As the calendar turned to March this year, producer Wojciech Kabarowski had high hopes for his latest film, “The Hater,” which was set to hit Polish cinemas. The follow-up to Jan Komasa’s Oscar-nominated “Corpus Christi” would be released just weeks after Komasa had walked the red carpet outside the Dolby Theatre during the Oscars ceremony. Polish audiences were primed, and the director had a strong track record of box-office hits. “The Hater,” Kabarowski estimated, could be counted on for at least 2 million admissions.
But its release came as the coronavirus pandemic was already sweeping across Europe. “People were afraid, even at that time, to go to cinemas,” Kabarowski says. Instead of the 2 million admissions he had hoped for, just 200,000 moviegoers managed to see the film before the government shuttered cinemas across Poland. While “The Hater” would lock up VOD deals with Netflix and local streaming services, Kabarowski estimates those amounted to just 10% of the expected revenues from box-office receipts.
“It was a big disaster for us,” he says.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Europe’s sixth-largest theatrical market, which broke records last year for total box office and admissions, and was on pace for another record-breaking haul this year. Through the first three months of the year, three Polish films had topped 1 million admissions at the box office, including the steamy “50 Shades”-inflected romantic drama “365 Days,” which had tallied 1.6 million admissions — and was still in theaters — when cinemas were forced to close.
Robert Kijak, CEO of Next Film, which distributed “365 Days,” estimates that the three-month closure resulted in a loss of 10 million-11 million ticket sales, or roughly 20% of the year’s projected total. The company had to cancel two local premieres because of the pandemic. Kijak adds that “because of the limited lineup, the next holiday months at cinemas may also be significantly weaker from those in 2019.”
A production backlog has pushed back the release dates of nearly a dozen Polish titles yet to be completed, according to Jakub Duszyński, of indie distributor Gutek Film. In a country that typically boasts one of the highest local market shares in Europe, that could be a death knell for this year’s box office.
“Our market lives off local films,” says Duszyński.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over audience readiness to return to theaters abounds; even “Loop,” the latest from multihyphenate Patryk Vega, whose slickly produced blockbusters are considered sure-fire hits, is yet to confirm its release date.
A crisis is also looming over ongoing price wars among Polish exhibitors. Last fall, Vue-owned Multikino slashed ticket prices at its venues across the country. Just days before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Polish cinemas, both Agora-owned Helios and Cinema City, owned by Cineworld, followed suit, causing many producers and distributors to fret over how a decline in box-office revenue will affect their own business models.
Says one producer: “Lots of investors who are counting on box office [for their] films are in fear of what will happen next.”
Next Film’s Kijak says it’s too soon to gauge the impact such measures will have on the industry, noting that “over the next year and a half, the market will evolve for many reasons, and after this time, we will be able to tell how this evolution factored into individual players.”
Duszyński is equally circumspect. “We have no idea if this is a permanent change of ticket pricing, or temporary, just for the period when people are slowly returning to the cinemas,” he says. “Time will tell what makes sense.”
While much remains uncertain, Duszyński still sees reason for hope. On a weekend in early June, as arthouse cinemas reopened with the lifting of lockdown measures across Poland, hundreds lined up outside the Gutek-owned Muranów cinema. “You feel that you are doing things that are important to a lot of people,” says Duszyński. “At the end of the day, you have audiences that are waiting for films.”