Karlovy Vary Artistic Head Karel Och Weighs in on Fest’s Anniversary Edition

A conversation with the Karlovy Vary artistic director, looking back on the 50th anni edition that brought industry growth, greater local involvement.

Karlovy Vary Artistic Head Karel Och
Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

As the Karlovy Vary Film Festival celebrates its 50th edition, artistic director Karel Och is wrapping his fifth as head of the Czech Republic-based event (though he’s been involved in one capacity or another since 2001). Reflecting back on how Karlovy Vary has changed since he took charge, Och has reason to be proud of the fest’s jubilee year — and optimistic about those to come.

Last year, attendance was up 30%, thanks in part to the way two Czech holidays fell during the nine-day event, setting a daunting bar to beat this time around — and yet the festival managed, drawing an estimated 40,000 people to the streets of Karlovy Vary, kicking off with an open-air opening bash where everyone in town was invited to party in the streets outside the Thermal Hotel (though black-tie VIPs still managed to sequester themselves in the city’s picturesque Grand Hotel Pupp, where first-day festivities were held in previous years).

Without sprawling to unmanageable levels, the festival grew to accommodate the boost in both popular audiences and filmmaker delegations. “Usually we have around 500 filmmakers and crew members coming, but this year there were 650,” says Och. “It’s unprecedented. The flattering thing is that many come on their own, and we also noticed that some filmmakers were extending their stay once they got to the festival. They realized that it’s a very friendly atmosphere and that they can catch up with movies they’ve been wanting to see.”

According to Och, that’s a positive development for a festival that has long treated filmmakers well, but still lags behind other similar events in terms of its industry attendance — which can potentially translate into professional connections, co-production opportunities and distribution deals. “We added an important industry sidebar this year by hosting the general assembly of Europa Distribution,” he says.

American attendees — like Crystal Globe honoree Richard Gere and repeat visitor Harvey Keitel (whose “Youth” was acquired for Czech release, via a newly announced partnership between the fest, Czech Television and local distrib Aerofilms) — tend to love Karlovy Vary once they get there, but it can often be a challenge to lure such talent to the spa town in the first place. This year, Gere appeared before an outdoor screening of “Pretty Woman” in a venue designed to accommodate 4,000. Turns out nearly 7,000 fans showed up for the event, erupting into applause when Gere walked on stage and burst out into a spontaneous performance of the Roy Orbison song.

“That’s what makes a film festival a special event,” says Och, whose personal taste straddles everything from challenging art cinema to juicy genre movies (one reason he was so excited to invite Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League to participate on the jury this year). For its anniversary edition, the fest booked big names — such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Jamie Dornan — to appear all week, rather than just on the first and last weekends.

“We want glamor because we believe it belongs at a film festival,” says Och. But he’s especially proud to be introducing the world to new and unknown voices. This year’s competition lineup consists mostly of debuts (seven of the 13 selections), and the team has worked hard to prepare the audiences — who queue up for hours to attend films they know little or nothing about — to trust the programmers’ taste.

“We don’t really approach the section of the official competition with a specific goal,” he explains. “We go title by title, and when we see something that is pushing certain boundaries, we gather about to talk about whether it’s strong enough for competition. We’re looking for what a producer friend calls ‘gently edgy’ cinema, which is a characteristic of Karlovy Vary Film Festival.”

This year, he’s delighted that the typically young (early 20s) Karlovy Vary audience was able to embrace some of the selection’s more demanding films, such as Austrian director Peter Brunner’s “Those Who Fall Have Wings,” a highly stylized meditation on anticipating the death of a loved one.

“You put an edgy film into the biggest venue, which is 1,200 seats, and you have to be able to protect it, and then you just hope that the audience will find the same strengths in the movie that excited you when you selected it,” explains Och.

In the time that Och has been programming for the festival, “We’ve been trying to educate them and show them that there’s more to cinema than just romantic comedies,” he says, quickly adding that he also enjoys bringing them just that — as evidenced by the selection of Sundance relationship dramedy “Sleeping With Other People” as the closing-night film. Meanwhile, Och says, “in the competition, we aim for unpredictability. I wouldn’t say we want to shock, but it’s good to surprise.”