Agnieszka Odorowicz: Polish cinema is out of the slump
Agnieszka Odorowicz, General Director of the Polish Film Institute. Photo by Marcin Kułakowski, the Polish Film Institute
On May 6, 2014, Poland’s Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper published an interview by Barbara Hollender with Agnieszka Odorowicz, General Director of the Polish Film Institute. The interview is reprinted below with permission.
Barbara Hollender, Rzeczpospolita: Ten years ago, as we were joining the European Union, the Polish film industry was a free-for-all; there was no money, the production rate was at about 15 films per year, and audiences were not too keen on watching Polish films. Today, we have an annual output of 35 to 40 new feature films, and millions of cinema admissions. We have come a long way. And it all began with the new Act on Cinematography.
Agnieszka Odorowicz, General Director of the Polish Film Institute: When I became deputy minister of culture in 2004, passing this law in Parliament, a law for which filmmakers had fought for ten years, became one of our top priorities. And we succeeded – first in uniting the filmmaking community, then in convincing members of parliament to vote in favour of this legislation. On June 30, 2005, the new film law was passed in Parliament. Its provisions called for the establishment of a new and effective organization, i.e. the Polish Film Institute. It was also necessary to design and build a system of securing payment from broadcasters, cable operators, digital satellite service operators, film distributors, and exhibitors, and introduce a system of financial support for the film industry. Finally, a crucial step was convincing the European Commission to give permission for supporting film through state aid. Today, I think we have reason to be content: Polish cinema is out of the slump and is doing very well.
When [Prime Minister] Donald Tusk moved some of the funds allocated to local roads to benefits for parents of handicapped children, one of the right-wing weekly magazines published a list of sources that could have been easy targets of such financial transfers. One of these was the Polish Film Institute with its budget of 140 million PLN.
We have a budget of approximately 150 million PLN per year, but only about 7.9 million is from public funding. The overhead of the Institute, which is what this public funding is used for, accounts for less than six percent of our total resources. So we are in fact Poland’s cheapest paying agency. This should be compared with overhead in the financial sector, which is at approximately 15-20 percent. The remaining part of our budget, approx. 142.1 million PLN, is paid by our contributors and goes not only towards co-financing film production, but also to developing film and audiovisual education in middle schools and high schools, supporting small cinemas, and digital remastering of the masterpieces of Polish cinema. I don’t know how the right-wing journalists might convince our contributors to allocate these funds elsewhere.
The new financing system at first caused massive protests. The business side of the audiovisual industry saw this as forced taxation and believed that their money would go to waste. Have these protests quieted down?
After nine years, our former opponents have turned into our greatest allies. Today, they are members of the Council of the Polish Film Institute, assisting us with their experience; recently they even named me Person of the Year.
How would you explain this change of heart?
I am an economist with a background in culture management, so I knew from the start that organizing the market and giving it a chance to grow is in everyone’s best interest. But the people in the film business were quick to understand it, too. The good condition of Polish cinema today gives broadcasters bankable titles that attract big advertising budgets, the number of cinema admissions has started to rise again, audiences are interested in domestic films, and their international appeal is also increasing. This generates profits for producers, exhibitors, distributors, and the media. When it comes to the great leap forward of our film industry in recent years, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2005, Polish films marked a total of only 700,000 admissions; in 2013, this number rose to over seven million. The record-breaking year 2011 marked over 11 million admissions. That’s almost 15 times more than a mere nine years earlier. In good years, domestic productions have a market share of 25 to 30 percent. What’s more, films with a high artistic quality are often successful at the box-office; a few examples of this are films by Agnieszka Holland, Wojciech Smarzowski, Małgośka Szumowska, and Leszek Dawid. In the old days, producers had to struggle to find a distributor for their films; today, the situations is reversed – it is distributors who compete for Polish titles.
That’s the distribution market. How would you assess the production market?
It has also changed and become more democratic. In 2005, all the funds for film production in Poland were in the hands of six state-run studios and three private producers. Today, there are over 130 production companies.
Isn’t that excessive? Wouldn’t that result in a situation where instead of creative producers we have a crowd of random people who are only in it for the money and don’t know how to cooperate with their directors or don’t care about promoting their films or finding distribution channels?
