In 1990, not long after the Velvet Revolution brought an end to 41 years of communist rule, American producer Rick McCallum came to the Czech Republic to work on Lucasfilm TV series “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
The production had to bring in department heads, but it was able to staff the rank and file of the crew with experienced locals. And while the soundstages were in decent shape, the real appeal for McCallum was the practical locations. “You could go anywhere — any castle, any building — and the location rates were minimal,” McCallum says.
A quarter of a century later, the Czech Republic’s film and TV production infrastructure has matured along with the rest of the economy, but locations — historic and otherwise — are still plentiful, easily accessible and, while not as cheap they once were, more affordable than those in the U.K., Germany, France, or the U.S.
And local crews, long since adjusted to free market production schedules, earn raves from outside producers for their old-school craftsmanship, ingenuity and strong work ethic.
Producer Kim Zubick says the Czech crew on “The Zookeeper’s Wife” “literally gave 1,000%. There was none of the guff you get with a Los Angeles crew, for example, when they start grumbling about the catering.”
The producers had contemplated shooting “Wife” in Romania or Serbia, then settled on Hungary. But when they dug deeper, Zubick says they found that the Czech Republic could provide a deeper crew base and better locations — such as an abandoned communist-era town that they could turn into facsimile of a bombed-out neighborhood. They also discovered that the general population had “more of a Polish look,” which would serve them well when casting extras for the film, which is set in Warsaw during World War II.
Zubick also learned that the country had a wealth of retired animals from old-school circuses and private zoos that could provide the production with animal stars for its re-creation of the Warsaw Zoo, which was constructed at Exhibition Park in the center of Prague.
For years, the inexpensive high-quality workforce and cheap locations were enough to lure foreign productions to the Czech Republic ranging from 1996’s “Mission: Impossible” to 2002’s “The Bourne Identity.” But as prices rose, spurred by the improving economy — and as neighboring Hungary, not to mention the U.K. and other countries, enacted increasingly rich incentives — the Czech Republic lost more and more shoots to competitors.
So in 2010, the government established its own incentive, which today offers a competitive 20% base rebate on qualifying Czech spend, along with an additional 10% on the cost of foreign cast and crew if they agree to pay the 15% Czech withholding tax on their salaries. The rebate is managed by a single body, the National Fund of Cinematography. According to McCallum, the entire process is quick, painless, and transparent.
It is also easy for visiting producers, casts and crews to communicate with Czech locals. “Anybody who’s below 30 speaks good English,” says William Stuart, the U.S. representative for Barrandov Studios. “With older craftsmen, there still can still be a language barrier, but the younger people act as translators.”
While the Czech Republic doesn’t have the depth of production infrastructure found in Los Angeles, where any piece of technology or talent can be accessed almost instantly, producers say it’s is easy to ship equipment from neighboring countries, and London, with its wealth of talent, is a mere hour and 45-minute plane flight away from Prague.