Prague fights for slice of big films

As Eastern Europe rapidly plays catch-up to Western Europe, attracting more low-budget and midrange foreign productions, the more mature Czech market finds itself focused increasingly on the big scores these days.

Having broken into the big leagues in 2006 with Bond pic “Casino Royale,” followed by “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” both of which took over Barrandov Studios for a season, Prague is not looking back, local industry insiders say.

“Prague continues to lead the regional pack with its developed infrastructure, experienced crew and still-untapped locations,” says David Minkowski, topper at Stillking, which co-produced the Bond pic.

But the only way to stay out front in the face of the growing number of new studios and soundstages, regional bargains and growing pools of skilled workers in other former East bloc markets, he says, “is if we enact a tax break similar to Germany or Hungary. The writing is on the wall, and we can’t wait for the market to die before doing anything about it.”

The local industry has made similar urgent appeals for years to the Czech state, of course, but the current coalition, a weak conglomeration of four parties led by the conservative Civic Democrats, is not likely to get any major new reforms through Parliament. What’s worse, it finds itself already facing sanctions for big spending and is scrambling to cut programs, not create them.

Meanwhile, with Hungary’s massive Korda Studios open for business and already booked with “Hellboy 2,” the previous edition of which shot in Prague, the warnings are proving well founded. Although Hungary’s nabbing that particular shoot was more down to insufficient Czech studio space being available, Minkowski says it’s time to act or lose out.

“The reason Prague has not had more competition to date is that new studios in Hungary just opened, so now they have tax breaks and studios. In Germany, they had studios but no tax breaks. Now they also have both. The Czech Republic is boxed in and not in a very good position,” he asserts.

A steady stream of midsized productions continue to flow in, with “Wanted” and sci-fi actioner “Babylon A.D.” both shooting at Barrandov, and Stillking booked for seven small- to big-budget projects.

Thus, many in the industry argue that, with such middle- to high-range productions still on tap, Czechs should not worry about losing out on the small stuff.

Producer Ram Bergman, however, counters his $20 million-plus caper pic, Endgame Entertainment‘s “The Brothers Bloom,” with Mark RuffaloAdrien BrodyRinko Kikuchi and Rachel Weisz, was shot exclusively on nonstudio locations and found the East accommodating.

“We scouted a lot in Prague, Spain, Malta, Majorca and Italy and ended up shooting the core of the movie in Belgrade, Serbia, Montenegro, Prague and Romania.”

While he confesses that morale is easier to keep up in Prague and counsels that to shoot in Belgrade or Transylvania “you need patience,” Bergman also says that construction, always a primary budget item, is far cheaper in Serbia.

What’s more, he points out, although the dollar is weaker than it’s ever been against the euro, American companies that pay crew members in dollars while in Europe will not find costs as tough to manage.

Poland, meanwhile, has joined the fray, with its newly minted Polish Film Institute offering support and connections. David Lynch‘s “Inland Empire” and Peter Greenaway‘s “Nightwatching” both gave the country the nod last year.

Says the institute’s Agnieszka Odorowicz, the agency in 2006 supported 35 international co-productions. That activity “signifies that foreign producers acknowledge changes induced by the new film law,” which allows subsidies to be issued for services to foreigners.

Polish producers and crews have joined with helmers such as Volker Schlondorff (“Strike”) and Ken Loach (“It’s a Free World”) plus the Czech Republic‘s Petr Zelenka, slated to begin shooting the Czech-Polish co-production “The Karamazov Brothers.”

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