A few years ago, when she was still an up-and-coming producer in Warsaw, Klaudia Smieja met skeptics who thought she’d bit off more than she could chew with “Mr. Jones”: an ambitious, 1930s-set drama directed by Academy Award nominee Agnieszka Holland, with a €10 million ($11.3 million) budget that dwarfed the typical ask for a Polish feature film.
But Smieja set her sights beyond Poland. Selected as one of European Film Promotion’s Producers on the Move in 2016 — a group that’s feted annually on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival — she joined a network of ambitious young talents from around the continent. Like her, many were emerging producers touting risky projects while learning to finesse complicated financing structures.
“It really gave me power to push ‘Mr. Jones,’” says Smieja, who was one of three lead producers on a Poland-Ukraine-U.K. co-production that world premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival this year. “Then people started to knock on my door.”
Smieja, who is also co-producing Holland’s latest feature, “Charlatan,” in the Czech Republic, is part of a new generation of Polish producers whose ambitions and expectations extend far beyond the borders of Central and Eastern Europe. Buoyed by local support from the Polish Film Institute (PFI), while tapping into training and networking groups like European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE) and ACE Producers, they’re giving an international perspective to an industry that has long looked inward. “The new generation is looking beyond: beyond the Polish market, Polish audience and Polish financing,” the PFI’s head of international relations department, Robert Balinski, says.
Established in 2005, the PFI has been instrumental in this shift. The institute’s annual budget this year includes €25 million ($27.8 million) for the support of local productions, financial assistance that in recent years has bolstered the likes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2015 foreign-language Oscar winner “Ida” and the same director’s 2018 Oscar nominated “Cold War.”
It’s also given a boost to Polish producers by supporting up to 15 minority co-productions a year — films that allow emerging producers to cut their teeth while laying the groundwork for more ambitious collaborations down the line.
“Those [foreign producers] are natural partners to [co-produce] Polish films later on,” Balinski says.
The sea change in the past decade has been dramatic. “Ten years ago, nobody was speaking in Poland about [co-productions],” Smieja says. Since then, Polish producers have been attached to a string of international successes, including “Rams,” Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson’s Cannes Un Certain Regard prize-winner, which was produced with Smieja’s company Madants; Fatih Akin’s Venice selection “The Cut,” co-produced by Opus Film; and “The Here After,” Swedish helmer Magnus von Horn’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight player, co-produced by Lava Films.
Lava’s Mariusz Wlodarski, who will bring the Poland-German co-production “Taste of Pho” to Cannes, sees himself as part of a growing cohort who are redefining the role of the producer in Poland. “I see my job as being a creative [role],” he says. “I’m a filmmaker, not only a producer. People think we are only these money-makers, that we don’t understand what is current cinema is. It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking what a producer is.”
Poland is the fifth-largest film market in Europe, and broke box office records last year with nearly 60 million admissions — garnering around $292 million, of which a third came from local films — but there’s still a relatively small pool of financing for local producers to dip into.
“When we started with ‘Werewolf,’ it was supposed to be a domestic production, but it was not possible to finance the film only with Polish money,” says Magdalena Kaminska, of Warsaw-based Balapolis, about Adrian Panek’s allegorical World War II thriller.
Kaminska and partner Agata Szymanska raised the financing through German and Dutch co-producers, an arrangement that secured the estimated €1.3 million ($1.4 million) budget while demonstrating the upside of bringing foreign partners on board. “It engages different countries, creative collaborators,” Kaminska says. “It also gives [the film] a chance to go wider.”
Poland introduced a 30% cash rebate earlier this year, which could open the door for even more ambitious co-productions to take shape. The international success of directors like Pawlikowski has also raised the industry’s profile.
Polish producers are seizing the moment. This year more than a dozen banded together to launch the Polish Guild of Producers, an industry body that will advocate for producers’ rights.
“We can already talk about a new dynamic generation of producers, which has grown together with the development of a new film financing system,” says Opus Film’s Lukasz Dzieciol, one of the group’s founding members. “The guild intends to fortify independent producers, but also be an essential and substantive partner for other organizations of the film community in Poland and abroad.”
The relationships those producers are building at home and overseas will only bolster the industry’s continued evolution. After partnering with Greek producer Amanda Livanou on “Park,” the feature debut of director Sofia Exarchou, Smieja decided to pair up with her again on Babis Makridis’ Sundance player “Pity.” For two rising producers, the synergy felt natural. As Smieja recalls telling Livanou: “Let’s try to grow up together.”