Gdynia Industry: summary of the 2nd day | 14th September
Microbudgets – where are we?
The second industry event on Wednesday the 14th of September was a discussion about the microbudget programme, which has been in existence for four years –microbudgets are films made for small amounts of money, according to strict rules. This has its advantages but also its challenges, which was the subject of a panel where the strengths and weaknesses of the programme were summarised and named by its beneficiaries.
Moderated by film critic Błażej Hrapkowicz, the conversation* featured: producers Iza Igel (The Hatcher) and Jakub Mróz (Elephant), director Dawid Nickel (Love Tasting) and Michał Broniszewski of Galapagos Films (distributor of Love Tasting, The Hatcher, Po miłości/Pour L’Amour).
*For the sake of the interview’s clarity, abbreviations and explanations have been included
Błażej Hrapkowicz: The aim of this meeting is for us to discuss the microbudget programme and the formula of making films from different perspectives, because although it is relatively young, it has already managed to establish itself in the Polish film industry and a number of films have already been made. That’s why we have producers and a distributor and a director here to talk about it from different points of view. And maybe the first question I will ask you is what certain kinds of criteria, guidelines, procedures look like at the moment in the Polish Film Institute itself, in terms of microbudgets. Has anything changed over the years, has anything improved, are there still some things that can be improved? What are your experiences in this respect – I’ll address Iza and Jakub first.
Iza Igel: The first change that has come about since our early days – Dawid was the first year to see this change, I was the second, and Jakub the third – the change concerns the size of the budget. We were still doing it under 700 thousand, and since last year the budget has jumped to 1 million zloty. The 300 thousand in our case is almost half. That’s a lot. And I think it’s also facilitated by the fact that [now] there are no co-producers. There is only the Polish Film Institute and the producer. Therefore the decision-making process is easier.
Jakub Mróz: That’s all true. We were also still implementing a microbudget with 700 thousand. We were probably the last handout with that amount. We managed. When we applied for funding, we still had an obligatory co-producer and in the course of the project, it turned out that there wasn’t one.
BH: So, I understand that the lack of co-producers is a convenience, because all decisions are focused in your hands as the only producers. Of course, I’m not talking about the creative decisions of the director.
II: Yes, absolutely. It makes it easier. We waited a very long time for an agreement, because the process of signing co-production agreements is long. And here it’s really all in our hands, the sooner we collect and deliver the documents to the PFI, the sooner the procedure will be implemented.
BH: So the procedures in your opinion work fairly smoothly in the microbudget programme. You can get through the process quite quickly, and if the project is approved, then you can get on with it rather swiftly.
II: They do now, and it’s kind of an annual plan in general. It starts in October with the director officially applying with their body of work, which has to be accepted by the PFI, and once the director is allowed to apply, there’s perhaps a month-long period in which that application can be submitted. Usually around December. There’s a meeting before Christmas, and actually right after that, decisions are made. January is the time to compile the documents, and the contract is signed in February. And theoretically in February of the following year the project should be ready.
BH: I understand that increasing the budget to a million makes a difference, especially with the current state of inflation. Iza, you said that the first step is to present the director’s body of work, and if that director is accepted by the PFI, only then can an application be submitted. What does this look like? In the microbudgets there are only debuts, so how big can this body of work be. Jakub, we have the director of Elephant Kamil Krawczycki with us, have you sent his short films to the PFI, how does it work?
JM: If I remember correctly, the programme is aimed at film school graduates, if someone hasn’t finished film school, they have to get permission from the director to apply. And it’s on the basis of achievements, for example short films as it was in our case.
BH: And if someone is a film school graduate, they don’t have to present those achievements?
II: Then they have to submit a certificate that he graduated from the school.
Dawid Nickel: It seems to me that if you’re not a graduate from let’s say [a school in] Łódź, Katowice, then you don’t submit anything, you just apply in December, but if your path is non-standard like mine, then you apply to the director. In my case the director agreed, but from what I remember he tended to agree as everyone got a positive answer. And I don’t remember what I was submitting – probably just a request.
