Netflix Poland — Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Sylwia Szostak / SWPS University
Netflix arrived in Poland in 2016 and in 2022 opened an office in Warsaw to act as its regional hub for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Netflix was very much courted, as the streamer’s interest guaranteed Poland a strong foothold within the whole region, bringing a promise of increase in domestic content and new funding opportunities. However, this welcoming environment has proven to be very short-lived. In less than a year, Netflix got dragged into the internal power struggles of Poland’s key industry players, becoming a lightning rod for all the struggles of local creatives. When Netflix’s operations in Poland were managed from Amsterdam, it was easy for the Polish branch of the company to stay away from local, in this instance Polish, industry dynamics and internal power struggles. But once the managing team moved to Warsaw in mid-2022, the company very quickly got dragged into local politics. What set in motion a very different and largely negative industry discourse about Netflix was Reed Hastings’ visit to Poland in December 2022, during which he met with the Polish president – Andrzej Duda and selected Polish key talent. Almost immediately, the meeting was interpreted by local film associations as an attempt to pressure the Polish government not to secure residual payments for shows distributed online into the national legislation. Even though Poland has been stalling the implementation of the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market into Poland’s national legislation since 2019, Hasting’s visit in 2022 was considered political lobbying.
What followed very quickly turned into a one-sided press-bashing of Netflix in media campaigns orchestrated by local film associations that sought to position Netflix as a threatening corporate force robbing local creative talent of digital pay and home video residuals. The situation further escalated when screenwriters across America went on strike in May 2023. In solidarity with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), Polish screenwriters gathered in Warsaw on June 14.
Encouraged by the WGA strikes in the US, Polish screenwriters similarly began to voice their concerns over the financial conditions of their work. Unlike their American counterparts, who marshal outside entertainment headquarters such as Amazon’s film and television division at Culver Studios, Polish scribes protested in front of Polish government in Warsaw. It is the Polish government that has not bothered to include digital pay and home video residuals in the national legislation, despite EU’s pressures since 2019. As a result, Polish creators only receive residuals from legacy linear broadcasters and cable channels, but not the Internet VOD services. In Poland, residuals are not a matter of guild negotiations but that of national legislation. It is, therefore, surprising that much of the industry narrative as well as writers’ demands about residuals are targeted specifically at Netflix. There is no doubt that local creators should be fairly reimbursed for the online circulation of their works, but Netflix is not the only streaming company in Poland that does not pay residuals. None of the domestic streaming services, such as Player or Polsat Box Go, pay residuals, neither does Amazon Prime even though it carries a lot of licensed Polish content. Fueled by largely negative narrative about streamers in the US, Netflix suddenly became the lightning rod for everything that is wrong in the Polish industry. The only problem is that the impact of Netflix on the local Polish industry is very different from what is currently happening in the US. It could be argued that in Poland, Netflix became the object of displaced anger of local creative communities.
