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365 Days probably wasn’t the film Poland was hoping would be its global calling card. After decades of art house acclaim from the likes of Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron), Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness), Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War), Jan Komasa (Corpus Christi) and Malgorzata Szumowska (Never Gonna Snow Again), the first Polish film that truly broke though to become a worldwide, mainstream success was a soft-core erotic thriller.
Blame the pandemic. Blame Netflix. Directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes, and based on the Fifty Shades of Grey-style trilogy by Polish writer Blanka Lipinska, 365 Days was produced primarily for the local market. It delivered. Released in early 2020, before the COVID pandemic hit most of Europe, the film, starring Michele Morrone and Anna-Maria Sieklucka, grossed $9 million at the Polish box office. It pulled in a further $500,000 in the U.K., playing mainly to ethnic Polish audiences. Then came COVID-19.
Netflix, which had picked up global rights to 365 Days, dropped the film on its service in June 2020. Overnight, it became the world’s guilty pleasure. The film was one of Netflix’s top three most viewed releases in the U.S., U.K. and across most of Europe, as well as in India, Canada and New Zealand. By some measures, it was the most-watched non-English-language film of 2020 (sorry, Parasite!).
Whatever the reason — some think the lockdowns just made the world incredibly horny — 365 Days became the poster child for Polish cinema. The world hasn’t seen the end of 365 Days. Netflix has commissioned two back-to-back sequels, which it is producing with Poland’s Ekipa and Open Mind One. But when it comes to Polish content, Netflix isn’t just betting on bad sex.
The streamer’s first Polish original was the acclaimed alternative history drama 1983, created by Holland (Charlatan, Mr. Jones). The Woods, first of two Polish-language adaptations of crime novels by American best-selling author Harlan Coben, hit Netflix last year. The second, Hold Tight, which just cast local stars Magdalena Boczarska and Leszek Lichota in the lead, is set to begin production this year for a 2022 delivery.
Polish production heavyweight ATM Group — the creative force behind HBO Europe’s Polish original The Pack — is the producer on both Coben series. The booming online market in the region — analysts Digital TV Research forecast 8.7 million paying SVOD subscribers in Poland by 2025 — is driving global platforms to invest in home-grown content.
Joanna Szymanska, a producer at Warsaw-based ShipsBoy, which produces Netflix’s Polish crime series Hiacynt, says the impact of the streamers is already being seen in the market. “It is already very difficult to secure key talents and crew, as the volume of Netflix-financed productions increases. So the budgets will probably go up, too, and the competition between producers will be even tougher,” Szymanska says. “But I believe it is for the better. [One] positive side of the platforms is that they are enforcing change in quality of work: intimacy coordinators, code of ethics etc. That is still a novelty on Polish sets.”
Alicja Grawon-Jaksik, president of the board of the Polish Producers Alliance notes that the investment from streamers helped Polish producers stay afloat during the pandemic year by “filling the funding gaps and making it much easier for production companies and distributors to plan their activities for 2020/2021.” But she worries local producers will become too dependent on streaming cash and says Poland needs to keep, and strengthen, its public funding system to create a “sustainable business model” whereby independent producers can retain some rights to their work and be in a position to make “good deals with the streamers.”
Radoslaw Smigelski, general director of the Polish Film Institute (PFI), notes with some pride that the PFI “remains the main funding body of local industry,” pointing to a new tax on SVOD services — introduced July 1, 2020 — that requires on-demand platforms to pay 1.5 percent of their local revenue to a fund that will support home-grown productions. “This is something that the industry representatives were waiting for a long time,” he says.
With its well-funded and generous support system — which includes a 30 percent cash rebate program for local shoots — the Polish industry has retained its independence, as evidenced by the variety of productions on offer in Cannes this year. Productions like Silent Twins, the English-language debut of The Lure director Agnieszka Smoczynska, which features Small Axe stars Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in an adaptation of Marjorie Wallace’s novel about twin sisters in Wales who are mute to everyone but themselves. Focus Features in April picked up worldwide rights to Silent Twins from Protagonist Pictures, with Focus set to release it in the U.S. and Universal Pictures International rolling it out in the rest of the world.
Then there’s Kill It and Leave This Town, the feature debut of Polish animator Mariusz Wilczynski, which won a special jury award at the 2020 Annecy Animation Festival. Elsewhere, the five features picked for New Horizons’ Polish Days Goes to Cannes showcase July 9 includes Olga Chajdas’ politics-themed drama Imago, the Anna Kazejak comedy Fucking Bornholm and Kuba Czekaj’s Lipstick on the Glass, which follows a woman who is enticed to leave her gangster husband and join a female sect.
PFI funding and the Polish tax rebate have also encouraged international co-productions, with recent successes including Apples, the acclaimed debut feature of Greek director Christos Nikou, which was co-produced by Poland’s Lava Films with financing from the PFI, and Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar-nominated war drama Quo Vadis, Aida?, which tells the true story of the Srebrenica massacre, and which was co-produced by Poland’s Extreme Emotions. Premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard lineup is Lamb, an Icelandic horror film from first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson, starring Noomi Rapace and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, which, like Silent Twins, was co-produced with Warsaw-based Mandats.
Another upcoming Mandats co-production is Brady Corbet’s immigrant drama The Brutalist, starring Joel Edgerton, Marion Cotillard, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Stan and Vanessa Kirby, which Protagonist and CAA Media Finance first introduced to buyers in Toronto last year.
After pointing to the “creative, enthusiastic, hard working crews” talented pool of “actors, directors, VFX creators, animators and cinematographers” and stunning natural locations — ”massive lakes, densely wooded areas, various architectural styles” — that Poland has to offer international producers, Smigulski adds that visiting productions “can always count on the support of the PFI. Our main focus now is to attract producers willing to cooperate with Polish partners.”
365 Days might not be the film Poland wanted as its calling card. But if it gets international filmmakers interested in working in Poland, maybe all that bad sex was worth it.
Pole Position: Three Upcoming Productions
Recent Polish productions show the diversity and breadth of ambition of the country’s filmmakers.
KILL IT AND LEAVE THIS TOWN
A disturbing trip into the twisted, dystopian psyche of Polish animator Mariusz Wilczynski, this mainly black-and-white debut feature has been 11 years in the making and wowed the critics at the 2020 Annecy Animation Festival, where it won a special jury prize.
LIPSTICK ON THE GLASS
An LGBTQ crime drama from Polish up-and-comer Kuba Czekaj (The Erlprince), Lipstick on the Glass follows a woman who is enticed to leave her violent gangster husband and join an all-female cult. Polish actress Agnieszka Podsiadlik (Mug) stars alongside Germany’s Lena Lauzemis. The film will be part of the Poland Days showcase at the Cannes Film Market on Friday, July 9.
Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose Fuga was in Cannes’ Critics Week in 2018, makes her English-language debut with this adaptation of Marjorie Wallace’s novel about twin sisters in Wales who speak only to one another. Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance star in the feature, which Protagonist Pictures has sold just ahead of Cannes to Focus Features.
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