At $34 mil, 'The Pianist' is most expensive local film ever

WARSAW — Polish cinema is clambering back onto its feet after a decade of post-Communist uncertainty. A slew of local blockbusters is about to be unleashed into the country’s new multiplexes. Even the prodigal son has come home to shoot.

Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” is the famed director’s first film in Poland since his debut “Knife in the Water,” all the way back in 1962. At $34 million, it’s the most expensive Polish movie ever made, emblematic of the renewed confidence in the local filmmaking community. A Holocaust movie based on the autobiography of composer Wladislaw Szpilman, “The Pianist” is a co-production with France and Germany.

Coming home

And Polanski is not the only returning exile — Agnieszka Holland is coming back for the first time in 20 years to shoot “Julia Returns Home,” a co-production with Germany and Canada, followed by “Hanemann,” based on a Polish novel. And Jerzy Antczak, nominated for an Oscar in 1975 for “Nights and Days,” who has spent the past two decades as a professor at UCLA, headed back last year to make “Chopin, Desire of Love.”

While Polanski and Holland have international backing, “Chopin” is part of a boom in locally financed production, with budgets far above the Polish norm. Five movies were shot last year costing between $4 million and $17 million, compared with the Polish average of $700,000.

Make or break

All five — “The Spring to Come,” “Quo Vadis,” “In Desert and Wilderness,” “Chopin” and “Wiedzmin” — are set for release in the coming months, and the industry is holding its breath. All the coin came out of Poland, and local financiers are waiting to see how the current crop performs at the box office before they commit to new projects.

These mega-pics are typically adaptations of literary classics with grand historical themes. They are following the hit formula laid down by Jerzy Hoffman’s “With Fire and Sword,” which sparked the revival by selling 7 million tickets in 1999, and Andrzej Wajda’s “Pan Tadeusz,” with 6 million admissions later the same year.

Such success has not been matched since the heyday of the Polish film industry in the 1960s and 1970s, when historical epics such as “The Knights of the Black Cross” (31 million admissions) played at cinemas for years.

Indeed, the new wave consciously harks back to that period of prosperity.

“With Fire and Sword” was effectively a sequel to Hoffman’s own 1974 hit “The Deluge,” which are both adapted from novels by Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. So, for that matter, are “Quo Vadis,” a $17 million Roman epic directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and “In Desert and Wilderness,” a $4.2 million kidpic which is itself a remake of a 1973 hit.

It is a more recent film, however, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar winner “Schindler’s List,” that played a key role in sowing the seeds of the Polish film revival, by giving Polish production talent a chance to prove their world-class credentials.

And, inasmuch as “The Pianist” — funded as a conventional Polish/French/German co-production — is the only big pic currently shooting in Poland, it could play an equally important part in keeping that revival going.

The Polanski pic started at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios in February and will move to Warsaw at the end of March.

According to Lew Rywin of Heritage Films, Polish co-producer of “The Pianist,” $7 million of the $34 million will be spent in Poland. Notably, many members of the key production team for “The Pianist” — which reunites Polanski with lots of his own film school comrades — earned their spurs (and Oscars) on “Schindler.”

There is no lack of projects in the pipeline.

Krzysztof Krause has announced “King Macius 1,” a $5 million pic based on a novel by Janusz Korczak. Olaf Lubanszenko is adapting “Kajko and Kokosz” from a local comic strip.

And two versions of the Sienkiewicz novel, “Teutonic,” (on which “Knights of the Black Cross” was based) were announced a year ago, but are on hold as both sets of producers — M.T. Art and Da Vinci/Studio A — struggle to raise the coin.

The country’s newly built multiplexes have so far failed to spark an overall rise in admissions, and there is some concern that the Polish theatrical marketplace is still not wealthy or developed enough to support more than one or two blockbusters a year.

Those fears seemed to be borne out when the first of the big five, Filip Bajon’s $5 million “The Spring to Come,” opened March 2 with a moderate 140,000 admissions on its first weekend. That compares with 360,000 tickets sold for “With Fire and Sword,” and 410,000 for “Pan Tadeusz.”

Polish banks have become the primary source of financing for these films. Modest coin is available from state subsidies, pubcaster Polish TV and private webs Canal Plus Poland, Wizja TV and HBO Poland, as well as from local distributors.

But that’s not sufficient to cover bigger budgets, so producers and directors have developed the practice of arranging bank loans using their own personal property as security.

So far, Rywin, who also produced “Pan Tadeusz” (based on the romantic poem by Adam Mickiewicz), is the only producer of blockbusters who has not financed his films with personal loans. Instead, he seeks co-producers in the West. But the others seem happy to put their own assets at risk, albeit covered by insurance, and the banks are eager to be associated with high-profile movies.

Kredyt Bank granted loans for “With Fire and Sword,” “Quo Vadis” and “The Spring to Come,” while PKO Bank PB supported “Chopin,” and Amerbank backed “In Desert and Wilderness.”

Kredyt Bank is even acting as a credited co-producer on “Quo Vadis,” the most expensive purely Polish movie ever made, which is due for release in September.

Bank support even extends to distribution. Kredyt acted as “sponsor” for the release of “With Fire and Sword” and “Pan Tadeusz,” and also will do so for “The Spring to Come” and “Quo Vadis.” That means it contributes toward the pic’s promotional cost in return for a credit on the ads.

Kredyt Bank chairman Stanislaw Pacuk says the publicity benefit for his bank is immeasurably higher than the cost. Public awareness of the bank rose by 10% after it sponsored the first two hits.

In Poland, banks are widely expected to act as artistic patrons. But such generosity has its limits, and the bank wants to see a return on its investment.

“This is our contribution to Polish culture, but I have to remember about the clients of the bank,” Pacuk says. “Film loans are a business as well.”

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