Czech film production up

Does activity mean new funding model is working?

PRAGUE — The Czech biz is healthier than ever, with 21 features in production, boffo B.O. for local films and high-profile festival berths.

It makes for robust local output — and the Czech Republic’s two resident Oscar winners were back at it this year, too.

In spring, Jan Sverak’s “Empties,” penned by his father, Zdenek, broke the aud records set weeks before by Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s “I Served the King of England,” the latter competing in Berlin, while the Sverak comedy is now in the running for a Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary.

But does all this activity mean the new funding model of direct state support is working?

“That’s something we’re more likely to find out two years from now,” says Tomas Baldynsky, chairman of the board of the Czech Cinematography Fund. This state support body, which has about $9.4 million in its coffers (and a volunteer board — Baldynsky makes his living as a columnist) has traditionally been, along with pubcaster Czech TV, the most reliable source of coin for up to 50% of costs for 80% of local filmmakers — including veterans like Jan Hrebejk and Bohdan Slama.

“We are really thankful,” says Baldynsky about state funding. “The trouble is, state budget rules are not really friendly to filmmakers.”

One example: The Czech Republic funds films based on a January-December calendar, the same system the government’s budget cycle is built around — meaning filmmakers actually have to know their expenses by mid-January and wrap by December in order to use their allotments.

Slama’s producer, Pavel Strnad, agrees that government-run funding, while appreciated, can be frustrating to deal with.

Strnad and Slama, who won the San Sebastian Film Fest with 2005’s “Something Like Happiness,” put in for help in October with the fund and just learned the first week of June they would get coin for Slama’s new project, “County Teacher.”

“We start shooting at the end of June,” says a relieved Strnad.

Both he and Baldynsky agree that in an ideal world the cinematography fund would not be a sub-sub-department of the Culture Ministry’s economic section, but an independent entity, capable of more flexibility — and fewer rules to limit the fund’s economic base.

The current administration of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek also has been guilty of Band-Aid approaches, having pledged 300 million-400 million crowns ($14.1 million-$18.8 million) last year in annual support for Czech films until a permanent funding law can be passed. To date, just $4.6 million have been kicked down to the fund.

The impetus for that commitment was the 11th-hour collapse in Parliament of a tax that had been eight years in the making, intended to fund Czech films by levying exhibs, distribs and commercial television stations.

With so much still in flux, says Baldynsky, it’s difficult to say for certain how native film will fare.

For now, he says, the board “must decide not only if a film is good, but if we don’t spend it, then we lose it. But we have to spend it fast and with double the amount — this is really trouble.”

Czech TV, meanwhile, with $304 million in state funding itself, remains local filmmakers’ best hope, but the pubcaster has been ensnared in a continual series of scandals of late, from the revelation that its program director had a secret Communist past to charges of favoritism by veteran Czech helmer Vit Olmer.

It also lays down heavy-handed rules for the projects it approves.

Jana Cernikova, who heads the industry-funded Czech Film Center, is cautiously optimistic about this year’s crop of local product, saying, “OK, probably not all of them will be completed, but it looks up from last year.”

And, as local helmer-scribe Alice Nellis points out, if you can work with the cinematography fund’s rules and schedule, “At least it’s cash upfront.”

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