Money behind make-believe

    David Minkowski

Vojtěch Vlk

While foreign film companies continue to focus on this country for productions, a lack of state support could see this significant source of income going to hungry neighbors. How much is the industry worth to the local economy?

WHILE MANY TOURISTS will leave Prague with a few dozen photographs, some fond memories, and perhaps a big hangover, British Mathew Stillman returned home with something better – his own company. Now, more than 10 years later, Stillking Films is one of the biggest players among production companies working in the Czech Republic that, according to Variety magazine, presided over a USD 300-million industry in this country in 2003. One of the more substantial portions of that money (about 15%) has gone to Stillking, which saw turnover of more than a billion crowns just in film production last year. Not a bad payoff on Stillman’s initial investment in 1993. “He basically started the company with 500 dollars and a typewriter,” says David Minkowski, Stillking’s head producer who joined the firm in 1995. (Stillman was unavailable for comment.) “The company started doing videos and commercials [which it still does today]. The first project was a music video for KD Lang,” Minkowski says. It wasn’t until 1995, when Minkowski came on board, that the company got its first full-length job, doing production services for an American cable-television movie. Still, according to the producer, it took six years, and the shooting of Bad Company here in 2001, to get Hollywood to finally recognize the real potential of Prague and the Czech Republic. “Hollywood realized they could do more in Prague than just historic films,” he says.

“Mists of Avalon” – sets created by Film Dekor

Although the Czech film industry has been striving to survive, suffering from a lack of state interest and support, foreign film producers can reap the fruits of a long film-making tradition in this country. After the unsuccessful privatization of Barrandov studios – which basically fell apart at the beginning of ’90s – many highly skilled professionals found themselves on the free market. But it did not take long for them to adjust to the new situation. Just a few years of exposure to foreign film crews were enough to make the Czech Republic one of the most demanded locations for film making in Europe, if not in the world. “Over the course of the past decade, Prague has become the number one locale due to the winning combination of its architecture, great stages and sets, and experienced crews,” says Tom Karnowski, an American producer at Filmworks, based in Los Angeles. Throw in the fact that the cost of production in Czech Republic is a fraction of that in western Europe, and you have Karnowski’s reasoning for filming such notable titles as Eurotrip, Shanghai Knights and his upcoming Everything is Illuminated, planned to shoot in June this year.

Economic impact
Although it’s hard to put an exact figure on the financial benefit the country’s new-found popularity is bringing – the Association of Audiovisual Producers (APA) estimates that direct investments of international filmmakers in the Czech Republic reached nearly CZK 7.5 billion last year – a figure most producers agree is significant. For instance Alice Kašparová, head of PR at Filmservice Productions, explains that if the average budget for filming a locally produced commercial is about CZK 3-6 million, the average budget for a foreign production is three times that. When it comes to movies, budgets are naturally several times higher.
Film making provides work for countless individuals and companies. Not only are jobs directly in production services involved – equipment rentals, location managers, set designer and builders, make up artists and post production companies – but there is also the extended employment to consider, such as travel agencies, hotels, caterers and transportation firms. “[Foreign shoots] are bringing a lot of business for hotels and other services,” says Aleš Komárek, who started Reforma Films in 2002 after splitting with Etic Films, a company he helped found in 1992. Reforma’s first project was providing production services for Terry Gilliam’s film The Brothers Grimm. “It is advertising for the Czech Republic and Czech culture; this is even greater than an economic impact,” Komárek adds.

Vin Diesel (left) and Rob Cohen (director, right) during filming XXX in Prague (Stillking Films)

Consider the basic service of accommodation. According to Roman Jonáš, owner of the TYP agency, focusing on providing complete travel services to film crews, his clients spend tens of millions of crowns every year in the Czech Republic. “Ninety percent of our clients stay in four- or five-star hotels such as Inter-Continental, Marriott, Radisson or Josef, and the length of their stay varies from 1-2 weeks to six months,” notes Jonáš, who was instrumental in accommodating such stars as Johnny Depp, Julie Ormond, John Malkovich and Liv Tyler. Stanislava Cholelová, sales & marketing manager of MaMaison Residences (Orco Group) confirms that film crews create about a quarter of the turnover of their long-stay residences. “This is great business. Right now 27 of our apartments are occupied by an Italian crew,” says Cholelová.
About how much money is generated by such secondary services provided by restaurants, hotels, or retailers? “So far there are only rough estimations,” says Ludmila Claussová of the newly established Film Commission, a non-governmental agency aimed at assisting foreign filmmakers (see sidebar p. 25). “We plan to assign analysis that should sum up direct investment into film sector and indirect into other services,” she explains. The results of the study will be used for marketing and strategic comparison with other European countries, and could describe potential growth for the Czech film industry, as well as barriers. Such studies could provide a glimpse of what may happen if state institutions don’t change their outlook, and assist in creating suitable conditions for attracting foreign filmmakers.