WHAT COULD BE DONE BETTER?
BH: From what you say, the picture that emerges is that this programme is quite inclusive. Indeed there are no great restrictions, the procedures are rather friendly, which is important because this is aimed at graduates, at debutantes so the easier it is to make the film, the better.
However, can anything else be improved in the procedure of this programme?
JM: In our case, I think everything went perfectly well. Of course, the programme has a hard framework that we have to fit into – first of all the time frame, [that is] when the film has to be handed in, we are [also] obliged to submit the film to Gdynia. We have to meet this deadline. We kept moving the completion date and there was no problem with that either. So there is flexibility.
BH: The number of shooting days depends on how much money is available?
JM: Yes, we are the ones who write in the project how many shooting days we will need.
II: There are no restrictions when it comes to production, everything hinges on the producers and directors. This is a project that you have to think about from the beginning, that is, from the writing of the script, and possibly also from assembling the crew. It is dependent on us – the creators, the performers. How we organise it, whether it takes 15 days or more than 20, is up to us.
BH: You mentioned assembling a crew, writing a script, that’s also an important issue. I understand that when you’re planning a production, or when – this is a question for David – you’re writing the script, you already have to adjust it to the fact that it’s a microbudget. Tell us more about your experience in planning the production of these films. David, when you were preparing Love Tasting and you already knew it was going to be a microbudget, did you have to reconcile your creative dreams with what the possibilities would be already at the script stage.
DN: The interesting part about Love Tasting was that at the time this programme [still] didn’t exist and nobody said it would. I had finished the Wajda School a while earlier and had a text for a short film, I assumed I would submit it to the Munk Studio and make 30. In September I didn’t get funding from the Studio and I wondered what to do next. I heard that microbudgets were starting at the end of the year and I quickly developed the text into a full-length feature. I wrote scenes knowing not to multiply locations, to do as many scenes as possible in the same place, with the same actors. My film was demanding anyway because there were a lot of characters – I didn’t follow my own advice and we had a lot of changing locations, interludes and so on. If I were to assume now that I would be submitting a microbudget project in a year’s time, I would be cutting back though. It’s a known fact that not everything has to be the way we imagined, it doesn’t affect the artistic question in any way. The script [Love Tasting] was written quite quickly, but I didn’t know at all if I would get permission from the director, I was depressed after failing with the thirty and I stopped believing that the film would ever come out. And then it worked out.
BH: So you didn’t feel that the microbudget form radically limited you creatively?
DN: Not once did I feel that I was making a cheaper film, especially since we assumed that the film featured a swimming pool, and there are hardly any such pools in Poland any more, we travelled specially [for shooting] to Jelenia Góra – 4 days away on a microbudget is a feat. We didn’t have any well-known actors, apart from Dobromir [Dymecki] and Agnieszka [Żulewska], the only “adults”, Julek Świeżewski also came to the set as a friend, and in three hours he played a walk-on role as a policeman. It was created on friendly energy and I never felt that anything was missing on this set. This is mainly thanks to producer Marta Habior and Kasia Kostecka, the executive producer.
II: I wanted to add that we had one location, two actors. And everyone made money on this film. Nobody worked for free, which I’m happy about. Here I refer to the question you asked Błażej before we started – whether it is possible to make money on microbudgets.
BH: Going back to the issue of planning the production of a film with a microbudget in the back of your mind. How did this affect your production planning for Elephant and The Hatcher?
JM: When Kamil wrote the script which we then adapted, we were already doing it from a microbudget perspective. When Jakub Sztuk, the cinematographer, joined us, we reviewed the script from a production point of view and a few scenes fell out to cut costs. We had a few days away in the Podhale region, horses, because they play an important role in the film, we had professional actors in the film. I think a nice film came out of it.
BH: You were aware of how much money there was and you managed to move efficiently within that.
JM: And our aim was also to make sure it wasn’t seen as a microbudget.
JM: We had a brilliant production manager, Asia Staszczyk, for whom nothing was impossible. That’s a key function with a microbudget. We had all the costs, even the smallest ones, worked out and mostly managed to stick to the plan.
