A Producer in Poland

By VFS Web Team, on October 14, 2009

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2411","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft size-full wp-image-7792","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"328","title":"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian","alt":"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian"}}]]"Most people, even in film production, do not realize what it is to be a film producer," saysMarianna Rowinska.
Those few words encapsulate one of the greatest challenges faced by producers everywhere. You're integral to every step in the making of a film, but many people aren't quite sure what it is you do.
For Marianna, a 1999 graduate of the VFS Film Production program, the challenges, struggles, and hardships are still worth it because of the peculiarly simple reward at the end: you've made a film. In fact, her Warsaw, Poland-based production company, Ozumi Films, made six features and three documentaries in 2008 alone, with many more this year and next. She's served as a Line Producer on big-name international productions, including the first two Chronicles of Narnia films (producer Mark Johnson called her "an absolute pleasure to work with") and the Oscar-winning The Reader. All the while, she's producing Ozumi's own films alongside top talent from home and abroad.
Marianna was kind enough to get us caught up on her life and career - and to look back at some of those early, hard-won lessons as an emerging producer.
First of all, let's take a look back about eleven years. What drew you to the film industry in the first place, and how did you come to journey all the way to Vancouver?
I wanted to make films since I was 10. I came to VFS when I was 20 and was not sure whether I would like to be a Production Designer, perhaps a Costume Designer or Director. So knowing for sure that I would love to make films, but not sure what exactly, VFS seemed like a perfect choice.
At the age of 19, my stepdad, who is Canadian, said that he would pay for any school I chose. Not many people have this comfort and this wonderful choice in life. As a child, I was living in communist Poland, so this kind of opportunity was more like a dream come true, not to be wasted. I decided to take my time and all the energy to look for a dream school. I looked all around the world, from Asia to America. It took me three months of research. I considered literally one hundred film schools. Finally I chose VFS. The main reason for choosing VFS was the fact that you can learn the trade in a short but extremely intense period of time. What drew me was the hands-on approach. I am not a student type who likes lectures. Learning things through making things is what appealed to me most.
This method fits with filmmaking. At that time, I knew it intuitively. Now I can only confirm that it has been a great choice. The film business is so particular. You need to be a part of it, to learn and to master your trade. At VFS you get all the tools, and you really don't need four, five years - as it is in Poland or UCLA - to learn and sit through hundreds of hours of lectures. You need one year and to learn all you can from wise people, books, and various courses. Then you really need to dive into the film business waters and learn how to swim among the sharks. No lecture will tell you how it feels when you get bitten. And you need to get bitten a few times, to bite back.
Since graduating from VFS, it seems you've worked pretty steadily in Poland, both on some high-profile international releases as well as domestic films. What were some of the challenges you faced early in your career, and how did you overcome them?
I guess I am still overcoming the challenges. I wish it could be past tense... but then, perhaps not. This is so wonderful about producing, that every new project is a brand new experience, you learn each time, and each time there are loads of challenges to overcome. With time, the challenges become fun, not a burden.
This is a rough business. I don't think young people realize how tough it may be. There is some schizophrenic duality in this business, since you need to be a business person - handling money, sales - and an artistic person - reading scripts, "going into the story," and so on.
We were told at VFS that producing means being with a film for sometimes four or five years or more. But something you cannot really learn at school is feeling these four years, being with the film from the beginning (idea) till the end (sales), and most of the time you are so alone, because you need to believe in the project no matter what.
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On the way, people doubt and question the project so many times. You, as the producer, can never do that. You need to always be strong and convinced that this is a great project, where everyone else may have lost hope. This is the biggest challenge at the beginning. You need to listen to people, value their opinion, but at the end of the day you need to follow your intuition, what drew you into the story. Even if it is a very commercial film, you need to stick to your idea of the film. Being too open is not good. Finding the balance between openness and sticking to your vision is a part of the challenge.