Sean Connery (with wife) and Peta Wilson at the European premiere of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Prague

Business vs. bureaucracy
For the time being, however, state authorities seem reluctant to recognize this full economic benefit. “Our price policy is intended to discourage filmmakers from using prime locations,” says Pavel Vlach, deputy mayor of Prague 1, refering to popular spots such as Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, or the tiny streets of Malá Strana and Staré Město. The going rental rate is ten crowns per square meter a day (plus additional fixed fees – CZK 250,000 a day for Charles Bridge) but according to Vlach, the ideal charge would be CZK 100 per m2 daily, with a certain flexibility. With commercials, for example, the fee would be higher, but for documentaries about Prague, free of charge. “Eighty percent of filming in Prague is for advertising, where you see nothing from Prague, or you don’t recognize it,” claims the deputy mayor. Although he admits that in 2003 the filmmakers brought some CZK 3 million to the coffers of Prague 1 alone, and that more money is spent on other fees and services, Vlach does not find the figures significant.
Perhaps not surprisingly, professionals in the film industry strongly disagree with this view, and are concerned that such an approach may cause the Czech Republic to lose its advantage to Hungary or Romania, two countries that have begun aggressive self-promotion (see sidebar p. 25). According to Karnowski, destinations east of the Czech Republic have some drawbacks in comparison, but also stand as a potential threats to the country’s leadership in the industry. In fact, the Czech Republic has already lost several projects to its competitors. For instance the Oscar-winning Return to Cold Mountain was filmed in Romania, even though the infrastructure there is below Czech standards, so all equipment and staff had to be imported. “You can see that producers are looking elsewhere, although they have good service, equipment and personnel here,” says director of AFM Lighting Europe, Roman Porkert.
Producers in the Czech Republic maintain that this shouldn’t cause many worries. Miroslav Oberman, legal representative of Panther Rental Prag (a firm that rents grip, light and camera equipment all around the world), claims that some foreign film makers lured by the incentives had bad experiences, and have returned to Prague and the environs. Karnowski is one such film-maker. “My experience was much harder in Hungary,” he says. “We pretty much had to start at square one. It is easier to come here [Prague] and just get started since things are already set up.” Nevertheless, this should be a wake up to Czech officials to start doing something to help attract foreign producers, for example, tax incentives. “This could definitely be improved,” says Reforma’s Komárek. Stillking’s Minkowski, however, doesn’t see any quick exit by producers. “They’ve been saying that for a couple of years,” he notes. But he does warn that the Czech Republic shouldn’t become complacent. “Prague will always have to be competitive to keep the film industry interested,” Minkowski says. “At the end of the day, producers are going to follow the dollar,” he adds with a smile.

Czech film productions: better with EU?

 Pavel Strnad
Photo: V. Vlk

Production services for foreign films also benefit Czech filmmakers. “We have all the facilities [we need] here,” says Pavel Strnad, head of Negativ Films, which has produced Rok ďábla and Návrat idiota, among others. Still, even with the large amount of production dollars coming to the country, Czech filmmakers say it’s not any easier to get financing for their projects.
” It’s as bad as it was ten years ago,” Strnad says. “The state support [for filmmaking] is so low I think it’s a miracle Czech films are still being made.” His company, which completes a few projects each year and last year had turnover of CZK 28 million, usually works with a EUR 500,000 budget – a figure that he says shocks many of his western counterparts. But he remains optimistic. “The government is now preparing a law that should bring more money,” Strnad points out. That law (proposed in March) is based on a French style of funding, where a portion of box-office and distribution sales are recycled back to filmmakers.
More funding from this law would also be welcomed by other Czech filmmakers, especially after a record-breaking year that saw Czech films earn CZK 257 million in distribution, according to the Czech Film Center. “Raising money for a film is difficult every time,” says Jaroslav Bouček, head of Buc Film, which has produced many Czech serials and such films as Anděl Exit and Babí léto. Others in the industry see alternatives. “We have to view Czech films in the context of Europe,” says Milk & Honey’s director Tomáš Krejčí. He believes Czech filmmakers should look for suitable European partners to get films made. “The European co-production system is the model to go by,” he says.
This could be more prevalent in the future as the Czech Republic takes advantage of membership in Eurimages and the EU “Media” programs, both clubs that support filmmaking with everything from training to financing. Many production companies, including Stillking and Partnership, are also starting to develop local films that have a more international appeal, thus increasing worldwide sales.

