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Eastern Europe still scrambling for coin

Production needs government jump-start

PRAGUE — “It’s a mystery,” as that “Shakespeare in Love” character would say.

Central Europe’s new generation of producers has survived a decade without the safety net of communist-funded films for the proletariat — learning market economics the hard way.

But, despite an occasional domestic box office smash or breakout critical hit, film production hit a low point across much of Eastern Europe in 1998. With producers scrambling to find new models for funding, the future of production rests with governments that are just now being asked to greenlight proposals that could jumpstart sluggish industries.

Slovakia is among the struggling countries, having just started to emerge from years of crony funding. Local filmmakers are now looking at $2.5 million in subsidies, up from $400,000 the previous year, and pushing for tax incentives in the audiovisual law.

In Poland, competing tax-break proposals are under consideration, one following the French model, the other leaning toward the Irish way. Television, the thick-wallet source for most Polish film production in recent years, promised more but delivered less this year, while a trio of big-budget films ate most of the government coin.

One of these Polish films, “With Fire and Sword,” is breaking all the rules. With an $8 million budget, the historical epic was the first to use bank credit for most of its cost. The long-awaited conclusion of Jerzy Hoffman’s trilogy has drawn 6 million admissions so far, in a country that struggles to break 20 million visits per year.

Hungarian producers received five times as much in government subsidies as their Czech counterparts recently, although the countries have similar populations. Czech producers are organizing to change that, pushing for a film institute that would disperse $16 million annually — enough to support 10 feature films. Until then, films from rising directors, such as Sasa Gedeon’s ZDF-supported “The Idiot’s Return,” will have to continue looking westward for co-producers with deep pockets.