From the more practical side of things, the most challenging thing for my first film was finding the right crew. You need to be a bit of a shrink, to know people and to see how people will work together. This is difficult for a young producer, because to know people it takes life experience. You cannot cheat that. When you are young, you have a tendency to choose young people to work with, for various reasons, often for comfort of communication or because you are young and you were given a chance, so now you need to give a chance back.
Now I can say that this was a mistake. For all the first projects, young producers and directors should choose older, more experienced people. You will have time in life to pay back the debt to faith and hire young people. Do it after you have been in the business for over 10 years. If you want different energy, some boost between people, and you are afraid that hiring older Heads of Department may not do the trick, then hire people from various countries. This has worked fantastically for me. On Limousine, we worked with an incredible U.S. DoP, Bill Butler, who worked so wonderfully with the Polish crew, inspiring us to do new things.
Along with this advice, do not be afraid to fire people, early on! It may not be very popular advice, but it's true. Some films take one to two years to make. If the film is small, and the crew not so numerous, you really need people who work well together. If they don't, it influences the film. This is never worth it. The good rapport between people in the crew - Heads of Department - is only irrelevant when you have an extremely talented, vision-driven director, who goes forward like a bulldozer. Otherwise, having conflict is destructive to the film.
When deciding to be a producer, you set yourself up for a very lonely journey. Most people, even in film production, do not realize what it is to be a film producer. When you talk to a DP, PM, any Head of Department, even Director, you can see that they have no clue what your job really is. People outside of the film business often ask, "Why is it the producer, not the director, who picks up the Oscar for the Best Picture?" This is why it's worth it, at the beginning, to surround yourself with film veterans - because they know. And having these people around you will save you more than once!
The same kind of loneliness applies to screenwriters. But they cannot share their troubles with producers, and vice versa, because the two, when working, always need to act as if they were on their first date: fresh, vigilant, full of life.
You don't tell on the first date that you're living with your mom and have nightmares. And by the way, you are so lonely, with that wart on your knee.
Tell us about Ozumi Films. What does Ozumi do, and how did it come to be?

After VFS - so really early on in my life - I felt that having your own business and being your own boss is what I would like to do. After VFS, I had some work offers from Vancouver and from LA, as a producer's assistant, but decided to follow my own path, in my own land. As my old boss used to say, "It is better to be first in the village than second in the city." And after VFS, I also felt that, Poland being a village in the film industry and LA being the city, I would rather be in my village. Thank God I decided to do that. This business is so hard that working in a foreign country would surely crash me, as a young aspiring producer.
When you are working in Poland and trying to get international stars to work with you, Poland works as a benefit, because for most people it is an exotic country and a new experience. Film people, from actors to DPs, are curious people. Thanks to Poland and having the company in Poland, I can lure the stars to the exotic land of Poles.
My goal was to set up a company that would be Polish yet would produce internationally sold films. This is working. And we are the only company like that in Poland. At the start I had no money, my office was in my one-bedroom apartment. We were line producing the first Narniafrom my living room. When Mark Johnson called and asked me where my office was located, I said truthfully:,"It is downtown." He asked whether it is close to my home and I said, "Oh, yes. It is walking distance." Well, I did not lie.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2413","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft size-full wp-image-7794","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"317","title":"Warsaw Dark","alt":"Warsaw Dark"}}]]After Narnia, we had more projects coming in and our own productions developing, so I sold my one-bedroom apartment and invested in Ozumi. It was the right move. We are now mainly producing our own films. In 2008 we produced Warsaw Dark, a film directed by Christopher Doyle, Limousine, a film directed by a French guy, Jerome Dassier, and starring Christopher Lambert, with Bill Butler as DoP, Cheluskin, a mystery film set in Siberia with Russian actors in Russian, and At the Zoo, a family comedy directed by James Crowley, a young Texan director who we met on Prince Caspian.
We have co-produced, with various European countries, four other fiction features and produced five feature documentaries, as well as a high-profile TV series. It is a lot. And too much. Now, we are slowing down and aiming at producing less, with higher production value, meaning higher budgets. It is much easier to raise budgets in Europe than it is in US.
