A Ukrainian film distributor co-owned by the producer of the patriotic Russian movies Stalingrad and Battalion managed to secure licenses to distribute and broadcast films in Ukraine during the first year of Russia's full-scale invasion, an investigation by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service has found.
Though the 35 licenses were legal, their provision by the Ukrainian State Film Agency illustrates the difficulty Ukraine faces in separating itself from the Russian filmmaking sector, even amid war.
UFD, the Ukrainian film distributor that received the licenses, is an example of those ties. Its co-founder, Michael Schlicht -- called "one of Russia's leading film executives" by the U.S. entertainment-industry magazine Variety in 2015 -- formerly oversaw 20th Century Fox's operations in the Commonwealth of Independent States before moving on to run Sony Pictures in Russia.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, who has been a producer, journalist, and CEO of one of Ukraine's largest TV companies, 1+1, has co-produced at least one Schlicht project -- Vysotsky: Thank You for Being Alive, a 2011 film about legendary Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotsky -- according to updated Ukrainian and Russian media biographies.
Schlicht, 67, a German citizen born in what was then East Germany, co-owns two Russian filmmaking companies, Monumental Vision and United Filmmakers, with the former head of Russia's Federal Agency for State Property Management, Dmitry Pristanskov. The U.S. cinema entrepreneur Paul Heth is a second partner.
Pristanskov is a former vice president of the massive Russian mining company Norilsk Nickel and, according to the risk-monitoring site SPARK-Interfax, a former board member of at least two Russian defense-industry firms.
Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, discovered that UFD received 35 Ukrainian film licenses between February 24, 2022, the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and March 13, 2023, when Schlicht officially ended his investment in UFD.
The licenses the Ukrainian State Film Agency, also known as Derzhkino, granted to UFD over that period do not include any Russian-made films, however. Dominated by U.S. productions, they range from the 3-D animation My Fairy Troublemaker to the thriller Rogue Agent and the action movie Vendetta, with Bruce Willis and Mike Tyson.
With cinemas now sometimes used as bomb shelters and public funding diverted to the military, the war has financially battered Ukraine's film industry, Variety has reported.
UFD received 4.3 percent of the 279 licenses issued by Derzhkino in 2022, publicly available records indicate.
In a June 27 statement on its website in response to Schemes' probe, Derzhkino said it had "no legal grounds for refusing to issue state certificates for UFD LLC [to have the] right to distribute films."
Under Ukrainian law, films can be banned if the government officially names one of their "participants" a threat to national security. Schlicht has not been designated as such.
Derzhkino will deny licenses for "films produced by individuals and legal entities of the aggressor state," Derzhkino First Deputy Chairwoman Yulia Shevchuk wrote Schemes in a June 19 letter, referring to Russia.
In a statement on its website on June 27, the agency said it had "no knowledge" that Schlicht's registered address is in Moscow, even though Ukraine's business registry lists a street in the Russian capital as the movie producer's address for a company, Ukrainian Film Distribution, which is part of UFD. Berlin is his address for the UFD registration.
Schlicht did not respond to a phone call and multiple messages from RFE/RL seeking comment.
His biography for the Russian Producers' Guild states that he has worked in Russia since 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
Without elaboration or, apparently, a search of the business registry, Derzhkino alleged in its statement that Schemes' reporting was based on "unverified sources."
Over the past few years, UFD does not appear to have applied for a license for a film produced by Schlicht. Nonetheless, at least two of his films have been denied broadcast and distribution in Ukraine.
In 2015, Derzhkino banned the Schlicht-produced film Stalingrad, a dramatization of the pivotal World War II battle, after the Ukrainian government sanctioned its director, Fyodor Bondarchuk, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, for backing Moscow's military aggression against Ukraine and seizure of its Crimea region in 2014.
Another movie produced by Schlicht, Battalion, a 2015 drama about an all-female Russian military battalion at the end of World War I, was banned under a law that forbids the dissemination or broadcast of Russian films made after 2014.
Yet, though Derzhkino stresses it has no reason to block UFD's licenses, UFD now distances itself from Schlicht, once its primary investor.
The head of UFD, Andriy Dyachenko, told Schemes that the distributor has not worked with Schlicht since 2022 but could not update its registry information at the time since Ukraine's business registry was "closed." According to the National Information Systems, which runs the database, however, the business registry was inaccessible only from February 24 until March 6, 2022.
But while Schlicht formally ended his involvement with UFD in March of this year, his daughter, Polina Schlicht, represented UFD at the Cannes Film Festival in May, according to a festival manager, Aleksandra Zakharchenko. Polina Schlicht later told Schemes she has no ties with UFD.
Dyachenko, for his part, denied Schlicht had represented the company at Cannes. When shown proof, he accused Schemes of "one-sidedness" in its reporting about UFD.
The film distributor's cinematic ties with Russia should not alarm Ukrainians, he suggested earlier.
"Our president worked in Russia, Minister of Culture Tkachenko worked in Russia," Dyachenko said. "So, what are we supposed to do?"