Within nine days of its January 1 wide release, the live-action/animated hybrid feature Cheburashka became the highest-grossing local film in Russian box office history. A few days later, it passed Avatar to become the biggest film in Russian box office history. Now, it’s nearly doubled its own record.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances that led to the film’s box office success.
What’s Cheburashka? Cheburashka is a popular fictional character in Russia, first introduced in the 1965 children’s book Gena the Crocodile and His Friends. The character got its own series of stop-motion animated films in the late 1960s and has appeared in several animated series in the decades since, most recently in 2009. The new feature, alternately titled Chebi: My Fluffy Friend, was first announced in 2021 with Central Partnership producing and handling distribution. It’s directed by Dmitriy Dyachenko, whose films have always put up impressive numbers at the Russian box office.
Russia’s top local film: On January 10, Cheburashka became the top-grossing Russian film of all time at the Russian box office. grossing 3.2 billion rubles in just its first nine days. The previous top-grossing Russian film, Son of a Rich (sometimes referred to as Serf or Kholop), finished its 2019 box office run at 3.08 billion rubles, needing 46 days to cross the 3-billion-ruble threshold. (We are keeping the figures in rubles, but to give a general idea, 3-billion rubles is around $40 million in US dollars.)
A league of its own: After its blistering start, it didn’t take long for Cheburashka to pass Avatar’s 3.5 billion ruble box office haul to become the top-grossing film in Russian box office history, domestic or foreign. On February 4, the film dwarfed that achievement by passing the 6-billion-ruble mark. According to the most recent box office reports, the film now sits at 6.3 billion rubles grossed.
Geopolitical realities:Cheburashka has undoubtedly benefited from a lack of competition at the Russian box office. Many countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, meaning that foreign films have been hard to come by at cinemas. That doesn’t mean there have been no screenings of Hollywood films. In fact, Avatar: The Way of Water has been playing across Russia since its release. Major distributors and cinema chains have avoided official involvement in the film’s exhibition. Instead, pirated copies have been screened by “film clubs” which rent out movie theaters and invite guests in to watch the film for “free,” with any financial exchanges made off the record. That means there are no box office numbers for the film, despite its wide availability in the country.
What does Cheburashka’s success mean for Russian cinemas? Probably very little. Anton Gorelkin, deputy head of the lower house of the Russian parliament’s committee on information policy, predicted a grave future for Russian theaters during a January 9 meeting, explaining, “One top-grossing film and even a successful holiday season are not enough to save movie theaters that are in dire straits.” If theaters can only rely on local films and unauthorized bootlegs, the future looks bleak for Russian cinemas.