/ 15 April 2019

The Week of the Festival: Gdansk, Poland

The Paradoxes of the Film Market for Young Audience in Poland

‘Paradox’ was the name of a cinema where I saw the first of my long list of titles while studying in Krakow. It was “The Pillow Book” by Peter Greeneway. It was long awaited as back then the ‘Piast’ Film Club in Kołobrzeg no longer operated and only mainstream movies were available at the ‘Wybrzeże’ Cinema. I had several dozens of films from recent years on the to-watch list. Despite the limitations, I was determined to complete this list, because my love for movies began much earlier. Way before I started to care about new releases.

Was it when, with the whole cinema, I watched the premiere screening of “Mister Blot’s Academy" (Wybrzeże Cinema, last row, middle)? Maybe when foe the tenth time I took my younger sister to a screening of “The NeverEnding Story” (Syrena Cinema, Ustronie Morskie, green seats)? Maybe the first matinee screening with my mum and “Bolek and Lolek”?“The Young Magician”? “Friend of the Jolly Devil”? Refreshed from before I was born “I Bet On Tolek Banana”? Or maybe was it was the glimpse of a big city kid’s life in “Seven Wishes”? I do not know which of those did it; maybe all of them. It was enough for me to find my life passion, which is also behind the idea of ​​Cinema in Sneakers.

Eight years ago, when we came up with the idea of organizing a film festival for young people in Warsaw, it seemedthat the market was just waiting. We had big hopes and enthusiasm that only crazy, uncontrollable film buffs have.

We knew that there are a lot of films in the world, in which children and teens are main characters. These characters were from different cultures, speaking different languages, sometimes having different historical or sociological background. But they were all telling their stories, stories of young people. We also knew that there werecreators who wanted to be close to a young viewer and that they REALLY wanted to tell about the world and the present seen through minors’ eyes.

At that time, there was barely anythingonthe home market. Raised on Polish films and series for children, we had a feeling that the market needs a strong kick. We thought we had the power to be such a kick. The reality brought many surprisesanda lot of conflicting information.

The niche of the film for children and youth is an infinite river of paradoxes. What paradoxes?

Paradox: target group

There is this deep conviction among distributors that the wider the target group, the better the film's chances of making money.

Nowadays we do not have an official rating system in Poland, but BO, the abbreviation from ‘bez ograniczeń’ means general audience, and literally ‘without limitations’. It also means box office in film industry jargon. A coincidence? I think not. 

On the other hand, we have 1,7 million pre-schoolers in Poland. They have parents. It is about 3 million of potential audience of the pre-schoolers’ films and themes. And it does not include the facts that many children love to watch films many times, and, in the perspective of three years, this entire audience will exchange for a new one. Does it not look like a great distribution potential?

What films for y.a. should be like is common knowledge:they should be adventurous, because kids are easily bored;they should have horror elements, because kids like being scared;they should havea point, a strong educational massage, because kids should learn all the time. Many projects tryto jamall this in one film. 

Taking into account the Cinema in Sneakers’audience’sexperience only, I can say, there are kids who like comedies, butthey all love to laugh. There are kids who like horrors for kids, they all love a bit of suspense. There are kids into adventures, science-fiction, love stories. The truth is they like variety, they like skipping from genre to genre, if only they have a chance to get to know different kinds of films . How would they know if they like film noir if they hadnever seenit? Of course, film noir for kids might be an exaggeration, but for teens- not so much...

Young audience is a difficult one. Raised on American superproductions - it certainly doesnot want to watch a much cheaper Polish equivalent. Primitives of children's cinema in recent years are doing well, but they certainly do not mow millions of viewers. It is a fact. It is also a fact that for more than 20 years kids have become weaned from their home cinema. In fact, the viewer always needs to be brought up. Children generally watch a lot - TV, computer, tablet, finally a cell phone. They getused to specific forms (mainly animations), to a specific style. But they are also naturally curious people, and they love to watch real kids on the screen. (At the festival I have often accompanied the first contact of children with a live - action film or a documentary. Surprise and delight - these are their first reactions.)

The Polish production market for y.a. has beenbarely rising for the pastfew years. Excluding film festivals, kidsbarely have access to foreign cinema that could widen their cinematic perspective, polish their taste, build up the habits. In many urban centres, where there is one cinema, kids cannot watch anything but the mainstream.

In addition to the mainstream offer is based on education - adaptations of school readings, historical events - the easiest way to get a school to cinema, but in 99% does not include minor main characters, nor children perspective. Where is joy and passion in all of this? Where is love for the X Muse?

Paradox: (inter)national potential

Trends in the world are suchthat the box office in a given country, of course, does American films and national productions. 

In the case of children's films, it is even harder. The film can be successful in the country of its origin, but it is only an art-house abroad. Research indicates that only 12-year-olds deal with subtitles on film. For younger people there is dubbing. This is relatively high cost of "market entry", often exceeding the costs of the license. The minimum version is a lector, but in Poland it is associated with television. All of that causes radical quality gap to the mainstream.

The chance that your cool movie will see the foreign audience outside of the festival or tv is close to zero. Systematic support for such distributions seems natural. Unfortunately, in Poland receiving support for the distribution of a foreign film for children is impossible, and certainly on a scale that allows making good dubbing or promotion support at an acceptable level for the multiplex. In the European supporting programs the kids movies compete with adults ones.