BH: Iza, what was it like for you?
II: [Grzesiek Mołda] sent me the script, which I liked very much. We didn’t think of the film in terms of a microbudget at all, but [then] it was also a completely different film. It had a different genre, it was teeming with characters […] The script was elaborate, the flat was co-educational, each character had a plot outlined. It was more of a social film. A two-year search for a ‘full’ budget didn’t work out, we said we weren’t giving up and continued to try and do something with it. We also felt that the script didn’t work at times and we started to reduce it. And we found that the more we reduced it, the more meat was left in it. We reduced it to the core, what it was all about. Interestingly, to keep the drama relevant, we changed the genre, which I’m happy about. The result is a film that sounds like social cinema, but [although] it touches upon a social problem, it is not. When we had two actors and one location left in the script, knowing that something unforeseen could happen, I put aside the reserve we had left. We could afford to buy cool music.
BH: If you plan [the film] well, a million or 700 thousand zlotys is hardly a muzzle. What emerges to me is that the programme has shown, over the few years it’s been running, that it’s needed. David, you said you didn’t get money from the Munk Studio, but you had an alternative. You [Iza] couldn’t find the money for a full-budget film, and you were saved by the microbudgets. Moving on to the later stages of the film – and here I turn to Michał – how does it [the situation] look like from the distributor’s point of view? Planning the promotion of the film, its distribution? What impact does the fact that it’s a microbudget have on these decisions?
Michał Broniszewski: For me, the microbudget project is interesting in that you immediately feel that these are projects born of passion, which require full dedication in the best way. If a producer learns from such a project, then later on, with a budget of 5-6 million, he looks at the money differently. If he was able to make a good film for 700 thousand he will make a good one for 6 million. When it comes to distribution, there are certain limitations because it’s a microbudget project, because we as a distributor can’t tell a producer that we’re going to spend a million zloty on P&A, because the film didn’t even cost that much. [The film] also requires us, the distributors, to be dedicated, to have a method, to be committed and attentive […] We devise promotional ideas together [with the director and producer]. When we have 100 thousand for the distribution and advertising budget, that [amount] disappears quickly. And then we need unconventional solutions that will make us stand out. I think that with Love Tasting we managed to involve cinemas, which are also necessary for this puzzle, because without them and their support for such projects, nothing would work. Nobody here is fooling anyone that these will be projects for 100 thousand viewers. […] My experience, whether from Love Tasting or after seeing The Hatcher, is that these films carry among the people, a good opinion of them spreads, and it is not at all apparent that these films differ significantly in production value from more expensive projects.
DN: When submitting [the project] for the micro-budget I had the desire to make my film. I’m amazed now – it’s the fourth edition – my friends who also studied directing are still not making films. They are 35 years old, writing scripts. When I ask them how much they want to make a film for, they say with 10 million. They’ll be making films at 45 with these assumptions. I really like this [microbudget] programme and I tell people all the time to submit their projects because if they really want to make a film, you’re able to do it for 700 thousand. Now a friend of mine did it for 100 thousand. It’s difficult, but if you’re not going to make a film, or you’re going to make it cheaper, think about it, rewrite the script for two characters, lock them in a house. Films like this are being made all over the world. We’re lazy as filmmakers – we go to school, then we go to Munk, we make 30s, maybe someone will give you 5 million for a full-length, and then these debuts are made, and it turns out the debut is uninteresting, and everyone has invested money in it. The alternative route that this programme proposes is great.
BH: Having realistic expectations and outlook on the film industry. If you can make a debut for a million or 700 thousand and you’re able to show that you’re an interesting filmmaker and you’ve got cool ideas and you’ve delivered the film, that’s capital. The producer will see later – he made it.
JM: While microbudget is a programme for debut directors, there is no criteria for producers. This was my debut as a producer and if I had to start with a bigger budget, I don’t know if I would have taken it on because it’s a huge responsibility. And this formula was acceptable for a first time.
II: Limitation triggers creativity.