Sometimes, when I look back, and wonder that I could have become a Production Coordinator in LA, perhaps it would have been an easier life, not so stressful, not so weekend-less. But then you watch a premiere of your film and see people reacting, bad or good, remembering the day you decided to make this film, and knowing that you are the wizard that made it happen... This moment, only understandable to you, is priceless - or at least worth a few hundred Sundays.
We saw that producer Mark Johnson singled you out for your work on Prince Caspian. When someone sees your name in the credits of a film like Prince Caspian or The Reader as line producer, what does that really mean? What would you have been responsible for?
Line production is much different from producing yourself. It always begins with a phone call asking for specific locations in the particular region- here, it was Poland. First of all you need to convince the producer (here, Mark Johnson) and director (here, Andrew Adamson) that you have the most beautiful locations, exactly what they have envisioned for Narnia. This is the most difficult part of the job. People of this rank, movies of this value, look for locations all around the world. Along with the convincing, there are of course the finances, saying that in Poland it would be cheaper than in, for example, Texas or Argentina.
Then there is the whole infrastructure, proving that you can pull off a film that brings in a 600-person crew. So the first bit of the job, which usually takes up to a year, is more like being a travel agent, promoting your own country.
Then, after the producer and director decide to shoot a portion of the film in Poland, you take care of the whole production part of it, being more like a production manager. "Organizer" becomes your first name. And the clue to understand line producing is what we call it in the film business: when a foreign crew hires you to do a "service" in your own country. It is a service. You need to listen to the needs of the producer who hires you, and then fulfill his or her needs as best as you can. And often you disagree with the choices the producer makes, but this is irrelevant - your job is to fulfill a mission, in a style and manner which should suit the producer who hired you in the first place.
So in a nutshell, on Prince Caspian, we were responsible for finding the right locations, securing these locations (getting all the permits), hiring the local crew, organizing the local community in small villages to accept a crew of 600 people, organizing accommodation for hundreds of people, directing the flow of pre-production work on location, organizing the free time for the foreign crew while in Poland, and organizing the infrastructure for the crew, like internet, satellite service, building roads to locations...
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2414","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-full wp-image-7795","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"167","title":"Limousine","alt":"Limousine"}}]]Our readership is very international and might not know very much about the film industry in Poland. What's the industry like there? Is there a lot of domestic production alongside all the international shows that the country attracts?
The Polish film industry is relatively small. We are making approximately 40 to 50 films a year, where an average film budget is $1.5 million US. It is still very expensive for people in Poland to go to the movies, so the audience is not big. If you want to make a successful film, something that actually pays back, you need to make a romantic comedy or a big historical epic.
This is why I decided to make films for Poland and the rest of the world, at least for the TV market. Thanks to this kind of approach, I can raise higher budgets. To raise money for a film in Poland, you go to PFI, the Polish Film Institute, TVP, the national broadcaster, and private equity. It is not very difficult to raise money for a film. It is more challenging to sell a film.
Poland is a developing country, in all industries, film included. So it is a good place to be, and it is in Central Europe, so there is great potential for European co-productions. Unfortunately Poland does not have any tax incentives for foreign film services like Narnia. Therefore we are lacking arguments, when a $50 million film wants to come to Poland. We lose this battle with Hungary and Germany, and that's why there is really little foreign film service done in Poland.
When this changes, and I am sure it will, we may invite more Narnia-like productions to Poland. Especially because Poland is the only country in Central Europe that has literally everything there is to have in terms of locations, from sea to high mountains, from Russian to French architecture. After all, over the centuries, we have been invaded by most of the European nations, so now we can brag about having a piece of every country in Europe.
As you said, the film industry is tough, no matter where you are. Is it worth all the hardship to be involved in it? If you could give one piece of advice to a young film student, based on what you know now, what would it be?
Keep your eye on the ball!
Thank you, Marianna, for sharing your insights and experience! Readers can find out more about Ozumi Films and its many projects at ozumifilms.com.