The reality is harsh. Either you have good and extensive marketing, or you are "condemned" to art-house cinema. And that puts you into the space of educational cinema and school shows. Small cinemas simply cannot afford to develop audiences in small steps, from a few viewers upwards, while when showing blockbusters, they have several thousand spectators.

Paradox: film festivals for young audience

Practically the only providers of diverse films for y.a. are film festivals. When Cinema in Sneakers was born, joy and energy were great and romantic. It turned out that it has been positivism rather, work at the grass roots and glass houses. While developing a young audience, these festivals must keep proving their usefulness. They have no guarantee of financing and existence, despite the fantastic opinions from participants, prizes they received and international recognition. And the children's festival audience is different than the adults’. It will not travel several dozen or a few hundred kilometers to participate in a cultural event. Culture must come to them. Every year, research in the field of using children in culture is carried out in Belgium. 30 km is the limit. It follows that every major city should have a film festival for children. Best organized more often than once a year.

Paradox: directing children

Children are difficult. First of all, those on the set - difficult to control, they must be treated gently, they cannot work much, they need a children's coach and they have parents who interfere. They are easily over-directed. 

These are just a few of the arguments I have heard over the years. Cinema in Sneakers for years has beenvisited by directors from other countries actively creating for the y.a. They all come from countries where several or dozen projects designed for children and young people are produced each year. They all and each of them separately say that on the set they treat children as professionals, though not as adults. You cannot really direct kids but only help them to be in the story. The director has to simply put their work together.

Directing children is not easy. You have to have a gift, or you must want to learn it. To learn it - you have to have from whom. Between our masters - Krzysztof Gradowski, Stanisław Jędryka and our times there is big craft gap.

Artists often are afraid that they will not be taken seriously as directors of kids films. In contrast to the publishing industry, no one declares that she/he wants to accept the film track of Grzegorz Kasdepke or Marcin Szczygielski - to be a director of children's films and to consistently do them. Maybe it will be Mariusz Palej, who is working on his second film “The Black Mill” (based on Marcin Szczygielski’s novel), maybe Tomek Szafrański, whose“Rock'n'Roll Eddie“ has just been released. Maybe it is Marta Karwowska, who is working on the sequel of “Double Trouble”. But for now - these are glorious exceptions fromthe rule. Films for children can sometimes be a distraction or means to recognition. But who really wants to create films for children?

Paradox: quality

Culture for children in general is very diverse in terms of quality. This applies to all types of pieces. Just like there are genius theatre productions and poor performances. There are also beautiful films, respecting children’s sensitivity and those that follow cheaply, overdirected, speaking in a childish but not a child’s voice. And the child and the teenager are insightful spectators, barometers of falsehood. They catch inaccuracies. 7-10 year olds will point out any substantive mistake. Preschoolers will start to jump around the cinema if you show them too much moralizing. Teens will point out the lack of actual research about their language, problems and reality. And at the same time, they are able to forgive so many mistakes, if only you show real emotions, real relationships, true reliable peers. If you only save those heroes - even if they had experienced a very difficult adventure before. And it is not about big happy -ends just for efficiency, for hope that the main character (together with main viewer) will manage.

Paradox: what is kids’ film really?

Going to the cinema for the first time is an experience. The dark room, big screen, loud sound - it makes an impression. A lot of people remember their first visit to cinema. Even more, remember their first film's enchantment. It does not matter if you saw it in the cinema, or in tv (nowadays probably via every possible medium). I always ask people about their childhood enchantments. And I always see a spark in their eye.

What do all these film dazzles have in common? People experience them when they are kids or teens. What else connects them? Titles repeat. This is a generation experience. Others for the current 20-year-olds (Harry Potter), others for 30- (The Lion King) or 40-year-olds (eg Mister Blot’s Academy). And all of these films are about young people (or young lions) who are experiencing adventure, changes and are growing up within their stories. They know more about themselves, they know each other better, on par with the spectators. How many times have you seen your childish revelations? The kids can watch them around the clock. 

Seven Wishes

Cinema has special power. I firmly believe that watching the right movie at the right time can change your life for the better. That it is both an intellectual and emotional experience. I am constantly impressed by the observation that film and music are the most democratic of arts. That you do not need to have the knowledge to be able to watch, experience and learn something from it. I like to think that this is a form of contemporary chatting around the campfire, but I also like the idea that the film is a conversation between the artist and the viewer. And that's great if there are filmmakers who want and talk to people younger than 18. 

It is also my belief that the film does not have to be a carrier of historical truth, but it must be a carrier of truth about people. One of the important functions of art is commenting on reality. I am convinced that access to a wide spectrum of cinema, especially in the age when the possibilities of searching and finding are limited, is the right of every young person.

I am constantly motivated by by Janusz Korczak’s credo : “There are no children as such only people; but people with different experience, different drives and different reactions.” And I believe these people have the right to watch a wide array of films: about varied cultures, problems, made with diverse styles, but made with respect to kids’ “different experience, drives and reactions”. The paradox is that they will not have the luck to see them without the support of wise, adult decision makers. 

By Anna Stadnik, co-founder of Cinema in Sneakers ICYFF, board member of Cinemania Foundation, festival programmer and producer.

Photo from the Cinema in Sneakers archives: 

First edition of Cinema in Sneakers in Gdańsk by Bartek Bańka 

Festival's website:

Article edited and commissioned by Versopolis' guest editor Ola Halicka.