Throughout the month of June, Brad Pitt took his very expensive blockbuster movie World War Z on a whirlwind international press tour, making appearances in London, Germany, Australia, South Korea, and, near the end of the month, Russia. The zombie flick kicked off the Moscow Film Festival with a glitzy red carpet premiere and great fanfare, and the time spent amid the candy-colored turrets in the Red Square paid off; World War Z has taken in over $24 million at the box office in Russia, the most money it made in any foreign territory save for South Korea.
Just a week before that premiere, the lower branch of the Russian government passed a bill that banned "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," and nine days after Pitt walked the red carpet in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin signed it into law. It was the latest in a series of moves to criminalize "homosexual propaganda" in Russia, the first of which passed back in January.
Hollywood has long been an ally in the fight for LGBT rights in America, from helping to knock down stereotypes by putting gay couples on primetime television shows to rallying against Proposition 8 in California. The rush of prominent celebrities to come out publicly as gay has reduced the newsworthiness of an actor disclosing his or her sexuality from national cover story to off-hand mentions in longer feature profiles.
As these accounts become more and more prominent, actors, films, and studios could begin to face similar questions about their movie launches in Russia to those facing the Sochi Olympics organizers. After all, it's the best way to promote their movies.
Russia has become one of the biggest international consumers of Hollywood movies, rising to the eighth biggest market, thanks to a flurry of new theaters being built and a love for 3D technology. In 2012, the country spent $1.2 billion at the cinema, and only 13% of that went to locally produced films. By 2017, it should be the fifth biggest market, surpassing the United Kingdom and France.
Pitt and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) have made ballyhooed appearances in Moscow since the anti-LGBT legislation was first passed in the Kremlin's lower chamber; earlier this year, Tom Cruise (Oblivion); Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen); James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz (Oz the Great and Powerful); Elijah Wood (Maniac); and Jason Statham (Parker) made trips to bow their movies in the Red Square.
Pitt once donated $100,000 to same-sex marriage causes, while Franco has long crusaded for equal rights. But they said nothing while in Russia. In fact, there has been little activism from celebrities at all. Lady Gaga and Madonna spoke out early this year, and in early July, Tilda Swinton waved a rainbow flag in front of the Kremlin in early July. Otherwise, it has been radio silence.
"If not a boycott, then they should certainly use their fame" to aid the cause of LGBT rights, Oscar-winning director Rob Epstein told BuzzFeed. In 1985, he became the first out filmmaker to win an Academy Award on national television, taking the trophy home for his documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Along with Jeffrey Friedman, he directed the upcoming biopic Lovelace. "Elizabeth Taylor, in our documentary Battle of amfAR, speaks to that so eloquently. She says that's the only reason to be famous — the only reason to be famous is if you use it for cause. So one would hope that's what people would do in that circumstance."
There is plenty of precedent for celebrities protesting a country based on discriminatory politics, including the boycott of South Africa during apartheid, as well as the decision by some musicians to not perform in Israel due to opposition to conflict with the Palestinians.
In the coming months, there will be a litany of star-loaded films to hit Russian screens. In August and September, audiences there will be greeted by movies featuring Matt Damon (Elysium); Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington (2 Guns); Adam Sandler (Grown Ups 2); Jennifer Aniston (We're the Millers); Seth Rogen and James Franco (This Is The End); Vin Diesel (Riddick); and Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake (Runner Runner).
"I don't think movie studios can pretend that [all is well] when it's not," says Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign. "The premiere of a movie involves a celebratory moment that is associated with happiness, and these companies are making money off of this. That is not a fair or accurate accounting of history, at least right now for a whole segment of the Russian population, and it is incumbent on these companies as well as the participants in these productions to ensure that there is a careful accounting of what is going on."
NBC will broadcast next year's Winter Olympics from Sochi, and is faced with a dilemma: How does it acknowledge the horrible legislation and violence that has been lashing Russia's LGBT community, while also protecting its multi-billion dollar investment in broadcasting the games? So far, the network has done its best to avoid the issue, giving BuzzFeed a relatively noncommittal statement this past Friday. Given that there is not even any real discussion of the games being moved at this point, any action NBC might take — from discussing the political situation on air to making some sort of monetary donation — will be seen by many as window dressing.
Just as with NBC, it's hard to envision studios deciding to cut off a lucrative pipeline of cash, especially during a summer that has seen a lot of disappointing returns on expensive movies in the United States. And Sainz reasoned that American movies help spread a message of progress, so to remove them from theaters would be a mistake. So don't expect American movies to just disappear from Russian theaters. But actors could be compelled to take a stand as the crisis deepens and becomes more public — whether that means waving flags in defiance like Swinton or taking more direct actions, like speaking out at premieres or spreading their message at rallies.