Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 8 
14 July

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Producer and director Dariusz Jablonski POLAND
In our country, a producer is only a manufacturer
Dariusz Jabłońkski, president of Poland's Association of Independent Film and TV Producers, interviewed

Surverying the changes to the Polish industry since 1989, Jabłońkski complains to Felicitas Becker about the problems faced from politicians, tardy distributors, TV producers and changing audience tastes.

Darius Jabłońksi has been making films since 1975, when he was 14 years old. He finished formal training at the Łódż film academy in 1990 and has worked with, among others, Krzysztof Kieślowski (as an assistant director on Dekalog). He has had his own company, Apple Film Production, since 1990, and in the last few years it has produced 9 feature films, 21 documentaries and 15 theatre plays. The three films he directed were the biggest successes of his firm, particularly the documentary Fotoamator (The Photographer, 1998) which was shown on TV in practically every European country and in the US. It obtained several awards, including the Grand Prix of the prestigious International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam and the documentary prize at the Berlinale. He has been involved with major commercial productions, but also keeps a line of first-time directors' films. As well as running his own production company, he is also president of Poland's Association of Independent Film and TV Producers.

Kinoeye met Jabłońksi at the 1st London Polish Film Festival, organised by the Polish Cultural Institute earlier this year, to ask him about the conditions producers face in Poland.

Could you tell me more about the Association of Independent Film and TV Producers?

We started as an independent film producers' association, then opened a branch for TV producers, and two years ago decided to transform ourselves into a more economically-orientated union, so we are now established as a chamber of commerce. This type of organisation has a special status in Poland, which means that we have a legal right to be consulted on changes to the law. Every institution intending to change the law concerning our industry has to consult us, whether it is the parliament, government or industry.

In effect, we are a union for all producers, not only the independent ones. Our members include those working for the biggest TV stations producing Polish-language programmes. We have independent film producers and state-owned production companies as well. There are 140 member companies altogether. Some of them started at the beginning of the 1990s, when the establishment of independent film companies was made legal, which resulted in a boom for private production companies. Before that, there had been state monopolies on TV and film production. We also have very young producers, but all our members have at least one production completed, to prove their credibility. As for what we do, the legal environment is still not very adequate for production. Many changes must be done, for instance in the cinematography bill, in copyright law, in the TV bill.

Can you specify what changes you are looking for?

It is very difficult, but briefly, concerning cinematography, the law was written in 1987, in the past, in a completely different system, and it talks about state-owned cinematography. Things have changed, and we need a law that creates state support for cinema. We are fighting for the kind of state support that exists in France, Germany or England. We have drafted some proposals, which are generally modelled on the CNC [Centre National de la Cinématographie] system in France,[1] but with some more commercial elements, such as lottery funding.

Is there at the moment no state funding for films in Poland at all?

The ministry of culture has some very modest money. But its scheme collapsed two years ago when much more money was promised in agreements than the state had available. The state still owes money to some producers. At present, state funding is in the region of about USD 2 to 3 million a year, which is nothing. This must be changed, and a new fund should be established.

So, there is no funding body specifically for films?

There isn't. We have a project under consideration at the ministry of culture that aims to establish a special Polish Film Institute, with control over funds from different sources, not only the state budget but also private funding.

How do you see the chances of that proposal?

It is difficult to talk about chances. It is a necessity, because otherwise Polish film will be merely an illusion. It is an illusion at the moment, because we are producing ten to twelve films [per year], and they are mainly, in look, in size, in budget, very television-like. It is difficult to attract audiences with these films.

How does that compare to production for TV?

In Poland it is very difficult to distinguish between feature-length production for TV and for cinema. In fact, we can distinguish regular TV production, which means sitcoms, soap operas, docu-soaps and the like. This market is fantastic. Many things are produced, there are very good producers and they are prospering fantastically. This part of audiovisual production is in a really good state, because not only Polska Telewizja (Polish Television) but also two other private channels are commissioning these productions with very good budgets and the best actors and so on.

Concerning single films, it is very difficult to say if something is television or it is cinema, because everything is television. Even films showing in cinemas are very often fully or mostly financed by television. It's television sometimes shown in the cinema. And this also dictates the content, of course. If it is financed by television, it is made according to their demands. And that is not very good for the cinema.

How come TV is such a big financial player in film production?

How come? Simply because other sources went bankrupt or collapsed. Public television is spending a significant amount of money, but it is not as much as many Western TV companies. The problem is that they're the only one source, so they became huge. But they are not in fact that big. State funding collapsed, there is no other body.

