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Slovak film industry on rebound

40-plus pics in the works and incentives on the way

The Slovak film industry is fighting back after two decades spent in the doldrums following the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia. The country’s subsequent split from the Czech Republic — riven by years of political turmoil and economic difficulties — bled a once-vibrant film industry dry as talent left to work in Prague and other regional movie production hot spots.

Now the film industry — along with the country as a whole — is moving into what looks like a bright future.

A member of the European Union since 2004, Slovakia joined the euro common currency in January, making cross-border trade much easier.

Theater admissions are up. Despite the country’s modest population of some 5 million, Slovak cinemas notched the highest percentage increase across the European Union’s 27 countries last year: Its 3.3 million admissions were 21% higher last year compared with 2007, despite a sharp decline in the numbers of venues, which fell from 703 cinemas in 1990 to just 199 today, with 253 screens, of which 20 are open air.

Box office reached a record E12 million ($16 million) in 2008 with Juraj Jakibisko’s Slovak blockbuster “Bathory” — a tale of medieval power struggle starring Anna Friel as a bloodthirsty countess — being the year’s biggest hit with nearly 427,000 admissions. That made it the country’s fourth biggest cinematic draw since 1993. During that period, only Hollywood hits “The Lion King” (643,000 admissions), “Titanic” (526,000) and “Jurassic Park” (470,000) did better.

Last year, 11 feature-length films, six of them with majority Slovak participation, were produced, including documentary “Blind Loves” by Juraj Lehotsky, which became the first Slovak film to make it to Cannes in 37 years when it screened in Directors’ Fortnight.

If 2008 was the Slovak film industry’s best year for decades, 2009 sees the foundation being laid for the future.

A national audiovisual fund is being set up with some $10.8 million to hand out starting in 2010 — more than double the amount distributed this year under a culture ministry audiovisual grant program that had run for the past five years.

The fund — set up under a law passed in November and backed by a levy on public and private television, cinema ticket sales and other audiovisual industry revenues — will spend some 40% of its funds directly supporting feature film production, with the rest divided among other genres, education, film promotion and the national festivals.

“The main objective of the Audiovisual Fund is to create conditions for Slovakia to become a country where inspiring film projects will get a chance, and where there will be enough distribution opportunities for both national and foreign films,” says Emilia Vasaryova, president of the Slovak Film and Television Academy.

The fund also aims to help Slovak films find a footing at international festivals and markets, encouraging the discovery of top Slovak helmers by critics and audiences abroad — much as Romania has done in recent years.

“Today, Slovakia is a country of talented filmmakers gradually building on the foundations laid … in the golden age of the Czechoslovak cinema,” Vasaryova says. “More than 40 Slovak films are in production and post-production, many of which prove that Slovakia is becoming a traditional co-production partner in Central Europe.”

Marta Lamperova, managing director sales and development for newly created SPI-owned company Film Europe, which specializes in central European pics, agrees that this is the year of Slovak film.

“Slovakia is starting to produce a lot of films, and it’s important that new, young producers have started to appear who are working with young directors after years when only established names were making films,” says Lamperova. “Slovaks are not only making features that attract international attention, but documentaries and animation.”

Films to look out for this year include Peter Kerekes’ wry look at army cooks, “Cooking History”; Vladimir Balko’s Karlovy Vary festival competition entry “Soul at Peace”; and Jiri Chlumsky’s “Broken Promise” (based on a true wartime Holocaust story), which had its market premiere at this year’s Berlinale. Film Europe has already sold the latter to Picture This for U.S. and North American distribution, Lamperova says.

TIP SHEET

When: June 20-27

Where: Trencianske Teplice and Trencin

Web: artfilmfest.sk

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