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How Did a Black-and-White Polish Film Become the Year’s Surprise Foreign-Language Hit?

How Did a Black-and-White Polish Film Become the Year's Surprise Foreign-Language Hit?

“No one knows anything,” goes the famous Hollywood dictum, which has been proven once again with the box-office success of Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film “Ida.”

A quiet Polish-language, black-and-white somber drama about the legacy of the Holocaust, shot in a square aspect ratio format with unknown actors, “Ida” was never conceived as a commercial product. When the film premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, Variety’s review dubbed it a “joyless art film” and predicted its “ascetic treatment locks it away in the past, a grim challenge even to festival and arthouse crowds.”

READ MORE: Review: How the Bleak Drama ‘Ida’ Channels Ingmar Bergman Movies

But after five months in U.S. theaters, “Ida” has earned more than $3.7 million, making it the second highest grossing foreign-language film of the year. (The film’s international gross has exceeded $10 million.) And no one anticipated it — not even the film’s producer or distributor.

“Given the precarious nature of the U.S. foreign-language film market and the paucity of committed and well-capitalized distributors of foreign-language films,” said Eric Abraham, who also produced Jan Sverak’s Czech Oscar-winner “Kolya” and Joshua Marston’s recent Albania-set “The Forgiveness of Blood,” “I thought we would be rather fortunate to achieve a respectable but very limited east and west coast release.”

According to Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz, “We thought it could do at least a million dollars. So it’s three and half times more than we expected. Usually, it’s the other way around.”

The story of a budding Polish Catholic nun, who discovers her secret Jewish past, the film’s black-and-white look and boxy aspect ratio were always “a risk,” “a personal gamble,” and “limit” commercial “exploitation,” acknowledged Abraham, who put up almost 40% of the film’s budget, “but I understood that they were absolutely appropriate for the film and would seem fresh to today’s audience.”

Eventually, Abraham would be proven right, but it took some time. When Music Box Films began to share the film with sneak preview audiences, the distributor initially found that the movie wasn’t connecting to viewers like they had hoped. “I didn’t feel like these unmediated viewers were seeing the film properly,” said Arentz. “They needed that critical consensus.”

Thus, rather than hold numerous pre-release word-of-mouth screenings, they pulled back from festivals and focused on the film’s distribution — where, despite Variety’s pan, the film earned widespread praise (scoring 94% from Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics”). “We allowed the critics to do their work and do our work — to be a guide to telling people what’s important,” added Arentz.

He also gave props to the film’s trailer, produced by Zealot, which subsequently won a Golden Trailer award. “I think it announced ‘Ida’ as something special and created a strong ‘want to see’,” he said.

The trailer also announces the film’s Jewish themes. Although mostly quiet, one of the few key pieces of dialogue in the preview occurs 40 seconds in: Actress Agata Kuleszas’s sultry chain-smoking cynical Aunt Wanda says to the pretty young nun, “You’re a Jew.”

“I do think the Jewish audience was crucial,” commented Arentz. “They are a big component of the arthouse market in many cities, including New York, and New York is the biggest market for foreign language art-house films.”

But there was sizable Christian outreach as well, according to Music Box Films’ marketing executive Brian Andreotti. “We recognized that the film held appeal to other religious traditions. We solicited the support of Christian-Jewish interfaith groups and studies programs, and specifically reached out to Catholic press and bloggers.”

Andreotti highlighted the film’s rave review from the Catholic News Service (which called it a “starkly beautiful minimalist masterpiece”), which ran in multiple Catholic newspapers, as well as a cover story in Commonweal Catholic Magazine, and positive reviews in Christianity Today, National Catholic Reporter and U.S. Catholic Magazine.

“Ida” also may have played well to another underserved, though very large viewing audience: women. “At its core is the relationship between two strong and complex female characters, and their individual journeys of self-discovery,” noted Andreotti. “There is still a shortage of films like this in both the multiplexes and arthouse cinemas.”

Ultimately, however, Music Box execs can’t take too much credit for the film’s success. “At the end of the day, ‘Ida’ proved to be a classic word-of-mouth hit,” said Andreotti, citing a 20% jump in sales in its second weekend at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema and its top spot at the theater for several consecutive weeks.

With crowded release schedules, which often don’t allow for films to slowly build over time in theaters, such successes are rare these days — and rarer still for subtle black-and-white subtitled dramas.

But as Ed Arentz said, “For all the talk about the declining importance of critics, the theatrical model being unworkable and there’s just too many films released, the old model can still work.”

READ MORE: Interview: How the Director of ‘Ida’ Turned Polish History Into Compelling Drama

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