Despite economy, box office share equals '08

MOSCOW — While most countries in Central and Eastern Europe are suffering as badly as the rest of the continent, Poland is in “a relatively comfortable position,” says Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and doesn’t need international financial assistance.

Despite that good news, Poland’s entertainment business going through sharp cuts in reaction to the world economic downturn — advertisers are cutting back, television channels are slashing budgets, and filmmakers are finding it tougher to find funds.

But just as in the U.S., one bright side is the box office, particularly for local movies: Box office share for Polish features this year is expected to be 25%, equal to that achieved in 2008.

“Last year, four Polish films were in the top 10 box office hits. We have reason to believe there will be similar success in 2009,” says Polish Film Institute topper Agnieszka Odorowicz, noting that 11 of the 12 weekends in the first three months of the year did better B.O. than the comparable period in 2008.

Local hits include biopic “Popieluszko” with 1.2 million tickets sold as of mid-April, arthouse film “33 Scenes From Life” with 200,000 admissions and blockbuster “Love and Dance” with 1.2 million admissions in that same period.

Odorowicz concedes, however, that those looking for co-production partners may have difficulty drumming up money from sources outside the country. Violetta Kaminska, a producer with Warsaw’s Apple Film, predicts a sharp shift by producers and directors this year to more commercial projects.

“The situation is not good. Everyone is trying to move to more commercial projects, which probably means that there will be fewer arthouse films from Poland in the next year or so,” she says.

Odorowicz, however, is confident that 2009 will not be disastrous for local producers.

The Polish Film Institute’s $31.4 million budget for this year is guaranteed, with around $22 million of that earmarked for film production. Funded by a levy on television, audiovisual companies and other sources, next year’s budget may be lower given the current unstable economic situation.

Manfred Schmidt, head of Leipzig, Germany, regional fund MDM, thinks the major problem countries outside the euro zone — such as Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic — face is the strength of the euro relative to their own currencies.

“They cannot afford co-productions because their share, in local currency, is much higher than before because of the negative exchange rate for them,” he says.

Yet there are positive signs: Polish regional funds have increased from six to nine, adding $2.2 million more of public money to the Polish film industry; and the European Union will roll out a plan this year to subsidize the costs of installing digital projection equipment in small arthouse cinemas.

Kaminska of Apple Film takes some comfort from this: “Perhaps people will cooperate more on co-productions, which allow you to bring a little bit from each country, spread the cost and also have a wider distribution market and possibly better returns.

“The financial crisis could help people work more closely together. We certainly need distribution; in Poland, there are as many as 30 films waiting for distribution. Digital distribution may help, particularly since most Polish cinemas are owned by one company, Cinema City, and they play big titles. Polish films tend to be onscreen for three days at the most,” Kaminska says.

Even documentaries are benefiting from the strong box office for local fare. Apple Film founder Dariusz Jablonski was able to book his $1┬ámillion documentary “War Games” into 10 locations.

The film is based on the true story of Cold War spy Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish army officer who between 1971 and 1982 passed more than 40,000 pages of top-secret Warsaw Pact documents to the West.

Film, released in January in Poland, is still playing — rare for a local arthouse pic, particularly a documentary.

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