Remi Adekoya: You signed a letter of protest this summer, together with nearly 200 other Polish film-makers, which aims to protect Poland’s heavily subsidized film industry during the ongoing EU-US free-trade agreement negotiations. I even heard a Polish film-maker say that without subsidies the Polish movie industry would simply disappear. What do you think about that?
Patryk Vega: In France movies are treated as part of the national heritage and all kinds of movies are subsidized: niche artistic films, commercial comedies, horrors and thrillers. But when I pitched a movie idea to the Polish Film Institute (PISF), they told me “we will not give you money because your film has the potential to be a box-office success.”
In 2012, Patryk Vega made a movie based on one of the most famous characters in Polish cinematic industry: Hans Kloss, a Polish agent during WW II
Courtesy of Kloss.pl
I asked why they didn’t want to invest in a film that could make money and enable them to recover the subsidy they gave me from my profits. They replied that they prefer subsidizing films which have no other means of raising necessary funds.
That was their official position. However, the same institute had subsidized commercial productions before. Let us remember that the members of the commission who decide which films get subsidies are film-makers themselves. So the rule is “give me money for my movie or I won’t give you money for your movie when its your turn.”
I think that both ambitious and commercial movies should be subsidized as long as they can make money for the institute. I also think there should be more supervision of production budgets.
Are the current measures insufficient?
The film-making industry is full of pathologies, which have continued since the days of communism. One of the biggest problems of the Polish film industry is the fact that a film producer makes the bulk of his pay from a movie’s budget and not based on the film’s commercial performance. Because of this, movie budgets are artificially inflated and the producer is not motivated to make the film successful. He has already made his money just by making the movie.
So a Polish producer receives his salary upfront before the movie is even screened?
Yes, plus he is usually entitled to 5-10 percent of the profit the movie makes. But he can embezzle more money by inflating the costs. If, for example, a producer knows he needs zł.4 million to make a movie, he writes up a budget for zł.8 million and then asks for a subsidy.
If PISF agrees to subsidize 50 percent of his costs, then he basically has the means to finance the entire production. He gets his buddies to write up letters of intent to account for the fictitious remaining zł.4 million. He further reduces his costs through barter transactions and the rest goes straight to his pocket.
The Polish movie industry is ruled by mechanisms closer to the kind of jungle law we find in Ukraine or Russia than to the practices observed in the European Union. The position of the distributor is also key in Poland. He is the first one to recover his investment outlays while at the same time making 20 percent of every zł.1 of profit the movie makes.
How exactly does that work?
Distributors introduce a movie to the cinemas. They pay for making copies of the movie and for advertising and promotion. When a customer comes to the cinema and buys the first ticket, the producer gets nothing, because the distributor takes all the ticket returns until he has recovered his costs. After that he receives 20 percent on every extra zł.1 the movie makes.
This model is nonsensical in my opinion. Distributors also inflate the costs they incurred in promoting a movie. Together with the inflated production cost, even if a movie has a million viewers it still won’t make a profit. The pathology here is the fact that even when a movie is a success, the producer will still want to show he made a loss so he does not have to return the subsidies he received.
So the deal with PISF is that if the movie doesn’t make money, you don’t have to return the subsidy but if it does, you do?
Exactly, so it is in the best interest of the producer to show that his film lost money.
It’s difficult to believe such mechanisms are still in place...
If you want to know how many films are made like this, its enough to watch some movies and judge if their budgets correspond to what you see on screen. Everybody heard of the unexplained fire which incinerated the production set and stage designs of one of the biggest Polish productions, [the “Quo Vadis” movie filmed in 2001], making it impossible to assess the real costs of making that movie. Of course nobody ever proved the fire was set on purpose.
Let’s imagine I was a young and talented film-maker with a brilliant screenplay in my hands. What should be my next step?
When I was at the beginning of my career, I believed that if you have a brilliant screenplay, you have a chance to make a movie. That is not true. Talent is not enough. In Poland whether you make a movie or not depends mainly on the kind of connections you have.
What kind of movies can make money in Poland?
There are three genres which are likely to make money in Poland. Firstly, you have movies based on books read in schools, commercial chick flicks and family movies – people don’t skimp on their children.
Why don’t Poles like ambitious cinema?
Poles are the most overworked nation in Europe, according to surveys. After a week of hard work, they are so tired that all they want to do is unwind. They want to watch movies that help them escape their everyday problems.
Unlike comedies, which are losing viewership, chick flicks are still selling well. These movies are addressed to those who dream that one day their lives will be better, just like the movie characters they see.
TVN [a private Polish TV station] is built on this mechanism. In the TV series it produces, the world is always a little better than what we see in reality.
But even they are evolving. In older productions characters used to have luxurious apartments and expensive cars. They would spend their entire day on romance with no signs of them actually doing any work. Right now, the world is moving towards more realism. We can see that in the new US productions, like Batman and Superman. So even Polish movies have become a bit more realistic in recent years.
Why are so few Polish movies distributed outside the country?
Poles have a huge inferiority complex in relation to the rest of the world. I have always been put off by Poles’ provincial habit of describing an actor as “the Polish Brad Pitt” or a female singer as “the Polish Madonna.”
Such comparisons immediately place us at a disadvantage. We are unable to compete with Americans when it comes to special effects for example. But by creating stories close to our lives, we can make good movies.
Latin American hits like “Amorres Perros” or “City of God” were global blockbusters because they told universal stories which took place in the exotic surroundings of favelas and inaccessible ghettos. Unfortunately, Poland is not a fascinating country to the rest of the world. Some parts of Eastern Europe, Russia in particular, are interesting to people, though.
I think the reality of Eastern Europe can be attractive through its wildness. But to get international distribution, your film needs to be made in English. If anybody thinks a Polish-language movie stands a chance of being distributed in the US, then that person is not living in the real world.
What about the soon-to-be-released film directed by Oscar-winner Andrzej Wajda on the legendary Solidarity leader and former Polish president Lech Wałęsa?
Maybe it will be shown in some festivals but in my opinion, Wałęsa is not a fascinating figure to the world. Of course, some Americans know who he is but a biographical film on Mr Wałęsa is not likely to become a commercial hit. I don’t believe the American public would go to the cinema to see a movie on Wałęsa.
Firstly, because of the language barrier. Secondly, because Polish productions are not treated seriously in the US. If people see “Made in Poland” on a brochure, they won’t go to see the film irrespective of what it is about.
Patryk Vega was born in 1977 in Warsaw, Poland, where he studied sociology. He wrote his first screenplay at the age of 22 and at 28 he directed his first series “Pitbull,” which was a huge success. Since then he has written and directed several movies as well as TV series, most of which have been commercial hits.
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