Hollywood isn't ready to give screen time to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who's been excised from two upcoming studio features.
Fox's Red Sparrow (March 2) tells the story of a Russian spy (Jennifer Lawrence) wooed by the CIA to be a double agent. It's based on former CIA officer Jason Matthews' novel, which drew raves for its insights into current spy craft. When Fox exec Emma Watts optioned the book in 2013, she shifted the story from modern-day Russia to 1970s Budapest, nominally to give it a more "timeless" feel — and though Putin has a key role in the book, he was dropped.
Then, after Frances Lawrence came aboard as director, Watts shifted the story back to the present day. As Red Sparrow raced toward a January production start in total secrecy (including encrypted scripts that generate a user audit log), the studio "has been scrambling to reflect what is playing out 24/7 in the news," says a production source.
Despite the explosion of interest in the Kremlin following the U.S. election, Putin's character was not restored. Insiders describe the moves as "creative choices," but by avoiding Putin, Fox also is steering clear of any Russian hackers who might protest.
Additionally, Putin is missing from EuropaCorp's upcoming Kursk, the true story of a Russian submarine that sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2000, even though he appears in the source material, Robert Moore's best-seller A Time to Die,and was in early versions of the screenplay.
"For a studio to release a movie about Putin that makes him look like a fool would be suicide," says Ajay Arora, CEO of security firm Vera, which works with studios. "That's a certain way to be targeted [for retaliation]."
Though Putin may be off-limits thanks to hacking concerns, the film industry is finding the Russia theme too irresistible to ignore altogether. From studios looking to incorporate the current Kremlin obsession into plotlines to writers taking secret meetings with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about potential projects, there's a new Red Dawn rising in Hollywood.
"We've seen a lot of projects where Russians are portrayed as villains, but I don't think this is '80s redux," says Grandview Management's Jeff Silver, who reps several clients involved in projects that either take place in Russia or have Russians featured prominently. "The political climate is so much more fluid, nuanced and chaotic, and good screenplays and stories are reflecting that."
Grandview manages Charles Cumming and Arash Amel, who each penned drafts of The Tracking of a Russian Spy, which StudioCanal is prepping for a January start date. That film (not to be confused with Marc Webb's How to Catch a Russian Spy at Fox, with Oscar winner Michael Sugar producing) will tackle the au courant issue of fake news and disinformation campaigns, with Logan Lerman starring as a journalist who travels to Moscow and becomes a useful tool of the Kremlin.
Silver says the Russian subgenre is so hot right now that Grandview even had a writer whom he could not name due to a nondisclosure agreement travel to Moscow to visit Gorbachev to discuss a film on his life. Another manager with a high-profile client says, "Everything will be Russia for the next four years."
It's a path already well-worn. For many decades, Hollywood took aim at the Communist superpower with such films as Norman Jewison's comedy The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and John Milius' Red Dawn. But by the time MGM was developing its 2012 Red Dawn remake, the studio replaced Russia with China as the invading nemesis, only to change the villains to North Koreans in postproduction in an effort to appease China.
But Russian adversaries are back and will be featured in a number of forthcoming sequels. Wonder Woman will travel back in time to fight the Soviets in the Cold War for Warner Bros.' second outing. Despite being the victim of Hollywood's most devastating hack ever, Sony will wade into the territory in The Girl in the Spider's Web, in which the character of Lisbeth Salander becomes involved in Russian hacker intrigue. And Sylvester Stallone recently hinted that the next Rocky spin-off will return to a Russian antagonist (1984's Rocky IV, perhaps the best example of Cold War agitprop from a U.S. studio, saw Russian villain Ivan Drago kill Apollo Creed in the ring) for Creed II. MGM declined comment on the direction of the next saga.
But while Hollywood is willing to feed the public's hunger for all things Russia, studios will likely continue to play it safe when it comes to depicting the current leadership. After all, even Oliver Stone, who directed the pro-Russia documentary series The Putin Interviews, left the president out of last year's Snowden.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.