One of the things I perpetually miss in Russia is the American movie-going experience.
The movies themselves are here. American movies. Big Hollywood blockbusters. Award-baiting limited releases. We get them all and then some – it’s easier to find an Asian, European or Latin American film on a big screen in Moscow than in New York.
Russia’s appetite for movies is growing, and rapidly. Most films open here around the same time as in the US. And Moscow certainly doesn’t lack for theaters (at present 215 and counting). So yeah, catching a flick really isn’t hard. But for me, enjoying it sometimes is.
Because of the voices.
Since moving to Moscow, I have discovered that I am allergic to dubbing – even good dubbing, where the timbre of the voice-over actor matches that of the one onscreen, when the lip movement syncs up perfectly. Still, hearing someone’s fake voice – because I KNOW it’s not them – is like nails on a chalkboard.
Voice and language disparity are the two biggest obstacles standing between myself and my suspension of disbelief and proper movie enjoyment. In fact, two years in, I still find myself trying to lip-read what the actors are saying and dub the movies back from Russian to English in my head.
Especially the jokes and the snappy one-liners.
If, like myself, you were one of the 38 billion* people who have watched Marvel’s The Avengers, you might remember Tony Stark throwing some funny jabs at Thor — invoking Shakespeare in the Park and Point Break. These jokes were left on the Russian dubbing-room floor, because the above cultural references would have been meaningless to the local viewer. Instead we got some mumbled-something-something, which had me running to “Google: Avengers quotes” as soon as I got home from the theater.
Thus, whenever I can – and especially if vocal stylings of Rickman, Cumberbatch or the Greater Hemsworth are involved – I try to watch the new releases in original English.
Moscow, however, does not make this as convenient as one would expect given the vast and vibrant expat community here.
According to several estimates, at any given time there are up to 100,000 foreigners from the Far Abroad** legally residing in Moscow. It’s a pretty safe bet that only a small portion of those are fully fluent in Russian.
**(Near Abroad = former Soviet Republics; Far Abroad = everything else)
Now, can you imagine a 100,000-people town with only 2.5 small movie theaters? Because that’s exactly how many foreign-language theaters there are in Moscow. Two — 35mm and Pioneer — consistently play latest foreign releases in their original languages with Russian subtitles. They have 10 screens between the two of them (that’s about two and a half times less than the number of screens in my high school-era movie hub of Warwick, RI — population: 82,000). Mind you, one of the theaters (35mm) mostly plays niche releases like Romeo and Juliet, Machete Kills, and UK stage productions, while the other one (Pioneer) is located a 15-minute walk from the nearest metro stop, one that itself is in a fairly shady/dodgy rail station area.
The remaining half a theater is the 5 Zvyozd (5 Stars) cinema franchise, which arbitrarily decides to play a wide-release movie in its original language during maybe one or two showtimes on any given week at one of the two possible locations with no coherent annotation provided on its website as to which movie that might be and exactly when/where it could be enjoyed.
This is what I look like when trying to find a movie I want to watch in the language I want to watch it:
Sigh. I guess it could be worse? There could be no foreign-language cinemas at all. But also, it’s Moscow, a world-class city, and I have faith that Moscow can do better.
Here are some other unique aspects of Moscow’s movie-going experience:
The Good: Beer and Food.
Most concessions stands serve beer – draft and bottle – and you know I would never object to that. Some fancier theaters have mini-restaurants with fully-stocked bars, and you are free to enjoy your Tiramisu and your Long Island Iced Tea in front of the big screen. The only downside is potentially missing some critical on-screen action when you have to take the necessary break during the 2.5-hour Superhero Saga. Then again, that’s also an opportunity to get a refill!
The Bad: Small Screens.
Ridiculously small. Not even by American movie theater standards — I’m talking ‘large home-TV’-small. ‘Should sit in the first three rows’-small. Unless you’re going to see a special effects-laden tentpole film in the first couple of weeks of its release, be prepared to see it on something marginally bigger than this:
Still bigger than my laptop screen though, so off to the movies I go.
The Frustrating: Release Schedules
I like being in the pop-culture loop. Which means I want my movies at the same time that they are being discussed on Entertainment Weekly, CeleBitchy, Lainey Gossip, Hollywood Reporter, Vulture etc. As I mentioned above, most of the time the tentpoles come out the same week as in the US, just, strangely, a day earlier. I actually went to see The Avengers at 9 am on a Thursday before work last year, hot breakfast in tow. But sometimes I have to wait a couple of weeks or even months for some of my most anticipated films and thus also having to take great care to not have them spoilered by friends or The Internet.
That is why beer is essential not just at the movies, but to keep sanity while waiting for Rush to open with a 3-week delay DAMMIT!
The Mindboggling: Prices
In the last year I have paid anywhere from 100 to 840 Russian rubles (just over $3 vs $27) to see an American new release, dubbed in Russian, in 3D, in a regular section (none of this VIP BS), on a proper BIG screen, in — or very close to — the Central district of Moscow. I understand some variation due to day of the week or time of the showing, but by a factor of 9? Or even higher, because I have heard of a couple of theaters charging upwards of RR1000 for a ticket. Boggles the mind.
Once again, this wondrous city does not stand up to logic or reason — but I guess that’s what makes living here so exciting!
Cinema Hall 35mm — a favorite among Moscow expats. Central location. At least one really big screen (somehow all the movies I’ve gone to see there were playing on the same screen). Anything that opens in limited release in the US; anything you might expect on an Oscar or BAFTA shortlist; widest selection of non-English foreign cinema, especially pretentious art-house fare; documentaries; UK stage productions. Very user-friendly website with an English option.
Pioneer — most of the Hollywood tentpoles on the screens far too small for proper CGI enjoyment. Might want to BYOB (technically not supposed to but nobody checks) because the concession stand is small and there aren’t a lot of cafés nearby. Really comfy seats though.
English-language weekly newspaper The Moscow Times does a bang-up job rounding up what’s playing where and in which language, both in the movie theaters and on the local festival circuit.
Afisha (“Billboard” in Russian) is the most comprehensive listing of current and coming attractions in and around Moscow. This includes all the movie theaters, with showtimes, reviews and online ticket purchase options, but does not indicate whether a film is playing in another language. I looked up one of the 5 Stars theaters, which, according to The Moscow Times is playing Blue Jasmine in English; the Afisha site simply notes that some films might be playing in the original language, but does not indicate which ones/which showtimes. Also, the site itself is available only in Russian.
Enjoy your show!