Jason Hovet

Czech talent for export

 Jaromír Švarc
Photo: V. Vlk

THE SAYING ABOUT “golden Czech hands” probably doesn’t apply more aptly in any sector than the film industry. The years of isolation, when advances of modern technology penetrated Czechoslovakia only slowly, paradoxically contributed to the experience of domestic professionals. “Before the regime change people knew that if they wanted special effects they had to help themselves,” says Roman Porkert, the director of AFM Lighting Europe, which provides lighting equipment. Today producers place great value on this ability to improvise. Tomáš Krejčí, the director of Prague Studios and Milk & Honey Films, says that the craftsman-like skills of backdrop builders and other professionals is exactly what sets Prague apart from other cities. “This is what Prague has to offer – high-quality and affordably priced work by artisans,” he says. As an example he points to the recent shooting of Hellboy and Alien vs Predator, which were very difficult from the point of view of graphics.
” Five years ago, film makers brought along an entire crew, including grips and lighting technicians. Today just a director and his main cameraman come, and the rest are hired here,” Porkert notes, adding that AFM Lighting used to import equipment from its London headquarters. “But there were more and more projects arriving, so in 1996 we opened a Czech branch, with Czech employees,” he explains. Today AFM is headquartered in the former lighting technology building at Barrandov Studios, it has 15 full-time employees, and it’s one of the largest such firms on the market. According to Porkert, local professionals have learned a great deal in the last ten years. “Today they’re as good as their foreign counterparts,” he says. Miroslav Oberman, an executive of the Czech branch of Panther Rental, one of the largest suppliers of grips, lighting, and camera equipment in the world, concurs. His company entered the market back in 1994, and Oberman notes that his steady staff includes a few technicians from the former Barrandov Studios. “Czechs are already starting to travel the world for work,” he says.
For an example of such exports one needn’t look far. Recently Film Dekor, under the leadership of the experienced architect Jaromír Švarc, became the first foreign firm to build backdrops for the renowned Italian Cinecitta studios, where it created replicas of ancient Rome for the filming of an American serial. In 2001, Švarc and his firm were nominated in Hollywood for the 54th annual Emmy award for the sets for film Mists of Avalon, for which they had to build the entire Camelot castle. Either Švarc or part of his fourty-member team also took part in preparing the sets for such films as Joan of Arc, Shanghai Knights, Van Helsing, and Hellboy.

Klára Smolová, Jason Hovet

Finding the right faces

Local production of foreign films has given rise to a booming casting business, and posters around Prague seeking faces are a modest indication of how much. Casting agencies such as Casting Barrandov, Cine-Jessy, Klackson, and Soňa Ticháčková, have thousands of faces categorized in their computer databases.
In some cases it may mean a chance for local talent to be more widely recognized; local actors such as Marek Vašut, Miroslav Táborský, and Karel Roden, have gained worldwide recognition. “I think the foreign productions here did help them,” says Nancy Bishop, freelance Prague-based casting director whose casting credits include The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Blade II, Hellboy, and Van Helsing. “In Roden’s case, the producers of 15 Minutes were looking for Czech actors to play clearly eastern European roles in the film and knew of Roden’s work from The Scarlett Pimpernel,” says Bishop, who cast Roden in the BBC miniseries in 1999. Roden recently enjoyed major roles in Blade II and Hellboy.
To be sure, casting means local jobs. “We needed hundreds of extras for the crowd scenes Terry Gilliam wanted in Brothers Grimm; and Van Helsing, not cast by us, also required hundreds,” says Jessica Horváthová, who founded Cine-Jessy in 1990 and now has over 100 films and TV series under her belt. “Depending on how many actors are needed, the budget for a casting is typically 100 to 500 thousand crowns,” she says. Cine-Jessy is known for its “Silver Pages”, a catalogue of faces from its database, now in its fourth annual update. Acting personally as casting director, Horváthová regularly travels the countryside, going to theaters in search for new talent.
It’s something Soňa Ticháčková, who founded the eponymous agency at the same time, says is the only way to keep the business fresh. “We now have 30,000 faces in our archive,” she says. Her agency cast all roles in Dark Blue World, The Barber of Siberia, Samotáři, and the Oscar-winning Kolya. Aside from increased success, what has changed most over 14 years? “Computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, and email have made our lives immeasurably easier,” says Ticháčková, who recalls the days of struggling with an answering machine.

