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Magdalena Szwedkowicz on going global with CEE content

Having produced one of the most successful Netflix films of 2023, Magdalena Szwedkowicz, the founder of Poland’s MAG Entertainment, discusses what comes next and how the CEE content market is changing.

Magdalena Szwedkowicz is riding high following the success of her most recent Netflix film, Forgotten Love (Znachor), which made the platform’s global Top 10 list for eight weeks, passing more than 43 million viewers in 2023. Not bad for a local costume melodrama.

Magdalena Szwedkowicz

But it didn’t come easy. The film, which she dedicated to her father, is based on the classic Polish novel by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, a story about a doctor who loses his memory.

The idea to adapt it came to her in lockdown. “I was a little down and felt alone in this world when everything stopped,” she says. “I always look for stories that will touch people’s hearts, but with a commercial edge. The subject may be difficult, but at the end it will give you a positive feelings or hope.

“Znachor was already very well known in Poland, and I thought it would be great to tell the story again in a new way. But nobody believed in it. Many laughed. Except for Netflix.”

The local Polish audience loved the previous film adaptation from 1981, but there was a backlash when it was announced it would be produced again. “We were all afraid,” says Szwedkowicz. “I personally didn’t realise that people are so attached to the story. Social media went crazy and there was so much hate. People asked, ‘Why are they doing this?’”

With Netflix on board, Szwedkowicz hired two scriptwriters and went back to the streamer when she had the first draft. At that stage, Netflix decided to fully finance the project.

“Then I hired Michał Gazda to direct. It was his first movie, but he had done lots of TV series and we shared the same vision. Working with a director or a writer is like a marriage for a short time. We had a chemistry and a full understanding of what we wanted to achieve on screen.”

She then hired the best director of photography, production crew, costume designers and set designers she could find – and then had to deal with the consequences of a significant rise in inflation in the country. She subsequently went back to Netflix for more money. “They understood, and stepped in again,” says Szwedkowicz.

Forgotten Love spent eight weeks in Netflix’s global Top 10

The film was shot in 41 days across three seasons in winter, spring and summer, and the finished product was released in September 2023 to great reaction from audiences and critics alike. “I got so many messages. People cried. And that’s why we did it. We did it for them,” she says.

The film boosted Szwedkowicz’s reputation and set her up for a number of new productions that are now in development.

Szwedkowicz has had a long career in entertainment, and brought what she learned along the way to contribute to a rounded approach to production. Having studied directing and acting in the US (which included production, lighting design, stage building and stage management), her first job in the industry was in Orlando at Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios. Then she worked at TVN (now owned by Warner Bros) in production on Dancing with the Stars.

After that, she worked at Puls TV (News Corp) and, following that, at Fox in distribution and production with National Geographic.

At Fox, Szwedkowicz oversaw sales in 60 countries across CEE and MENA, on top of working in content production. But when Disney bought Fox, she decided to use everything she had learned down the years to set up her own production company, MAG Entertainment, in 2019 – just ahead of the pandemic.

“I always say, ‘I don’t need favours, I need opportunities.’ That’s the way I work. And Netflix gave me the first opportunity,” Szwedkowicz says. “Over the years, I’d built relationships and trust and surrounded myself with the right professionals. That gave them the confidence to greenlight my first production, a romantic comedy called Squared Love, which was a global success. It was perfect timing, when people needed something positive after lockdown.” The film reached 31 million views, and two sequels followed.

“But I didn’t want to just produce romantic comedies,” says Szwedkowicz. “So I started developing other projects.”

She is now producing two more films for Netflix, to be released later this year, and the first original series for SkyShowtime – ‘ethno crime show’ Sleboda – which started shooting in the mountains in April. “Crime always works in Poland,” she says.

Szwedkowicz’s first Netflix title was Squared Love

Szwedkowicz is also currently raising finance for a “huge project”’ that will also require money from organisations in Poland to get off the ground. “I really think more support should be given to production from local institutions in Poland,” she says. “We rely completely on commissioners in this country. When it comes to figuring out collaboration models with international partners, we often struggle. Even when it comes down to accessing cash rebates, it’s a problem.”

Poland introduced cash rebates a few years ago. Applications open at midnight on New Year’s Eve, “and two minutes after midnight, all the money is gone,” says Szwedkowicz. “How can international partners access that? Polish producers have figured it out, but it’s difficult for anyone else from the international market to access it.”

Poland is the centre of the content business within the region because it has the biggest number of potential subscribers. According to recent research, the average Pole can afford 1.9 streaming services. But there are already more than 10 streamers in the country and, following the collapse of Viaplay in 2023, all players are cautious.

“Viaplay closed down because it over-invested and there weren’t enough subscribers to warrant that investment,” says Szwedkowicz. “I think that is the biggest challenge for so many of the platforms and channels in Poland, and across CEE. Audiences are being picky because they have so much content to choose from.”

It is estimated there are around 800 producers in Poland. So how does Szwedkowicz stand out? “We create quality content and understand the audience and the commissioners. It’s like being a doctor; you always have to be on top of the new diseases and treatments. It’s the same being a producer in Poland. My goal is to attract the best talent possible, and after Forgotten Love, that is helping me a lot.

“For me, environment is very important. We want to create great stories that connect us with the audience and to have a good business, but to have fun along the way and be a proper partner to everyone we work with, whoever it is.”

Going forward, Szwedkowicz aims to build on the recent success of Forgotten Love, working with the talent she has surrounded herself with to create next-generation content, not just for a local audience but also for a global audience.

One clear principle remains central to that mission: “The most important thing for me is to create a great environment in which people feel safe to work. It’s only then that they can focus on creativity and innovation when there is nothing else they need to worry about.”