Doesn't Canal Plus Polska play a role in film production any more?

Canal Plus don't hold a licence any more, hence they don't invest in Polish productions or Polish content. In fact, Polska Telewizja has remained as the only source.

Can you give me an idea of the magnitude of their financial contribution to film-making?

Let's start with the budget. Today's average budget for a Polish film is USD 0.5 million, or less. Polska Telewizja provides maybe half of this budget, or very often even 75 percent or 100 percent of it. And they say that they spend about USD 5 million a year on films, on single films. But comparing this to the USD 2 million coming from the state, we see that they dictate the content, the quantity and unfortunately the style of the films.

Do you think that producers are at fault for not raising more money from other sources?

I would rather say that in this kind of situation, Polish producers are great to be producing so many films. Because there is no law, there is not any regulation privileging investment in film production. So that we get some money from other sources is almost a miracle. It is usually sponsorship money, which is not very common in the West. There is sponsorship in the West, but not for such large percentages of the budget. We were clever enough to convince some sponsors to give us more money to finance the films. So we are really very brave in this.

Can you name some sponsors?

There is Creditbank, which is the Polish National Bank and which decided to sponsor culture. But producers are looking everywhere, for instance to a Polish mobile phone companies, such as Plus GSM or Idea. They are connected to [the international mobile phone company] Orange, or will be. Single producers are getting money from very strange different companies for their films. And as I said, there is no regulation supporting this kind of investment, so it is a miracle that we're getting this. With contributions from Polska Telewizja and from state grants, we may still be lacking about 30 percent of our budgets, and we have found this money [from sponsors].

Out of the 140 members of your assocation, how many have had formal training as directors or producers?

Producers are coming from two, or three, groups of people. Some of them are managers; they are coming from the production side of the team, and they, if I can make some sort of critical characterisation, are very good in production matters, but not often creatively. There is another group with a background in writing and journalism; they are good with public, social matters. The third group are those with a background in directing, and there are not very many of those. But they make the biggest creative efforts, have the biggest creative resonance and win the most awards. Generally speaking, of our 140 members, 15 to 20 are probably film producers. Of course, this is difficult to define, because almost all of us work for both sides. We make films for cinema, but we make TV series at the same time, because it is difficult to survive on single films. But those producers who are able to produce features often number about 15 to 20. And from this group, probably two or three have a director's background.

Shall we talk more about the distribution side and the constraints it imposes?

Distribution is an even bigger problem. In contrast to the producers' group, which was coming from Polish film production, distributors came from many directions but very often started out selling videotapes illegally or such like. So, they had nothing in common with production; they were just sellers. The situation is improving because their tastes are improving, but this process is very slow. As sellers, they didn't care about Polish content. They started selling American content, and they respect it very much. Step by step, they realised that they can earn money on Polish content as well, but the beginning was very difficult. We still have some state-owned distribution companies, but they are very weak.

The strongest distribution companies have contracts with majors, American majors, and hence they have the majority of the market. But one of these, Syrena, is very friendly towards and works with Polish production companies.[2] There also are two or three independent distributors who are willing from time to time to distribute Polish films. But distribution is even more difficult than production; it is very difficult to get onto the screen in Poland. As a result, 500,000 admissions for a film is considered very good. Another thing, there are only 800 screens in the whole of Poland.[3]

There have been reports that there were fraudulent practices at cinema box offices that deprive producers of some of their earnings.[4] Can you confirm that?

No. You mean that exhibitors were selling black tickets, things like that? I'm not sure. It was a problem ten years ago, but now it's not. Why? Because multiplexes replaced single cinemas. In multiplexes the system is computerised and too complicated to rip off, they don't even have time for such scams. Of course, multiplexes brought some bad things to Polish distribution, but on that side they are positive. As a producer, I don't have a problem with fake results. Rather I have problems with cinemas not paying money to the distributors, or paying too late. That's the weakness of the system now.

Do producers think at all about accessing markets abroad?

That is the biggest problem of all. Even the most successful Polish films will not go abroad. What we are lacking is an institution of sales agents. We don't have any company specialised in selling programmes or films abroad, and of course a single producer cannot do that. I have tried many times to contact English, German or Dutch sales agents, but they are not interested in selling our films; they have their own. Sometimes Russian films make it, because they are fashionable. But east European countries are not now, so nobody cares. The first company to be a sales agent in Poland and to try to specialise in this business would be very successful, I think.

Do you think it helps if a film succeeds at festivals?