BH: Michał you said that adapting the production budget to the film you’re distributing […] and that looking for unconventional, non-obvious ways to promote it.
Can you be specific?
MB: I would add that it should be obvious to every distributor in this country that the purpose of our business is first and foremost for the producers to see the money from [exploiting] the film, and only then should we see it. That is the premise of this business. And that can also make producers want to work with us. As for the specifics [you asked for], I’ll say something else: my point was that we don’t follow a pattern. Today, thinking about cinema promotion now and even before COVID is a different world. Today we have a lot of ways – social media and the whole internet, our whole reality has completely changed. First of all, we have to look at what kind of project it is, who it’s for, who might be interested in it, because these – with all due respect to David’s project, or other microbudget films – are not films for everyone. And that has to be understood at the beginning. Mass audiences are not going to set off and buy up thousands of tickets. I always try to advise producers and filmmakers that thinking about who the film is for, who’s going to see it, should be included right from the script stage. That’s a big problem in our industry – not thinking about who the audience is. [As a distributor] we’re able to estimate whether it’s better to pump a budget into social media for a film and avoid billboards, TV – sometimes we have to avoid them because we don’t have the resources to do that. But if we have to make choices, it’s for the project. What has changed in cinema promotion is that there is a greater expectation when it comes to involving the filmmakers themselves – social media, recordings, invitations to the film, screenings with the filmmakers in different cities, not just Warsaw. There is a big need for contact with the authors of the work.
II: The P&A budget doesn’t have to be big, but I don’t agree that it has to be in correlation to the film’s budget. If the film is commercial, with a big movie star, then why not. Because often these are debuts, made usually in a friendly group […] there are no stars, no faces to base the promotion on. By doing it forcibly and together, the creators get involved in the distribution – they’ll find time for an interview, a radio show.
BH: Pre-release meetings with filmmakers work well as a promotional tool for smaller films.
MB: It works because we look at what happens in the cinemas themselves. This has also changed over the [last] 2,5 years. The pattern of seeing [mainstream] films [in multiplexes] probably hasn’t changed very much, but in single-screen cinemas there is an even greater need for a sense of eventfulness. A sense of participating in something special.
BH: Jakub, is it also important for you as the producer of Elephant to travel with the film, to meet people?
JM: Of course. I have a lot of distribution experience and I think there’s not much difference in the distribution of microbudget versus other arthouse films. The budget is not decisive. If there are no big stars, we won’t make it a commercial film.
II: We were fortunate that with the film we ended up at First Cut Lab, a programme for films in the editing stage, [where] we also had a marketing workshop. As Michał pointed out from the script stage it’s good to have an audience in mind. The other thing is that we don’t have a single audience for our films […] there are no longer [such groups as] women, 35-45, big cities, well-educated. There are no such targets, they have to be very precise. And there can be many of them. We worked with an agency called Wolves from the UK and they did a hundred-page presentation of the film for us at the end, pulling out various images, actually screenshots from the film. They laid out four or five lines of communication for us for very different audiences. Of course, the film can be sold as social cinema, you can make an almost thriller, a second Fang and so on. With this production, despite the financial squeeze, production is fun and you have to have fun with distribution too.
MB: It’s right that this point is made, because this is an aspect that has changed in distribution efforts. We have to draw audiences out of each [target] group, it’s always been difficult, and today it’s even more difficult.
JM: There are now these processes for distributing a film without specifying target groups. You can do a broad online campaign and see who responds to it. And only target it. We don’t need to know what criteria they were selected by.
DN: I was reading a colleague’s script yesterday and my first question was who the film is for. I was looking from a casting point of view – whether the main character should be 30 or 40. [That decision depends on] who the film is for.
MB: Let’s remember that these films will also be received in other fields and how they will perform. [In the case of Love Tasting] we managed to do very well selling the film to VOD and I think that’s important in these microbudget projects now, from the filmmakers’ point of view, but also indirectly from ours. At the moment, there is no co-producer with the film who would take some of the rights as part of the contract and exploitation in certain fields was ruled out. At the moment, a producer making a film for a million zlotys is the holder of all rights. For us as a distributor, it’s an almost ideal arrangement. We are not limited by any co-producer.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE MICRO DETAILS
Question from the audience: What does post-production look like with a microbudget.
