With titles such as Pitbull and Mafia Women, violent Polish-language thrillers are proving a cult success – some even denting the UK top 10. But can they win over mainstream audiences?
03 May 2018 | Ryan Gilbey | The Guardian
It is a late Saturday afternoon in Walthamstow, north-east London, and business is slow at the Empire cinema, as it usually is on hot days. Nevertheless, 13 people have chosen a brutal thriller over an extra few hours in the sun. Pitbull: Last Dog, which opened the previous weekend on 279 screens, will have escaped the attention of most cinemagoers.
It’s certainly more stomach-churning than the average multiplex fare. One woman has her throat slashed in the first five minutes; another is placed under a carpet and then beaten violently with belts by a gang of thugs. A dead man is shot in the mouth at point-blank range, while a gangster pouring acid on a corpse tells his cohort charmingly: “If you make it without puking, I’ll buy you a whore.”
Pitbull: Ostatni pies (Pitbull: Last Dog) is the latest in a run of films to have dented the UK box office top 10 despite being marketed exclusively at the Polish community. (At the time of writing it has taken around £340,000.)
This year has already brought one hit, Kobiety mafii (Mafia Women), which took almost £900,000 in the UK and Ireland. Last year, the grisly 18-rated medical drama Botoks amassed £1.06m, making it not only the third highest-grossing foreign-language release of 2017 (after Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and the Bollywood hit Raees) but the most successful Polish film ever in the UK.
Like Bollywood, Polish cinema has flourished in UK multiplexes rather than arthouses, without any help from the British media. It is only partly true to say that the mainstream press has ignored these releases; what’s more significant is that its attention and approval were never sought in the first place. With Polish now the second most commonly spoken language in England, English-speaking viewers are not part of this particular success story.
The audience members I talk to after Pitbull: Last Dog are both Polish, though neither is especially impressed by what they have just seen. “It’s not as good as the other ones,” says Tomasz, a 40-year-old draughtsman and fan of the two previous Pitbull instalments. “This one is softer, more American. In Polish, we would say grubymi nićmi szyte – ‘stitched with a thick thread’.
It hangs together, but only just.” Maciej, a 41-year-old veterinary surgeon, hasn’t seen a Polish film in a cinema since coming to live in the UK 12 years ago. “It was like it was on steroids,” he laughs. “It just showed all the different ways you could kill someone. I couldn’t follow what was going on.” Did it reflect anything about Polish life or culture? “I hope not. If it’s like that, I don’t want to go back.”
Awareness of these movies is raised largely through social media and websites, and by the hoopla surrounding the initial premieres back in Poland (Pitbull: Last Dog was released there a month ago and enjoyed the second-biggest opening weekend of any native film this year).
But what are Polish viewers here getting from these movies that they can’t get from the mainstream US equivalents? “There’s a certain mix of humour and toughness and a real eastern European vibe which Polish audiences like,” says Joanna Michalec, director of Phoenix Productions, the leading international distributor of Polish films. “I think they also like seeing Poland in a movie, and what’s important is they can go to a normal multiplex and see these films in Polish. That means a lot.”
Phoenix, which is based in Chicago, started distributing Polish films in Britain in April 2016 after noticing interest on its Facebook page from the UK and Ireland. Its inaugural release was Pitbull. Nowe porządki (Pitbull: New Orders), the first of the trilogy spun off from a Polish TV series.
“Polish distributors in the past released on 20 or 30 screens, but we decided to give it all we’d got,” she says. A typical Phoenix release will now play on upwards of 250 screens, although the company has its sights set even higher. “There are a million Polish people in the UK,” says Paul Sweeney, Phoenix’s director of UK and Ireland strategy. “Only 10% of them come to the cinema, so part of what I’m doing is finding the ones we’re not targeting. The potential to grow is huge.”
The mainstay of Polish cinema is director Patryk Vega, a Guy Ritchie-style figure responsible for every gory, high-octane success to date with the exception of the latest Pitbull.
But not all of Phoenix’s films are violent. It also does a roaring trade in romantic comedies: Narzeczony na Niby (Pretend Fiance) is about to open, while the company had a hit two years ago with Planeta Singli (Planet Single), a lively Richard Curtis-style romcom centred on a dating app. Its Slovenian director, Mitja Okorn, currently lives in Los Angeles and recently finished making Life in a Year with Cara Delevingne and Jaden Smith for Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment.
In June 2016, I attended a press screening of Planet Single introduced by Okorn, although it is unusual for non-arthouse Polish films to be shown to the press. “I was happy with the UK release, but I always want more,” he says now.
“What I wanted was a bigger screening, a premiere where we could get even more UK opinion-makers and journalists to see the film. And that’s how we could slowly build a non-Polish UK audience that would become fans of good Polish cinema. For that to work, the distributors of Polish films would also need to be careful which movies they are distributing. The way it is now, they distribute everything – good, bad and extremely bad. Polish people confuse successful with good.”
Can Polish cinema draw English-speaking audiences – and does that even matter? “Absolutely it matters,” says Sweeney. “It’s an untapped market that we’re trying to get into. We want to reach those viewers who are perfectly happy to watch foreign films.” The problem is that the sort of Polish movies put out by Phoenix are very different from the arthouse kind. No one is going to mistake Botoks for Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski’s haunting 2014 Oscar-winner, and Vega is no Krzysztof Kieślowski.
With that in mind, Phoenix is planning to widen its slate to feature highbrow releases as well as, say, the forthcoming Kobiety mafii sequels.
“We’re looking at projects geared toward lovers of foreign films in Britain,” says Michalec. “We have one in the pipeline that’s a Polish-British production aimed at arty audiences who tend to avoid the multiplexes.” If Brexit is causing the company any jitters, Michalec is hiding it well. “I don’t think many Polish people will move out. I can’t see it. The community is very settled.”
Asked about his goals for the future, Sweeney doesn’t miss a beat. “My aim is simple,” he says. “A Bafta for best foreign language film.”
Pitbull: Last Dog is on release. Narzeczony na Niby (Pretend Fiance) is released on 4 May.
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