I think so, but it's difficult to judge, because Polish feature films are not very successful at festivals. Fotoamator, my most successful film, a documentary, was awarded at many festivals. But, in fact, I had an American sales agent and distributor even before it was given the awards. So it is very difficult to say. And it was sold to every television station, but this is a profession, selling to TV or cinema distributors, and Polish producers don't have this expertise.

So you think distribution should be taken out of the remit of producers?

Definitely. It is a problem of rights, as well. Those who finance the production content take the majority of the rights from the producer. So at the end of the financing, the producer is left with nothing. He has no rights to his product, and Polska Telewizja is not interested in selling. The state grants from the ministry of culture take rights as well, but they are not interested in selling. The Polish producer is left with none or the minority of the rights. So he is not interested in selling, or if he is, he has one film every two years, if he is lucky. It is very difficult to sell just two or three films in five years on the international market . Your cost will not be covered. You have to go to the market,[5] supply tapes, pay for many materials. And for just two films, that's pointless.

Would you like to see a change in the law that at present gives the rights to those who finance the films?

Yes, of course, in my opinion that's a basic for Polish cinema. First of all, the law must build support for audiovisual production in Poland, and secondly, it should be based on ownership of rights by producers. That's clear for me. Because then producers would be interested in selling everywhere and getting money back.

Are there concrete plans to try and introduce such legislation in parliament?

Yes, it's a common problem for all eastern countries. There is no eastern country with such laws passed, even where they have been drafted. In Poland, my association and me personally have written seven proposals for laws. They were all unsuccessful, even though two of them got as far as parliament. This year, this project is undertaken by the ministry of culture, so hopefully it will work. The draft bill was written by us, the minister of culture has made some changes, but he is backing it, so it has a chance.

Is it important to producers which party is in power or who is in the ministry of culture?

Nah. I'll tell you something that is not very pleasant: if it depends on which side of the political scene is in power, the post-Communists are more friendly towards laws in support of culture. This may be an unpleasant thing, but generally speaking, maybe the post-Communists are the more intelligent politicians and they know that culture is something that they can win with. I suppose it is a kind of sentimentality from Communist times, when culture was very much appreciated. Maybe it's sentimentality for what Lenin said—that cinema is the most important form of propaganda. I don't know. Maybe it has something in common with that. You might find it surprising, but it happened. But generally, there is a problem with the mentality of politicians.

Maybe it would be interesting to talk about why these two draft laws failed in parliament.

That's for the same reason: the mentality of politicians. They care about culture last, and cinema doesn't exist for them. Maybe it is a question of their age and what they have taken from their upbringing. Maybe they were not watching films, I don't know. But really, culture is at the end of their priorities. In every east European country, you have these same problems. Culture is at the end of their priorities. When negotiating accession to the European Union, negotiations were pushed through quite forcefully, but they only talked about one issue, namely agriculture. They were negotiating better conditions for agriculture. They were not thinking about cinema or audiovisual production.

How do producers in Poland now view the heritage of Polish film?

We're convinced that this heritage authorises us to fight for better conditions. We think that this heritage obliges us, because Polish cinema used to be very good and well-known in the world. And a situation where we are producing ten films, television-like films [a year], is impossible to continue. We demand from politicians to look at the heritage and to change this. Whether they know about heritage, I'm really not sure. I'm very sceptical about Polish politicians.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by television-like films?

Yeah, of course. From a producer's point of view—a director's and producer's—if you have a very modest amount of money, like USD 200,000 or 300,000 dollars, all that you can use is two rooms, four actors speaking. And, of course, then it's nothing very exciting for public audiences in the cinema. It's just talking heads, and however important and serious conversations they may have, you can not stand it for a long time. Good cinema, cinema as a spectacle, as something you cannot see anywhere else, needs money; unfortunately, it needs money. The most popular Polish films—because we had five or six very popular Polish films, based on very famous novels[6]—had from eight million to two million admissions. But their budgets were between USD 5 and 18 million. So it's a very simple truth: Of course you need a good script, but if you put money into the film, it will draw more people into the cinema. It's as simple as that. It's rather difficult to count on the miracle that something on a small budget will attract people. Of course, sometimes it happens. But that's not an industry. It's not cinema as a whole.

Can you maybe name a few films which would illustrate this tendency to have small sets and talking heads due to financial constraints?