DN: Love Tasting didn’t have expensive effects. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
II: We deal. We’ll do a small film and then come in with a big one. We rely a bit on regular collaborators, on business relationships.
JM: In our case it was similar.
Question from the audience: Would the solution be to allow co-producers who wouldn’t have the rights but would take a share of the profits and contribute in kind.
II: At first I was amazed that such a solution doesn’t exist. It would be a good test for producers, especially debut producers, because there are no restrictions. In the case of the other priorities, the producer should have the experience to prove himself. And then it would be a chance for producers to walk this path with co-production contracts and so on. On the other hand, it is also the kind of film to prove yourself: you have a million bucks and you have to show what you will do. If you embrace it and prove yourself in it, then you’re welcome to move on. I really don’t know.
MB: That’s a question worth asking [potential] co-producers.
BH: But you’re not dismissing the idea, it’s just that the devil is in the details?
II: Yes, as a producer I probably shouldn’t say that, I like these clear rules. [Microbudget] is a project for debut directors to prove themselves. And not a test of a producer’s savvy.
BH: The subject of microbudget as a test of a director’s mettle has come back. David, do you feel that the fact that you made a quality film for not a lot of money had a measurable effect in the offers you later got, your standing in the industry.
DN: The effect was huge A while later I got an offer to do a commercial project that would soon be on the platform. That was a big thing. Love Tasting helped.
II: Because of COVID the date [of the film’s premiere] was postponed a bit. Having the film edited, Grześ [asked] if he could show it to a producer. We showed it to two or three producers and the result is that Grześ has his second film here at the festival in the Main Competition.
JM: There are quite a few debutantes working on microbudgets and they are worth noting too.
Question from the audience: Question about the technical crew and the rates that couldn’t be touched.
II: With us, the costs were at a normal level, although rather at the lower end of the spectrum, you had to budget for that. [This was at the expense of] reducing the number of shooting days.
JM: We also had regular rates.
BH: The question [from the audience] is, can there be money in the budget to work on adapting the script to the microbudget?
II: […] we use this kind of solution [like script workshops] very often. Small producers can’t afford to invest often.
DN: In our case, the Wajda School was the place of script development.
BH: I understand that the postulate would be to find funds for development despite the microbudget.
Question from the audience: Is there an MG? Have you had experience with presale? In the context of how to supplement the producer’s own contribution.
MB: MG – that’s a difficult subject. When we talk to the producer we ask what will work best for them. Because if we give MG then we have to recover it first. We will be the beneficiary of the first profits of the film, and that is for us to decide together. […] Presale – as much as possible, yes. Stations, platforms are very active in the Polish market. Talks often start at an early stage, before we have any material to show.
Question from the audience: what do you think about a separate section for microbudget films in Gdynia?
II: It is written into the programme. We agree to it when we join this programme. In the beginning, I was terrified that if a debutante debuts in this way, they won’t have [a chance with their next film] to appear in the Main Competition in the first film category, but now it’s [an award for] the first or second film. So those are the rules of the game. What hurts me is the name [of the competition] – microbudget, because it’s stigmatising. If it was changed subtly – first films, debuts.
DN: What’s worse is that there’s only one award. All the people on the team get involved, and there’s only a prize for the best film. The Youth Jury can still give an award.
JM: It’s great that directors who get funding are guaranteed visibility, they are promoted by Gdynia. But couldn’t microbudget films compete with films in the Main Competition?
II: This is the question of whether to create this competition or not. Either we have guarantees, a nod to young filmmakers, you are all here. We give you this much money and a platform and so on, well maybe not the Golden Lions.
DN: Yes. Now we’re here, we can discuss whether to make these weird films or not to make them and what they are. And that’s cool. There was even talk that year that the microbudget competition was better than the main competition. So I think it’s ok – quirky and interesting.
The summary was prepared by: Ola Salwa
Gdynia Industry: 13th to 17th September