, ideally the horror in Ukraine will end quickly so they can get back to business as usual. The use of the word “pause” and not “cease” certainly indicates that Hollywood does not want this act of protest to be permanent. It’s also worth noting that the invasion of Russia is such a profound disruption to the international order that studios felt safe to respond. Two years of supply chain disruptions, whether imposed on us by the pandemic or voluntarily imposed in response to conflict, have reminded us that a global economy in turmoil is bad for business everywhere.

Yet the studios have opened a door that may prove difficult to close, especially in an internet-connected world where, unlike the 1930s, potential movie audiences have taken notice of the atrocities happening in the world. Going forward, what will constitute such a blatant act of aggression that industry leaders will have to take a stand? And does it matter how much money the abuser brings to a movie’s bottom line? For example, given how often Hollywood studios have changed their products to meet the demands of the Chinese regime, it’s hard to imagine they would cut China in retaliation for the invasion of Taiwan.

These are questions that Hollywood was reluctant to confront before World War II. Now they’re being asked again – and they’re harder than ever to answer.

About Victoria Rothstein

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