That's very easy. One of the best recent Polish films was Dług (Debt, 1999), by Krzysztof Krause, which was the best-performing Polish film three years ago with 100,000 admissions at the cinema. It was a miracle that it reached 100,000, but that number is nothing. Commercially, it was nothing. And everybody saw this film on television, but in the cinema it was too serious and not attractive. Another film was Cześć Tereska (Hi, Tereska) by Robert Gliński, which had—I don't know exactly, but a similar number. 10,000 admissions, maybe more; but nothing special. People appreciate these films, a niche audience goes to watch these films, but in economic results it's nothing. The standard price for a ticket is PLZ 14, which is USD 4, less than USD 4. Half of this amount goes to the distributor and the rest goes to the producer. So 100,000 viewers will give you PLZ 700,000, which is not even half the budget. So it's nothing.

Is there also a problem with video piracy?

Yes, there is. But, on the other hand, we face a collapse of video distribution. Because what with cable television, satellite television, digital platforms, DVDs, very interesting private channels, nobody wants to buy videos, or even DVDs. So an ordinary film sells about 5000 cassettes, which is nothing. 5000 would even be good.

So, it's not even a very profitable business for pirates?

No, only maybe in phonography. But it's still a problem. Not everything is done [to stop it] that could be done. But it's not such a scale that we would be losing much money on it. I suppose there is another problem, although nobody cares about it in Poland: There is a very strong part of Polish people abroad. For instance, in Chicago you have 600,000 people of Polish origins, and VHS cassettes are sold there one week after the first screening in Poland. People just record the film off the screen in Poland and then sell tapes there. The American government does not deal with this. Probably the same thing happens among people of Polish origin in the UK. That's another problem, because 40 million Polish people are living in Poland, and there's another 40 million abroad. Governments abroad don't care about this form of piracy, because it is not their national piracy. In fact, we are losing money this way, as Polish producers.

Is there any kind of debate among members of your organisation on how to try and aim at a broader market? Are there thoughts, or fears, of "Americanisation"? Generally, what sort of influence has "Western" cinema had?

I suppose we fear a very serious danger that we will not survive another year. The first question is how to survive. Another problem is that we are not connected with our product, so many producers don't care. If they're commissioned to produce this product, produce they will, but they do not care about the content. They are not connected with the success or failure of the content, because we don't have rights.

Who are the people who decide the content? Is it those who finance the film?

Yeah, and not only Polska Telewizja, but generally the problem is, from my point of view, that the decision is taken by people who have money. Decisions are always taken by the people with the money, but in a good system, where producers are protected by law, they are quite independent in their decision and can work towards improving the quality of the product. In our country, a producer is only a manufacturer, who is working, commissioned, by people who have money. So people who have money directly dictate taste to the producer and the director. Not only from Polska Telewizja, but also the sponsors. And I have to say that in my opinion they are not people who would be well-prepared to take the decision.

What are their criteria?

For TV people, the highest rating. In my opinion, this works against the quality of cinema [big screen] films. Ratings simply mean the biggest possible amount of people. How do you get them to watch? Give them something that is understandable for everybody. Cinema has a completely different way of attracting people. You don't need something understandable to everybody. It is something quite special to leave your house and go to the cinema. So, it is a totally different aim. That people from TV are aiming at the highest ratings is perfectly understandable. But this is at odds with quality products in terms of cinema films. Sponsors want to dictate their taste, which is often not very good. Very often they want to have bad films because they like bad films.

For me, watching TV is a very passive thing. Going to the cinema is an active thing. You have to decide: I'm going to the cinema; I'll take my wife, my girlfriend or I'll go alone. I'm postponing all other activities. With TV you switch it on when you're just sitting around, and hey, it's fantastic. So, TV is very passive. TV people are very professional, but they have different aims.

The best films, those which get awards at festivals and go to cinemas, those which achieve really the best quality, these films carry high economic risks. It is a risk whenever you're looking for something, whenever you're trying to find a new way of expression, there is still a huge risk of collapse, or misunderstanding, or isolation because of the [Polish] language, and so on. It is very simple: if you want to have this kind of cinema in your country, you must provide the people making these films with a kind of safety net, a pillow. The state has to provide the people with some kind of safety net which would help them to avoid the people who are not willing to carry this risk. People from TV and sponsors are great in that they do finance films, but they want to avoid any risk. And that is the reason why Polish cinema is not very successful at the moment.

Do you think that audiences and audience expectations have changed since 1989?

I think so. Maybe I'm wrong, but—looking at myself, maybe it's my age—but if today I have time to watch cinema, I prefer to see something exciting, more entertaining. And I prefer to avoid cinema dealing with death or other serious problems. Maybe the world outside has become so scary that in the cinema you're looking for fairy tales. But again, the state should build a system where this kind of cinema is possible. We must have the right to make something good, to make a film about which everybody says that nobody wants it. That is a miracle of cinema, that somebody makes a film about which everybody says that nobody will want to see it, and then many people go and watch it. When I was making a film about the Shoa, everybody said it's enough, there are so many films about the Shoah—nobody wants to see it again. And I found a way so that many thousands, if not millions, of people were watched this film. That's still possible.

