As the Czech Republic claims Europe’s fastest-growing infection rate, with more than 8,000 new daily COVID-19 cases, a two-week shutdown of cinemas is stressing a sector that had been recovering amid easing restrictions.
A recent shakeup of the Czech Health Ministry and the appointment of outspoken epidemiologist Roman Prymula as Health Minister is hoped to turn around infection rates as the country is again headed into restrictions just short of a total lockdown with indoor cultural events involving more than 10 people banned as of Monday.
Vratislav Slajer of Bionaut production company, who heads the Czech Audio-Visual Producers Assn., was meeting with colleagues and government authorities Monday to learn more details on the shutdown and to make the case for safe continued operations.
“We want to present the argument that cinema distribution is an important economical part of the audiovisual industry,” said Slajer, adding that the film sector, which has adopted rigorous safety standards including mask wearing, daily virus tests and contact tracing, should not be throttled.
“When this part stops or dies it strongly affects others,” he said.
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As for cinemas, he said, virtual screenings are not a viable longterm alternative. The online and VOD market makes up just 10% of revenues in the Czech Republic, Slajer said, “so going online with films doesn’t cover the losses.”
COVID risk at Czech cinemas is minimal, he added, with solid precautions in place and screening halls “among the safest places” with “almost no COVID cases related to cinemas.”
Libor Galia, of the indie art film distributor Association of Czech Film Clubs, said the return to cinema closures, which ended in May, has hit local film releasing hard.
The group released its top 2020 hit, the Oscar-nominated Polish priest-imposter drama “Corpus Christi” by Jan Komasa, Sept. 24, following five months of delays caused by the Czech Republic’s first lockdown in spring.
The film has been “strongly affected in a negative way by closing the cinemas,” says Galia. “Everyone is losing – some distributors and cinemas more, some distributors and cinemas less. We have lost thousands of cinemagoers for ‘Corpus Christi.’”
Live events including film festivals, meanwhile, have done better, says Galia, adding that the association’s Summer Film School event in Uherske Hradiste was a success.
The Prague International Film Festival, also known as Febiofest, also succeeded despite a delay of six months, said artistic director Nikolaj Nikitin. Top honors at the fest went to Ivan Ostrochovsky’s religious drama “Servants,” while Danish film star Ulrich Thomsen was feted.
The Karlovy Vary Film Festival, meanwhile, announced last week its commitment to in-person screenings at a scaled down version of its traditional July spectacle, now slated for Nov. 18-21. The organization is currently holding out hope that the cinema closures are just temporary, said press rep Jan Najman.
Festivals, cinema operators and producers uniformly voice support for Czech public health measures but some have argued that the state fails to grasp operational realities – and the crucial economic role – of the film sector.
Ivo Andrle, head of Prague’s leading indie cinema group and art film distributor Aerofilms, says it’s challenging to gauge the exact impacts of COVID-19 closures and audience dropoff.
“Since May, I’ve been asked multiple times how much did the Corona crises cost us,” he said. “Our reply was that we have absolutely no idea because this was just the beginning.”
For the last few months, indie cinemas have seen rising audience numbers with arthouses like Bio Oko, Svetozor and Kino Aero doing “relatively well in terms of box office,” Andrle said. But now, he added, “we are facing another wave of unknown length. We are again starting our online cinema project (Moje Kino LIVE) and cutting our costs where efficient.”
The streaming program, which has brought fixed-schedule films such as “For Sama” and “La Belle Epoque” to home viewers during lockdown, has helped Aero weather the downturn much as the Czech National Theater and others have with online offerings.
But promised government subsidies have not yet come online, Andrle adds, so “we will need to carefully watch our accounts and make sure that we can swim through this wave in good shape so that at the end we can go back to what we like the most – showing people great film in great atmosphere on a big screen.”