Karlovy Vary Film Festival industry head Hugo Rosak has worked hard in recent years to beef up Eastern Promises, the event’s industry program. A packed slate of pitches, panels and industry mixers this year suggested those efforts are bearing fruit, reinforcing Karlovy Vary’s status as the leading industry confab for Eastern and Central Europe, and the de facto launching pad for upcoming projects from the region.

With 38 works-in-progress presented to industry professionals and competing for various prizes, Rosak tells Variety that the evolution in Karlovy Vary’s industry program is evident. “It’s really nice to see how the quality has been improving,” he says. “And we can only say that by observing where these projects end up.” Five WIP presented in Eastern Promises last year were selected to premiere in Berlin and Cannes this year, while a growing number of established sales agents are making the annual pilgrimage to this Bohemian spa town to circle titles in the main and East of the West competitions.“That fulfills our goal,” says Rosak.

Here are five takeaways from this year’s edition of Eastern Promises:

1. Czech producers ring the alarm over rebates.

The Czech industry raked in $218 million from incoming productions last year — a 56% year-on-year increase. But those gains could be tenuous unless the government gives the country’s 20% cash rebate a boost to keep pace in a competitive region, industry groups warned this week in Karlovy Vary. “Now, I think production companies are really experiencing a good period. But unless the incentives grow, the production could move elsewhere,” says Rosak. “The Czech industry does have that experience [in the 2000s] when everything moved where the incentives were higher. It would be a great shame for the Czech industry to repeat this mistake one more time. Because in the past, the industry basically moved to Budapest, and the decline was huge.”

2. Series shoots still giving the biz a big boost.

Total production in the Czech Republic reached a record $365 million in 2018, with much of the increased demand thanks to international TV projects. Series shoots are a massive boon for the industry, locking up crew and talent for months on end. Recent shoots include Netflix’s “The Letter for the King,” AMC Networks and BBC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” Sky’s “Das Boot,” and A&E Studios’ “Knightfall.” According to the Audiovisual Producers’ Assn., TV shoots accounted for almost 500 days of shooting in Prague last year — yet even that figure could rise if the government responds to calls to increase the Czech rebate. “We missed a lot of opportunities,” Milk and Honey Films’ Radek Docekal said at a panel this week, noting that more work than ever is moving to Hungary and other competitors.

3. The Czech film industry needs to look beyond its own borders.

On paper it was a banner year for the local industry, with total spend on domestic production hitting an all-time high of $66 million, according to the Audiovisual Producers’ Assn. But take the historical drama “Medieval” (and its record-breaking $25 million budget) out of the equation, and the numbers are less rosy. Domestic audiences still turn out for local films, but industry figures convened in Karlovy Vary this week to address the struggles of Czech cinema in the international market. “It’s the challenge for the industry that it’s in many ways focusing on itself,” says Rosak. “There’s less universal stories, and much more of things that deal with our history, our past. I think it would be helpful to have something more contemporary and current.” One possible solution is clear. “I think there’s a lot of space for more co-productions, which can also boost the local production,” he says. “Czech producers just need to learn to create or focus on stories that can be co-produced….We see this with the younger wave of producers, that they’re trying to make more universal films.”

4. The region’s storytelling is growing more diverse.
Eastern Promises has expanded its footprint in recent years, with projects from the Middle East and North Africa joining films from Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. But the diversity in Karlovy Vary this year wasn’t simply a matter of borders. “The region is maybe getting a little merrier, and a little more diverse,” says Rosak, who notes that nearly half of the projects selected for the various WIP sections had “very strong female leading characters who are taking destiny into their own hands, which we find very empowering.” The changes are apparent in the greater variety of submissions the industry team has to choose from every year. “At the end of the day, it’s more liberating,” says Rosak. “Out of the projects that would be suitable, the quality has been stronger, and then we can be more creative in how we compose the selection.”

5. Across the region, a push for more partnerships.

A rising tide lifts all boats, and Rosak says a strong spirit of collaboration is key to developing film industries across the region. “There’s a lot of capacity building, which I think for us makes a lot of sense,” he says. “As a festival, we see that in order to be able to present quality, we have to partner with others to help us build that quality.” This year Karlovy Vary announced a partnership with First Cut Lab, the editing consultancy workshop, to launch First Cut+, a new initiative that will support and promote films from Central and Eastern Europe. The festival also collaborates with the Midpoint script development program and the Trieste film fest’s When East Meets West co-production market. “It makes a very natural mix that we partner with them; they prepare these projects to be presented in Karlovy Vary, and we invite the industry,” says Rosak. “It somehow builds better trust, and I think helps us build better relationships with the filmmakers and with the projects. It goes hand in hand.”