Do you think that people have become more escapist?

I suppose that cinema has changed, and people's demands have changed, because I can imagine that, like it or not, the films of Fellini, Visconti or Bertolucci would not be very popular today. And I suppose they would not be popular because they were very serious, not very entertaining. I would love to make new Herzog or Schloendorff films, but nobody would give me money for this kind of cinema, and I'm very much afraid at the end nobody would watch it. So, producers who are very strongly dependent on audience and financiers feel that they cannot disagree with these two.

Do you think that the public role of cinema is as a place where to make statements, as a place people go to in order to reflect upon the state of their society has changed since 1989?

I think so. Of course, I still think about a kind of cinema that needs an intelligent audience and I hope that there is this kind of audience, but I am very sceptical about that. Maybe this is connected with the age of viewers. If I watch Star Wars or this kind of film, I get very confused. It's a kind of cinema which nobody cared about 30, 40 years ago. Computer animation films, too, are stupid cinema.

It's an interesting suggestion that people have become more stupid in the last decade or so.

It's true. That's my point of view. Life has become very simple, more and more things are computerised, and we are using our brain less and less. That's the problem. Where this is going is another question, but I think it's going in a bad way. The kind of films like Herzog's, or Fellini's, who were my masters, would be very unsuccessful now in my country or in yours [Britain]. Look at multiplexes. They create a completely different way of watching films. I cannot go to a multiplex to watch a film. It's something like going to a public toilet, I cannot get used to it. I need one single screen, where everybody is watching the same film, and not eating too much. Also, multiplexes have become centres of entertainment for young people. They sit there every day from the morning to the late evening. They have McDonalds there and from time to time they will go into the cinema, telling jokes to their friends. So, what kind of cinema will they be looking for? The one with the most jokes to be told. So, that's the way it is going.

Felicitas Becker

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About the author

Felicitas Becker is a research fellow at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London.

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1. The French system of funding is the most "European" of all film financing systems in as much as it is diametrically opposed to the methods traditionally associated with the US and firmly based on the concept of film as culture. The CNC provides a number of funding mechanisms—some commercial, some non-commercial—but most notable is an automatic subsidy for all French films longer than one hour. This system is envied by film directors throughout Europe.return to text

2. Syrena gave support to, for example, Jerzy Hoffman's Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1999). For details of how the distributor supported the film, see Kinoeye's interview with Jerzy Hoffman. return to text

3. Media Salles lists Poland as having 824 screens in 2000. Spain, which has a similarly sized population to Poland, had 3556 screens the same year. From the post-Communist countries, the Czech Republic, for example, has a population just over a quarter the size of Poland's and yet its number of screens is of the same order of magnitude (743 in 2000).return to text

4. One Polish producer told Variety that he had "hired a private investigator to track the returns in one theater last year, and he found we were being ripped off in three ways. The woman tearing tickets at the door was pocketing cash in exchange for letting people in free; the girl at the box office was selling forged tickets; and the manager of the theater was cheating the distributor on the returns." In all, he reckoned that the film Tato (Dad, 1995, directed by Maciej Ślesicki) had actually had around 150,000 more admissions than the official figure of 450,000—in other words, the true figure was around 33 percent higher than that recorded. This is despite the presence of a checking scheme set up by Polish distributors working with the Motion Picture Export Association of America. See Rick Richardson, "New Polish Filmmaking Wave," Variety, 5-11 August 1996, p 38.return to text

5. Film and TV markets where international rights are sold include Mifed in Milan the London Screenings, as well as events running alongside festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. The markets charge producers for a stand and if a screening room is required additional charges are made. The producer obviously has to incur costs such as travel, hotel accomadation and, as Jabłońkski points out, supply subtitled video tapes and promotional materials to get buyers interested. A sale of a single Polish feature film would probably not be enough to cover these costs.return to text

6. Films in this category include Jerzy Hoffman's Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1999), Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Quo vadis (2001) and Gavin Hood's Polish-South African-Tunisian coproduction W pustyni i w puszczy (In Desert and Wilderness, 2001), all adaptations of books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999), Marek Brodzki's Wiedźmin (The Hexer, 2001) and Filip Bajon's Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come, 2001), the latter of which was produced by Jabłońkski.return to text

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