Poland Grows Filmmakers Catering to Audiences With Mainstream Hits

Poland Grows Filmmakers Catering to Audiences
Hubert Komerski

Polish Cinema is best known for its auteurs — Agnieszka Holland, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Wajda come to mind — but its industry also produces mainstream box office hits.

Last year, five local films were among Poland’s top 10 grossers, including the year’s champ, writer-director Patryk Vega’s “Pitbull: Tough Women,” with $14 million, and Polish pics nabbed 25% of the total admissions. The hyper-realistically violent “Pitbull” franchise also spawned a second pic in the top 10 last year, Vega’s “Pitbull. New Orders,” with $7.1 million in fifth place on the year-end B.O. chart.

Michal Oleszczyk, Polish film critic and academic, praises Vega for creating a genre of his own, based on his TV show, “spinning a large-scale gangster yarn into what is the closest thing to a big-scale cult hit Poland has seen in decades.”

He adds: “Vega’s signature mix of fast action, highly profane, slang-ridden dialogue and a slew of distinctive characters is box office magic. Whether he’s the poor man’s Scorsese or a Guy Ritchie for the pierogi-loving crowd, there’s no denying Vega’s supreme reign with Polish wide audiences right now. He’s a phenomenon.”

It is not just mainstream Polish titles that are finding an audience at home, says Magdalena Sroka, general director of the Polish Film Institute, which has helped fuel the local cinema boom with generous subsidies. She points to the wide range of Polish titles to get a theatrical release: “Almost 50 Polish films had a theatrical release last year, [these included] genre films, period films, arthouse films, as well as a number of feature documentaries.” Arthouse movies attracted sizeable audiences, Sroka says, led by Wojciech Smarzowski’s “Wolyn” (Hatred), which took almost $7 million to become the year’s sixth highest earner.

The real surprise at the box office was the second-biggest pic in the charts last year: romantic comedy “Planet Single,” made with a production budget of $1.8 million and grossed $8.8 million. The film, from rookie producer Radoslaw Drabik, managed to outperform “Deadpool.” In the week that “Deadpool” was released worldwide it was No. 1 in 60 of its 61 markets except Poland, where the holdover “Planet Single” recorded the biggest second-weekend gross in Polish cinema history and stayed on top.

The well-acted “Planet Single,” with a cast led by local star Maciej Stuhr, is now being eyed for a U.S. remake, and its Slovenia-born director, Mitja Okorn, is working on Hollywood movie “Life in a Year,” produced by Will Smith.

The success of Polish films continues in 2017: the historical biopic “The Art of Loving,” produced by the same team as another hit biopic, “Gods,” leads the year’s box office chart with $8.8 million to date.

“It seems that, more than anything, the Polish audience responds to two things most strongly: romantic comedies and biopics focusing on charismatic figures from Poland’s past who made a difference,” Oleszczyk says.

“While the first tendency produced a lot of sleekly packaged trash in recent years, it also brought two very well-directed and wittily written movies by Mitja Okorn: ‘Letters to Santa’ in 2011 and ‘Planet Single’ in 2016, both with fantastic box office grosses.

“Okorn’s deft directorial touch and great feeling for characters is evident in both films, and I don’t find it surprising to find out that he is helming a big project in Hollywood.”

Oleszczyk contrasts this with “Letters to Santa 2” in 2015, directed by Maciej Dejczer, which was an enormous hit as well, but “as a movie it was much weaker, with both script and direction lacking the seamlessness of the original.”

2014’s local box office champ “Gods,” based on the life of pioneering surgeon Zbigniew Religa, and “Art of Love,” about groundbreaking sex educator Michalina Wislocka, were both written by Krzysztof Rak.

“The films provide the audiences with inspiring role models, and terrific actors with juicy parts,” Oleszczyk says.

He warns that such biopics tend not to travel. “They have limited international appeal because they focus on characters virtually unknown outside of Poland, and they don’t reach the level of universality that would make them into hits worldwide. Still, domestically, there’s hardly anything to surpass them as far as Polish box office is concerned.”

Nikolaj Nikitin heads the School of Film Agents and is the Berlinale’s delegate for Central and Eastern Europe.