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Audiences Giving Rave Reviews as Polish Films Go Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The audience erupted in laughter from the first scene of “Kiler 2" as the movie’s star, Cezary Pazura, appeared in faked documentary clips with President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II and Michael Jackson.

Most of the moviegoers recognized that the nearly unimaginable pairings play off “Forrest Gump,” which used sophisticated technology to put actor Tom Hanks together with President John F. Kennedy and others. The allusion to the popular U.S. film added to the trick’s appeal.

The Polish film industry--responding to a flood of American movies that swept local productions out of cinemas after the 1989 collapse of communism--is fighting back by adopting Hollywood techniques. The change also is driven by financial pressure as Polish cinema becomes dependent on profit-minded investors rather than state support.

The new audience-pleasing cinema of fast action, comedy or historical drama comes in sharp contrast to the slow-moving, intellectual, subtly politicized and often gloomy low-budget films of communist days. Recent successes have eased a sense of crisis that engulfed Polish filmmakers in the early 1990s, though life in the film world here is still tough.

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“Of course there was censorship [under communism], but it was easier then to outsmart the censors than today to outsmart the bankers,” explained Juliusz Machulski, director of the original 1997 “Kiler” and new sequel “Kiler 2,” both box-office hits.

In the old days “some ‘artistic’ movies were much easier to make here,” Machulski added. “But it was a self-indulgence for some filmmakers. Now it ends. No one will put up money for a script that is uninteresting.”

The shift began a few years ago with production of high-tension crime dramas, a new genre for Poland. Rather than watch Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger slug it out with the bad guys, Polish audiences could revel in the exploits of local stars such as Boguslaw Linda, now virtually a cult figure after switching from intellectual to tough-guy roles.

U.S. influence affects not only how films are made, but also how they are financed and marketed. Disney-style spinoff products such as T-shirts, puzzles, playing cards and mugs became part of the entertainment industry here for the first time when the epic “With Fire and Sword” opened in Polish theaters Feb. 12.

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The film drew 2.3 million viewers in its first 19 days. That is a record for any movie, domestic or foreign, during the past decade, and ensures that the film will recoup its $7.2-million production cost.

Polish actors inspired by Planet Hollywood--despite the poor business performance of that chain owned by Hollywood stars--opened a Warsaw piano-bar restaurant in December, hoping to build their own string of businesses.

“We thought, ‘Why not try something similar, like our more famous friends in America?’ ” said Zbigniew Zamachowski, one of the owners of the speakeasy-style hangout called Prohibicja, or Prohibition.

“All of us who created this restaurant have a sentiment for the American cinema of the 1920s,” he added. “We wanted to re-create the atmosphere of those times. . . . If people wish, we serve drinks in teacups.”

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In another Hollywood spinoff, its Walk of Fame is mimicked in a display of bronze handprints and autographs in Miedzyzdroje, a resort town on the Baltic, created in conjunction with an annual cinema and arts festival. The weeklong festival brings together actors, filmmakers, musicians, sculptors, painters and fans.

“It’s a very precisely designed program--80% is focused on artistic values and 20% is a Vanity Fair,” said Waldemar Dabrowski, the festival’s president. “I don’t want to be cruel, but the Vanity Fair concept was taken from Hollywood--to play with the popularity of artists and to give ordinary people the pleasure of being in touch.”

Some creative influences also are flowing in the other direction: The screenplay for “Kiler” was sold last year to Disney’s Hollywood Pictures in a $600,000 deal. The Polish film tells the story of a Warsaw taxi driver named Kiler, pronounced killer, who is mistaken for a gang leader, then discovers he rather likes his new identity.

The American version, set in New York City, should be finished late this year or early next year, said Machulski, who has been hired as an advisor for the remake.

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Machulski seeks to combine an American-style filmmaking spirit with local realities. Audiences here like the look of U.S. films, such as their faster pace, but want to see movies with “their story . . . their streets, their language, their jokes,” he explained.

The success of “Kiler” and other recent American-style Polish films also is rooted in how young people here are becoming more like their Western counterparts, losing some of the psychological baggage that burdens their elders, said Slawomir Salamon, vice president of Syrena Entertainment Group, a film distribution company.

“In my generation, there was this image that anything Polish was of lousy quality,” said Salamon, 40. “This new generation doesn’t have that complex anymore. Twenty-year-olds can speak English, they can travel abroad, they are the same as young people in other countries. So they can go see a Polish film without feeling any inferiority complex.”

The Polish film industry now makes about 20 films a year for general audiences, which compete for space on the country’s 800 cinema screens with about 150 new U.S. and European films.

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The State Committee of Polish Cinematography spends about $4.6 million a year supporting production and distribution of these films. But films rarely receive more than a third of their budgets from the state, leaving producers dependent on private financing. Still, having some state support remains vital for Polish films to survive, said Tadeusz Scibor-Rylski, president of the committee.

The popularity of “Kiler"--which cost only $530,000 to produce, attracted a record 2.2 million viewers and grossed $5 million--marked a watershed in the renewal of the fiercely competitive film industry here, Salamon said.

With films such as “Kiler” and “With Fire and Sword,” Salamon said, filmmakers “are thinking about how to sell it, how to get back money from the market, how to compete with American movies.”

“With Fire and Sword” is an epic love story set amid 17th century Polish battles with Cossacks of the Ukrainians, directed by Jerzy Hoffman and based on the first part of “Trilogy” by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature.

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While “With Fire and Sword” received some state financing, the great majority of its budget came from the private sector through investments and loans.

“This is the first case where a bank gave credits--in a very serious amount for Polish conditions--to a private company to create a film, and also the first case where a beer company, Okocim, also came very seriously into a film as a co-producer,” Hoffman said.

“Of course this is very good,” he continued. “We’re going to have real professional film production in Poland.”

A key new foreign presence in Polish filmmaking is HBO Polska, a partnership of Time Warner, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Walt Disney Co., which recently announced it will put $10 million into Polish film and television productions over the next five years.

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HBO’s activities include co-production of a film due for release this spring, “Samum,” based on the true story of how Polish operatives spirited U.S. intelligence agents out of Iraq before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The new demand that films attract corporate backers and make money, rather than simply satisfy their makers’ creative instincts, is constructive, Machulski said.

“It forces me to be more efficient and professional,” he explained. “With ‘Kiler,’ if the audience didn’t come to see the film, I’m lost. I didn’t have any other alibi.”

While he hasn’t yet organized any merchandising of goods in connection with his films, he plans to do so in the future, Machulski added.

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“I’m very sorry I didn’t manage to do it with ‘Kiler 2,’ ” he said. “But the next time I do a comedy we will do it. The more money you earn, the better it is for the next film, for the studio, for everybody.”

Ela Kasprzycka of The Times’ Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.


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