Regional Report: Local Hits and International Productions Keep Czech Film Biz Strong
by Anna Franklin
The Czech Republic can lay claim to being one of the hottest spots in Europe for filmmakers as well as people who just love film. Situated in the heart of central Europe with a population of just 10 million, the Czech Republic might seem an unlikely candidate for the title of film capital of Europe -- especially as it produces an average of just 15 domestic feature films a year. But despite the modest numbers, the Czechs have a number of things going for them that most other European filmmakers would envy.
For a start, there's the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. If the Czech capitol of Prague has become a mecca for youth from all over the world, every year in July the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary becomes the number-one destination in Europe for anyone under 30 who is interested in film. (And even a few who are over 30!) For American independent filmmakers, the festival offers not only a chance to see the latest in cutting-edge film from all over the world, but also a chance to network with their European counterparts. This year the festival celebrated its 38th year with more than 300 films screened for more than 10,000 spectators.
But what about the rest of the year? Even if the number of Czech feature films produced each year is small, their results at the local box office are disproportionately enormous. The Czechs have a long and rich cinematographic tradition that has produced such greats as Milos Forman and the fabled Czech New Wave of the 1960s. However, like most of Europe, American blockbusters dominate the Czech box office. But unlike their neighbors, the Czechs have managed to hang onto a substantial portion of their domestic film market. Throughout most of the 1990s Czech films have accounted for between 15 and 20 percent of the local box office, considerably more than most other European countries.
In 2001, Czech films accounted for more than 25 percent of the total box office. Last year two Czech films, the children's animated feature "Max, Sally and the Magic Phone," directed by Vaclav Vorlicek, and "Year of the Devil," a mockumentary about local Czech band Cechomor and musician Jaromir Nohavica directed by Petr Zelenka, earned box-office ranks of eight and nine, respectively. Those ranks weren't bad for local productions but were nevertheless a disappointment for the Czechs, who had become accustomed to pinning down the top spots at the local box office throughout much of the 1990s.
This year looks like a return to form with the Czech film "Pupendo" holding down the number-one spot at the box office. The film is a nostalgic comedy set in the 1980s (on the eve of the Velvet Revolution) that swept away Communism along with some warmly human values that have not been replaced by the advent of global capitalism. With 760,000 admissions so far, "Pupendo" has more than doubled that of its nearest competitor, "Matrix Reloaded," with 360,000. The film is directed by 36-year-old Jan Hrebejk, and it stars Czech comic Boleslav Polivka as a talented but unemployed sculptor who refuses to follow the official party line. U.S. sales outfit Menemsha Entertainment has already secured foreign rights.
Hrebejk's previous film, "Divided We Fall" was sold in 39 countries including the U.S., where it grossed $1.3 million in 2001 and was nominated for a foreign Oscar. Hrebejk's 1999 feature "Cozy Dens" was also a smash hit at the domestic box office. Prague production outfit Total HelpArt, headed by Ondrej Trojan, has produced Hrebejk's string of hits.
The continuing success of domestically produced films with local audiences is deeply rooted in the Czech sense of humor, with its gentle irony and warm sense of humanism. Big budget foreign action or adventure seems to travel across borders, but the Czech talent for laughing at oneself and a talented new generation of young Czech filmmakers who know how to tap that vein have won a strong following among Czech audiences. While pubcaster Czech Television (CTV) supports most feature film production and the government chips in just under $2 million dollars a year for film production, most Czech production outfits look a lot more like American independents than the U.S. majors. Budgets are usually under the one million dollar mark; many films are shot on video with budgets in the $500,000 range. One of the leading producers is Pavel Strnad, whose Negativ Film has produced all of Petr Zelenka's films, including last year's Karlovy Vary winner "Year of the Devil" as well as "Buttoners," which became a hit on the international festival circuit.
"All of our productions so far have been 100 percent Czech productions," Strnad says. "We can usually bring in 5 to 10 million Czech crowns (about $150,000 to $300,000) from pre-sales to CTV, the rest we have to raise ourselves." Despite the relatively strong performance of Czech films at the local box office, with an average ticket price of less than $3 and few films topping 500,000 admissions, it is difficult to turn a profit. Like most producers, Strnad is looking toward foreign co-productions as a way to spread the risks. He is currently in development on a new English-language project that will be written and directed by Zelenka and shot in the States. With a budget of between $2.5 million and $3 million, he is looking for co-producers. Another Zelenka project in the pipeline at Negativ is a Czech production titled "Tales of Common Insanity" due to shoot in 2004. Another Czech talent that has made an impact abroad is director Jan Sverak, whose "Kolya" won a foreign Oscar in 1997. After a two-year hiatus, Sverak is currently in production on his new feature, "Returnable Bottles," a story about two guys who run an empty bottle collection shop.
If the Czech claims to being the European Hollywood have the beginnings of a solid foundation in the success of Czech film, there is also another reason for its thriving film community. Prague has become the number-one location choice in Europe for international productions. According to the Czech Association of Audio Visual Producers, in 2002 alone foreign filmmakers invested more than $250 million in film production work in the Czech Republic. Foreign film outfits from the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and other European countries shot more than 200 projects here last year, including a dozen feature films, numerous made-for-TV films and TV series, TV commercials, and music clips. Cheap labor, skilled crews, excellent facilities, and two large studio complexes -- as well as the baroque and medieval streets of Prague and other Czech towns -- have been attracting top international productions for more than a decade.
Last year, foreign productions shooting in Prague included "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Shanghai Knights," and "XXX." This year the amount of money flowing into the Czech Republic from foreign production is expected to rise by 50 percent over last year. Already shooting in 2003 is Universal Studios' "Van Helsing," directed by Steven Sommers and Terry Gilliam's comic fantasy "The Brothers Grimm," starring Matt Damon and backed by MGM and Miramax.
The constant flood of foreign productions has both the historic Barrandov Studios and the newer Prague Studios booked to capacity until the end of 2003 and Barrandov is thinking about adding another sound stage to accommodate increasing demand. While some industry pundits fear that the rising prices that come with the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union in mid-2004 may cause some productions to relocate to Romania or Bulgaria (both of which are cheaper), there is no sign of film production slowing down anytime soon.