Destination: Prague

Local heroes keep the city's biz buzzing

Coming off the busiest year on record and heading straight into a winter 2004 slump, Prague production houses are wondering if they’ve lost their edge.

“It’s been an unusually slow period,” says Petr Keller, of Partnership Films, service provider for “Hellboy.”

Over the past half-dozen years, Prague became the low-cost location of choice for films from “XXX” to “The Brothers Grimm.” The city’s solid 70-year film tradition, extensive infrastructure and experienced, Hollywood-standard crews (not to mention the attraction of one of the world’s most beautiful cities), combined for a 10,000-strong pool of workers and a $300 million-a-year industry.

“People would rather work in Prague,” says Tom Hammel, executive producer for “Alien vs. Predator,” which wrapped in March. “There are more and better trained technicians, more infrastructure and film services.”

Visual find

The sci-fi actioner even wound up doing visual f/x locally through UPP. “It was a great find. Our visual effects supervisor was taken with them,” says Hammel.

Sam Mercer, most recently in Central Europe as executive producer on “Van Helsing,” agrees. “The crews are three and four deep, language isn’t a barrier and access to Prague is very easy,” he says.

“I love shooting there,” says John Ryan, producer of telefilm “Hitler: The Rise of Evil.” “The crews are great and work very hard.”

So why the slump?

A weak dollar and the rise of competitive neighboring countries have Czechs stressed. “(The Czech Republic) is by no means as cheap as they were,” Hammel says. “Tax breaks and incentives wouldn’t hurt. Right now the government doesn’t do anything. It’s a laissez-faire attitude.”

Producers across the board agree on that point. Without incentives to help balance the 30%-35% rise in prices due to exchange rates and rising labor and material costs, Prague will need to strengthen other areas, including labs, soundstages, and the breadth and depth of services.

“The drawbacks are the same as you would get in Toronto,” says Hammel. “On ‘Alien vs. Predator,’ although we had more locals than in the past, we still brought in a lot of people.”

Along with top crew slots, the production shipped in specialized cameras and operators. “It’s not all here. You can find about 85%-90% here. That’s adequate for most movies,” he says.

Though the Czech government has been offered scant encouragement, local producers are driving Prague industry. A film commission, funded not by the government but by the local producers association (unheard of in any other country), is just a first step toward retaining the country’s lead position.

Putting it in perspective, producer Robert Bernacchi, whose credits have taken him across the entire region, says, “Prague is far and above the best prepared city in terms of resources.”

Pleasant summer

And although the exchange rate and competition from other parts of Eastern Europe have created a downturn in the local biz, forecasts for summer look hot.

Ales Komarek of Reforma Films (“The Brothers Grimm”) says he’s been fielding a number of inquiries in recent weeks. Roman Polanski’s “Oliver Twist”; Liev Schrieber’s debut film, “Everything Is Illuminated”; and “Transylvania,” a TV pilot based on “Van Helsing,” are just three of a dozen projects that look like they’re headed for Prague.

“It won’t be as big as last year,” says Stillking Films’ Matthew Stillman.

But, as he points out, for every “Cold Mountain” filming in Romania, there have been five or six films of equal size shooting in the Czech Republic.

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