David Friday

Support (not) in sight

 Ludmila Claussová
Photo: V. Vlk

THE Film Commission, an institution created to assist foreign film-makers, began operating early this year. But it was the Czech Film Chamber, not the state, that was responsible for its creation. “Its primary function is to provide film makers with an information service, and to represent them in negotiations with authorities. Newcomers want to know, for example, which locations we can offer them, or where they can get the required permits,” says Ludmila Claussová, representative of the Film Commission.
In other countries similar institutions operate under ministries of culture or economics. “In Austria there is a film commission under an agency for attracting investments. In Germany they are parts of film funds, which are financed by regional governments,” Claussová explains. However, such facilities are only now becoming active in post-communist countries. In Hungary, a film commission has existed since 1999, and the country is the most accomodating in its support, so Budapest is becoming the favorite destination for foreign film makers. “The Czech Republic has extremely diverse landscapes and a great cinematographic tradition. Hungary has a few castles and nothing else, but it has a government that understands the contributions of film making and is able to set better conditions,” says Jaromír Švarc, an architect and the owner of Film Dekor. The audiovisual law that was approved in Hungary in December 2003 offers producers a rebate of 20% of money spent, and allows investors to deduct 20% of expenditures on Hungarian or co-produced films.
The Czech Republic isn’t considering similar taxation or other advantages. “The state thinks that film is an industry that can fend for itself, so it essentially functions without governmental support,” Claussová says. “But other countries are on the alert, and the small ones in particular are discovering the film industry’s potential,” she adds. Nevertheless, lobbying before state institutions is a necessary activity of the commission; for this country, it’s mainly a question of taxation or financial relief.

Anita Lišková

Location, location, location

Tomáš Krejčí
Photo: V. Vlk

Increased film production in the Czech Republic has also breathed new life into old, bankrupt factories. “Barrandov studios are full, so productions are renting so-called ‘wild studios’ in abandoned factories like ČKD, Avia Letňany, Letov or even in winter sport stadiums,” explains Jaromír Švarc, art director and owner of set-building company Film Dekor.
For instance, in 1999 Prague Studios opened three stages in the old plane factory in Letňany, including the largest soundstage in continental Europe. According to Tomáš Krejčí, general director of Prague Studios (as well as director of Milk & Honey Films), the USD 1.5 million renovation is already paying off, with annual turnover exceeding this investment – thanks mostly to foreign shoots. Expansion is also a buzzword around the studio, with talk of growing bigger, as well as building a “digital media art factory”.
Not only does Prague Studios offer moviemakers an alternative facility to Barrandov’s 11 stages, but it also makes Prague and the Czech Republic a more versatile location. In some of its early uses, Prague Studios housed a desert (for the U.S. miniseries Children of the Dune), recreated the streets of wartime Amsterdam (Diary of Anne Frank), and supplied a huge aquarium for some shots in Mission Impossible 1. “I think it would be short-sighted to say producers are only coming to shoot Prague,” Krejčí points out.
Lukáš Bech, freelance location manager, claims that he and his colleagues have more than 10,000 photos with over 1,000 locations from all over the country, ready to present to potential clients. As they say, apart from the sea and the desert, this country can offer anything. But in his opinion, Prague remains popular mainly due to its architectural blend of styles. “One can find original architecture here that can easily simulate either the atmosphere of western Europe or of old eastern Europe,” Bech explains, adding that Prague has also the best infrastructure and authorities experienced at dealing with film crews.

Jason Hovet, Klára Smolová






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