No. The weak and the dishonest get pushed out of the market. Many of today’s production companies were launched by the young generation – people who speak foreign languages and are not afraid to travel the world in search of co-producers for Polish directors, and know what they need to do to promote and sell their films. As it turned out, small production companies can be great. Examples? Let’s take Otter Films. Anna Wydra has only a handful of employees, and yet she has been nominated for an Academy Award for Bartek Konopka’s Królik po berlińsku (Rabbit a la Berlin), has several documentaries in production, and is currently meticulously working on her first feature. Agnieszka Kurzydło made her debut as a producer with [two] films that represented us at Berlinale. I am in favour of competition. I am glad such companies have sprung up; they have an equal chance of competing for financial support from the Polish Film Institute.
But there is always the question of who should get the subsidy.
That’s a risk that comes with the territory. What we’re dealing with is an artistic production that needs to be judged before it is actually created. Plus we are dealing with public funds, which results in a need for transparency. At first we thought that the expert system should be anonymous. The experts would change on a session to session basis. There was also the question of whether the director’s earlier works and producer’s credibility should also be taken into consideration. After all, the final outcome of the movie is a direct result of their talent and skills. So we changed the rules and made the process open. But the expert commissions were too enthusiastic in assessing multiple projects. We would receive 30 recommended projects, when we only had enough funds to support ten. That resulted in a temptation to give subsidies to projects that applied for the lowest sums. These were often mainstream projects. That’s not good either. After consulting with filmmakers, we designed the current expert system. The committee leaders and their advisors work for a year, their decision is binding, and they take responsibility for their recommendations. And the head of the Polish Film Institute has a reserve of 15 percent for discretionary use; this allows the mission of the Polish Film Institute to be pursued.
And yet filmmakers continue to complain.
So be it. The Polish Film Institute receives about 90 feature projects a year, when we only have enough funds to support 40 films. That leaves 50 potential producers and directors feeling disappointed about not being able to produce the films they are working on. And these statistics won’t change, because the money pile isn’t growing. I was hired by the state of Poland to make decisions, some of which might be unpopular or difficult. But nobody could accuse us of not giving anyone a fair chance. We encourage first-time filmmakers and a variety of films in terms of both subject matter and form. We want audiences with different tastes and interests to have something to see at the cinema.
In your opinion, is the new system working well?
Are you asking whether the experts always make the right call? No. There are no perfect solutions. Mistakes can be made; the important thing is to learn from them. Last year, I gave the entire 15 percent of my reserve funds to Jan Komasa’s film Miasto 44 (Warsaw 44), which had been rejected by the experts. And today I think that was a good decision.
But the scripts about the Warsaw Uprising that won the competition of the Polish Film Institute a few years ago never went into production.
They were too expensive. And it turned out that, at the time, only we and the Warsaw Rising Museum were interested in telling a story about the 1944 uprising. However, we did participate in the making of two other films that will be released theatrically this year. The first of these is Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising), produced by the museum using archive footage. The second is the aforementioned feature by Jan Komasa.
Was it a mistake to reject the Smoleńsk movie?
That project was assessed just like any other project, in our two-stage process. The first stage committee recognized the screenplay’s pros and cons, but, in the words of committee leader Sylwester Chęciński, due to the significance and political weight of the subject matter, the project passed to stage two. In the second stage of the process, the committee leaders found flaws in the screenplay; flaws that render financial support for the film unjustified. This was a professional decision, not a political one. Just like terminating the agreement with Apple Film Production for failing to settle the production accounts on their feature Pokłosie (Aftermath).
And yet these are the accusations being made against the Institute.
The Institute cannot terminate a contract with a producer for political reasons or for artistic reasons – if a film turns out worse than expected, for example. We grant subsidies, but we do not enter the film set, we don’t stand behind the camera, and we don’t sit in the editing room. However, we do have an obligation to do our due diligence in spending public money; if a producer fails to comply or breaches the contract, then we have a zero tolerance policy. Whether it’s a film about Jedwabne or any other topic – if public funds are spent in ways that overstep the provisions set out in the contract, we will always have to turn to litigation against the producer.
The problem is that a project that isn’t mainstream has almost no chance of being produced without support from the Polish Film Institute.
The rule of thumb is that only English-language films released theatrically around the world break even, and yet the film market in both the United Kingdom and United States is supported by a complex system of tax rebates. Almost all European countries have national film institutes that co-finance domestic film production. In Poland, the market is still developing, and investors are reluctant to invest in art-house films or works by first-time directors. Even films that enjoy box-office success rarely break even at the theatrical distribution stage. First, there are taxes, then there’s the 50/50 split with cinemas, then the distributor’s share and P&A. As a result, the producer sees no more than 7 zlotys per ticket. Which means that a film with a budget of 7 million PLN only breaks even after one million admissions. And that’s a level that no more than a handful of films per year are able to reach.
Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and even Bulgaria are bringing in major Hollywood productions. Meanwhile we haven’t had a significant production here since Schindler’s List.
And we have little chance of securing one as long as we don’t have the right financial incentives that would encourage such productions to film in Poland. We have a high VAT of 23 percent for film production and a complicated tax refund system, as opposed to the one in place in Hungary or the Czech Republic. Despite these obstacles, we have succeeded in securing two major Bollywood productions, in cooperation with Film Commission Poland and regional film funds. The first of these films is currently filming in Warsaw. The second will launch soon in Krakow.
A fund for supporting Polish-German co-productions was recently launched. But why does the relatively poor Polish film industry invest in Czech, French or Israeli films?
It was a conscious choice. We decided that if Polish filmmakers are to be able to benefit from foreign funding, then we too must open our market to foreign productions. We invested in films by acclaimed directors, such as Greenaway, Loach and Lynch, not only because their films have screened around the world, but also to become a key player in the international film production market. And it worked. Today, our directors are having their film projects co-financed by film funds abroad.
Speaking of the international scene, we are getting increasing exposure and success, however we are still not in Cannes.
But Jerzy Skolimowski gained acclaim in Venice with his Essential Killing, while Małgośka Szumowska’s W imię… (In the Name Of…) screened in Berlinale’s main competition. Let’s not judge the quality of our filmmaking only by the three major festivals. New Polish films get invited to many key film events and, more importantly, they are beginning to secure theatrical distribution even in such firmly domestic-oriented markets as France, where Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida recently marked over 500,000 admissions. Now the film is enjoying great reviews in Italian press, and is soon scheduled for an American release. France also had Szumowska’s film in distribution, while Tomasz Wasilewski’s Płynące wieżowce (Floating Skyscrapers) are set for a theatrical release in the coming weeks. Andrzej Jakimowski’s Sztuczki (Tricks) was sold to 26 countries. Polish cinema is gaining more recognition each year. Currently we are working on major showcases of Polish films in Turkey, Estonia, Mexico, and India. The institute and its financing system have become a model for other countries; film institutes in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are currently being designed based on our example. These are tangible successes. But we still have a long way to go.
What remains to be done?
We didn’t succeed in passing a law that would de-commercialize public media following the BBC model. We long for having strong public media with quality programming setting the bar high. The goal is also to create an alternative for the monopoly of the Polish Film Institute. I would like to see a world in which a young filmmaker whose project doesn’t get support from the Polish Film Institute could turn to a powerful television station and make his professional debut there. The government is also reluctant to introduce tax incentives in the creative sector, which are crucial, in my opinion. Such a move would send a clear message that we encourage investment in IT, in post-production, special effects, computer games, and new technologies. For Polish cinema, this would mean another leap forward. But that decision is not up to the Institute. I also believe that we should consider the issue of excessive advertising before theatrical film screenings and the issue of child protection.
Doesn’t the project of assigning age restrictions by the state reek of censorship?
Censorship? Not at all. It is unacceptable for a distributor, who aims for maximizing admissions and box-office returns, to unilaterally decide whether a film is suitable for young audiences. This also applies to advertising before children’s films. Commercials often show violence or are otherwise unsuitable for young children. So it is not censorship, but rather another step towards establishing an orderly fashion in the film industry in Poland.
According to the film law, after two consecutive terms as general director of the Polish Film Institute you are ineligible for running for a third term in office. What issues will you be tackling during your last year in office?
I would like to convince audiences, the business, and politicians to address the issues of illegal film content on the Internet. The point is not to prosecute end users; that is both pointless and impossible. But it is important to take advantage of the incredible potential of the Internet and create a legal platform that is both appealing and up-to-date in terms of film content, while thwarting operations by businesses that generate profits using others’ intellectual property, usually also avoiding taxes. Contrary to popular belief, it would be enough if the laws that are already in force in Poland were simply implemented and respected. And this doesn’t have to be difficult, because end users of online cultural content, filmmakers and producers can in fact be allies.
What brings you the most joy today?
In a wide sense? The good present condition of Polish cinema. And the fact that together we have managed to accomplish so much in such a short time.
Translated by Karolina Kołtun