In this edition of Screen Czech I’ll be speaking to one of the most influential people in the Czech film industry – Ludmila Claussova, chairwoman of the Czech Film Commission – a one-stop shop for all producers looking to shoot here in the Czech people. She’ll be telling us about what the commission has to offer and gives some forthright opinions on the country’s much maligned film incentive scheme.
First a look at the life of the recently deceased director Otakar Vávra.
OTAKAR VAVRA (1911-2011)
Vávra passed away in September this year at the grand old age of 100 with a CV spanning almost the whole of Czech film history. Among his lasting achievements was the film faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague, which he helped establish after the Second World War and where he taught for five decades. Among his students were Vera Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Jiří Menzel.
Vávra studied architecture at universities in Brno and Prague, but quickly became fascinated by the cinema and wrote film scripts while still a student. In 1931, influenced by avant-garde film-makers of the 20s such as Fernand Léger, Vávra directed an experimental short documentary called The Light Penetrates the Dark, which demonstrated the uses of electricity.
It was at Barrandov studios in Prague that Vávra made most of his films, starting with Camel Through the Eye of the Needle (1936), a sophisticated comedy. This was followed by Virginity (1937), an understated melodrama about a woman who marries a man she doesn't love to settle a debt. The latter starred Lida Baarová, a major Czech star, who was having an affair with Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister at the time. She made three further films with Vávra during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia: The Masked Lover (1940), based on a Balzac novel, The Girl in Blue (1940), a charming fantasy and Turbine (1944). However, under the communist regime, Vávra fell easily into line with the ideological requirements of the cinema. For example, The Silent Barricade (1949) celebrates the liberation of Prague by Soviet troops. However, Vávra's cinematographic skills were evident in Jan Hus (1954), Jan Žižka (1957) and Against All (1958), which made up the Hussite Trilogy, stirring big-budget historical dramas focusing on the life of the 14th-century priest/reformer Jan Hus (John Huss).
The films that Vávra made in the 70s and 80s were mostly war movies and historical dramas, including Witches' Hammer (1970), about the persecution of witches in the 17th century, and Days of Betrayal (1973), a three-hour meticulous reconstruction of the days of the Munich crisis, with Czech actors playing Neville Chamberlain and Hitler.
His final film, Europe Was Dancing the Waltz (1989), is an historical epic on the first world war.
In 2001, Vávra was awarded the Czech Lion for his lifelong contribution to Czech culture, and he received the Medal of Merit from the Czech president Václav Klaus in 2004.
LUDMILA CLAUSSOVA – CZECH FILM COMMISSION
Now onto my interview with Ludmila Claussova of the Czech Film Commission. I began by asking Ludmila what are the advantages for film producers of contacting the organisation.
“The benefit of calling the film commission is that we save their time. They don’t have to do a huge internet research, finding locations, finding stages, finding production partners. They tell us what they need, what they want to do here and they tell us.”
Is it concerned a lot with location finding? I imagine that would be one of the big things?
“It’s altogether, locations being a big part of it, of course. Some of them come with concrete questions, for example they are looking for castles. I always like the question from Americans that approach us. Their location brief is “suggest us some old architecture”. What is old architecture. For them it could be 19th century, and for us it could be 12th century. You really have to narrow it down.”
Are there any misconceptions, people coming along and thinking that the Czech Republic offers something different?
“There is one thing – they think that we became expensive, which is not true. The crew rates have been stable for more than ten years. But the exchange rate changed. Fifteen years ago the dollar was at 30 crowns and now it’s 19. But psychologically people say “You have become expensive” – which is not true.”
One thing that is true, though, is that the Czech incentive scheme – designed to attract producers to the country – has received a lot of criticism – even from the Czech Film Commission:
“The incentive scheme is very important. The Czech Republic came as almost the last country in the world to provide an incentive. We have lost a lot of business to other countries.”
For example which countries?
“Hungary for example. Hungary 10 years ago was way back behind the Czech Republic in terms of infrastructure, film crews – you couldn’t really compare Prague and Budapest in terms of film services. Then they introduced their incentives in 2004 – business came in and built new facilities and now I would say that Budapest probably has more facilities that Prague. In Hollywood it’s not Prague the number one in Central and Eastern Europe – it’s Budapest.”
“The political will was not here. They didn’t understand the business side of film.
They perception was that film is art, film is two hours on the screen, and not the whole employment and spend behind it. They still just have the feeling that we just want more, we are not satisfied, we gave you 300 million CZK, why do you want more?”
Is it because they see it as art and not as an industry?
“Probably. And they say why shall we spend this on film and not on other industries – they don’t want to set a precedent. This is giving one industry money – even if it brings money. The Ministry of Culture commissioned a study earlier this year – they analysed four different projects in 2010 and they found that one crown paid out as an incentive brings back 1.18 crowns back on taxes, social security, VAT. The system is balanced, it doesn’t cost the state anything – it even brings money.”
So maybe what Prague and the Czech Republic needs is big mainstream blockbuster love-story where the location is the star and that leads directly to tourism.
“My workshop this morning was with Czech Tourist Board. I brought an expert from Germany in film tourism marketing. There are a group of new people who are looking for new trends and new ways to market the destination and film is one of the instruments. The Czech Tourist board is a state agency and I think it will be save to have them in our side, to lobby and to show that it’s not just about film or a small group of film people who benefit. It’s also tourism and other sectors that benefit from film.”
MOVIE NEWS ROUND-UP
Alfedus Films, producers of the highly popular if controversial 2010 film “Kajínek” are presently developing what would be a multi-million crown spectacular biopic on the life and bloody battles of the greatest of all Czech warriors, Jan Žižka. However, it’s unlikely to come splattering onto our screens anytime before 2013 The first season of the Borgias, filmed in the CR in Autumn 2010, has been a great success in France, breaking audience records. However, there is still no word on a second season and therefore no guarantee that such a lucrative production will be returning to shoot here.
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