In America, there was a time when writing for television was a lucrative job. Typically, a series had a set schedule of around 20 episodes and writers worked on them over 40 weeks and could expect residuals well into the six figures, cushioning them during the lean times between projects. Work for streaming is punctuated by shorter, 20-week jobs with eight to 10 episodes, which means fewer writing opportunities and less money. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in the US, they called out deteriorating working conditions and criticized unfair pay. Hollywood writers wanted studios to guarantee them weeks of work at a time, giving them some certainty. Polish writers never had the stability of employment that their American counterparts had in the pre-streaming network era. On the contrary, it has always been a gig-economy hustle – freelance work without benefits like health insurance and contribution to a pension or other protections that full-time employment provides. Polish writers have had to scramble to assemble enough writing jobs to keep their income steady, working for a variety of independent producers, or for themselves. Polish writers work with no guarantees on the duration of their jobs, no financial security, in what they themselves often describe as unhappy working conditions. There have been decades-long tensions between writers and Polish producers, with writers often feeling like second-class citizens, especially when compared with actors and directors. But streaming has nothing to do with it. While American scribes strike against deteriorating working conditions, in Poland, there has been no rapid shift to short-order series because of streaming that would constitute a significant erosion of writers pay or job stability. Polish writers have never been paid for the additional weeks of postproduction, work on set, or notes on a table read, because neither of those things has ever been considered part of writing services. So, in Poland, streaming did not contribute to deteriorating working conditions, because these were always bad. On the contrary, Polish screenwriters are seeking job opportunities with Netflix. They are still on a treadmill, hunting for the next short-term post, but, at least, they are getting paid more, as Netflix stakes as higher than those offered by independent producers or legacy broadcasters. Additionally, Netflix does not practice systemic abuse that has been an accepted industry practice in Poland. Some Polish independent producers, in their cost-cutting measures, would hire writers before a show was given an official greenlight, and tasked them with laying out the foundation of the proposed show. In such a scenario, writer works with no written contract, which is often used by producers as a justification to pay writers less or nothing, as pay-out happens only if their television concept is picked up. So, in Poland streaming does offer more money and contractual safety when compared to local producers or legacy broadcasters. But Polish creators and writers want to work with Netflix for a variety of other reasons.
Polish TV drama is, obviously, an extremely improbable candidate for visibility within the traditional pre-streaming global TV exchanges, constituting “invisible fiction.”  Now, thanks to Netflix, Polish shows get global exhibition, and some reach impressive viewership internationally. Wielka Woda (High Water), Netflix’s highest profile commission in Poland to date, a six-part disaster drama, quickly reached a 10 million household viewing threshold globally. No Polish show has ever reached such a huge global audience. And this is what Polish creators desire – to finally have a chance to show their creative work outside of Poland and this is precisely why they go to Netflix.
Polish content creators also want to work for Netflix because of the generic diversity of shows it commissions. Polish linear broadcasters have rarely experimented with TV genres, preferring to stick to crime dramas. Netflix can afford to commission expensive and VFX-heavy fantasy and sci-fi dramas and so far, has released two such shows in Poland – Krakowskie Potwory (Cracow Monsters) and Dziewczyna i kosmonauta (A Girl and an astronaut).
Netflix can also afford to produce content considered too risky for traditional broadcasters. As a streaming service, Netflix is beyond the reach of local content politics and licencing system and can therefore produce the kind of stuff that terrestrial broadcasters can’t. This allows Netflix a bolder push for diversity, giving more agency to Polish content creators. This is especially important in Poland, which, as a recent ILGA-Europe’s latest report shows, is one of the most homophobic countries the European Union. Netflix Originals such as teen drama Sexify or Queen would never see the light of day if it wasn’t for Netflix. Topics relating to intimacy, sex or LGBTQA+ representation are avoided by Polish linear broadcasters, as too politically daring for conservative right-wing Polish government.
In America, the streaming world has eroded the working conditions of local scribes. But in Poland, the arrival of Netflix did in fact offer new career opportunities and increased pay across the board. But despite that, the dominant narrative around Netflix emphasizes only the lack of residuals. Certainly, residual compensation for the circulation of audio-visual works online is one of the most crucial issues for Polish creators. But this is not something for a foreign company to fix. Fair reimbursement and decent working conditions of local creative industries should be the responsibility of Polish government and relevant state organisations. The current system of creative work in Poland is broken, and certainly the survival of writing as a profession is at stake but blaming Netflix masks real problems – systemic neglect of creative industry workers and weak bargaining power of local trade associations. Around 60% of creative workers in Poland earn below the national average wage. Residuals from Netflix will certainly help individuals in these professions but will not change the broken system in which they are forced to operate.
- President Andrzej Duda meets Reed Hasting in Warsaw, December 2022.
- Polish writers strike action, slogans against international corporations.
- High Water (2022) trailer with English subs
- Official poster for Dziewczyna i kosmonauta.
- Official poster for Sexify
- Queen (2022) trailer
- Queen main character Loretta in drag.