Czech producers got so fed up with waiting for the state to support their industry through a film institute that their union, APA, went and founded one on its own steam. Ivana Košuličová talks to APA's president about film-making conditions in the Czech Republic.
Pavel Strnad is not a name on the lips of many Czech cinema-goers. Yet, as head of the production company Negativ, he has had a hand in several of the quirky, oddball hits that have helped revitalise the profile of Czech film-making in the domestic and international spheres since the late 1990s, including debuts by David Ondříček, Saša Gedeon and Pavel Marek, not to mention, Rok ďábla (Year of the Devil, 2002), the latest film by Petr Zelenka, which won the Crystal Globe, the highest award, at last year's Karlovy Vary film festival.
Strnad is also head of the Asociace Producentů v Audiovizi (APA, Audiovisual Producers Association) a the main body representing and lobbying on behalf of producers in the Czech Republic. And there is much to lobby about, as Strnad told Kinoeye in Prague last autumn.
How has Czech cinematography changed since 1989, in your opinion?
Czech cinematography changed completely after 1989, because a completely different economic system was established. The biggest difference is that before 1989 the film industry was owned by the state. The state was the owner of cinemas, distribution companies and production studios. After 1989, the film industry became a private endeavor supported by the state to a small degree.
How exactly does the state support Czech cinematography?
The State Fund for the Support and Development of the Czech Film Industry (Státní fond na podporu a rozvoj České kinematografie) was established in 1992 and has been functional since 1993. The Fund distributes money that comes from various sources. The most important source is represented by the sale of old films made in socialist studios.
Who are they selling those films to?
To TV stations, for sure. You see it all the time. In its best years, the fund had about CZK 100 million [USD 3.3 million] to spend on projects. In recent years, it's been about 60 million [USD 2 million]. When the film studios were privatized, the film rights for old Czech films from 1965 to 1991 were transferred to the Fund. I believe that about 80 percent of the total amount dispensed by the Fund comes from the selling of such film rights to TV networks. The rest comes from the fixed CZK 1 [USD 0.033] fee levied on every cinema ticket sold. These are the most important sources of income for the Fund. Apart from offering support with the distribution and promotion, the Fund is also the main supporter of film production.
So, what is the role of government? Do film-makers get any grants from the state? Are there special tax incentives? Do government agencies try to promote Czech films internationally? Is there state support for domestic distribution of Czech or European films?
I can only go through these questions and say no, no, no, no to each and every one of them.
Is there any state funding for film festivals?
Yes, there is. Another state organization that supports the Czech film industry is the Ministry of Culture. Surprisingly, however, film doesn't belong to the art department of the Ministry, but is ascribed to the mass media department [hromadné sdělovací prostředky]. Money is distributed through a grant program run by this department, to the tune of about CZK 3 to 4 million [USD 100,000 to 130,000] per year. The money is not awarded for the production of films but for other activities, such as film festivals, film journals and so on. And there is yet another way for film festivals to get funding: the festivals in Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and Zlín have also got money directly from the state budget in recent years. It is kind of unusual, but it is an admirable gesture.
When and why was APA established? Were there any associations of this kind before APA?
Yes, there was an association called the Unie producentů (Union of Producers). In about 1994, at the time of the controversy involving the film festival in Karlovy Vary and the Zlatý Golem festival in Prague, one of the exponents of Unie producentů supported the Prague festival while the others supported the festival in Karlovy Vary; in protest, they established APA. APA and the festival in Karlovy Vary still exist, while Zlatý Golem and Unie producentů basically died out.
In 1995, most film producers joined APA. At first, it was quite a "closed" society, as the organization wanted potential members to have already completed a certain number of feature-length films, but a few years ago the atmosphere became more affable towards smaller Czech production studios and the number of members increased.
So, to sum up, APA began in 1994, and it now has 46 members. It encompasses about 80 percent of the film business in the country, including the most important companies such as Stillking Films, Etic, Milk & Honey and also the most important producers of Czech films, such as Ondřej Trojan, Jaroslav Bouček or Jaromir Kallista.
And the remaining 20 percent? What are their reasons for not joining?
Maybe they don't want to pay the fees or they might have other reasons not to join. Usually, their attitude is along the lines of "why pay a membership fee when the organization doesn't do anything for us?" But we do work on common issues, such as a common methodology for the accounts of films, some tax issues and legal matters. We try to combine our forces instead of working separately, and it is worth it.
Is the fee for a membership a fixed amount?
Presently, it is CZK 20,000 [USD 600]—which I think isn't much, but I understand there are production studios that consider this a major expense.
Do you have any requirements for potential members?
The criteria are that the production studio in question must be recommended by two members of APA and that it must be voted in by the general assembly.
When did you establish the Czech Film Centre and what is its purpose?
We established the Czech Film Centre quite recently, on 1 September 2002, in an effort to undertake the work that should have been done by a state film institute—financed by the state—as is the case in other countries. We want to advertise Czech films abroad, gather information about them, publish catalogues of films and try to get films shown at film festivals. So, basically, its purpose is to promote Czech film. For the last two years, we have published a catalogue, which is the least we can do, and we are trying to do more.
Did you try to create a governmental framework for this effort?
It was mentioned in some of the drafts discussed by the House of Representatives. But they were against establishing a new state organization. So it didn't work out.
Where does APA get money for its activities? Is it only from the membership fees?
For the catalogue, we get part of our finances from the State Fund, part from the sponsors, part through advertising. We co-operate with Intergram, which also represents producers' rights and therefore gives us some money for the promotion of Czech films.
Where do you get the money to make a film from?
One of the basic sources I mentioned is the State Fund, which is absolutely essential for most Czech films. The State Fund usually supports a film with CZK 3 or 4 million, which helps the filmmaker to get over the first hurdles.
The second source is Česká televize [Czech Television, the state-owned broadcaster], which co-produces most Czech films. It is very advantageous for them, because Česká televize acquires the Czech broadcasting rights exclusively and in perpetuity.
Besides these sources, do you as a producer also have to find other ways to get money for the film—for example take a loan from a bank or make some commercials?
I try to avoid this as much as possible. In an ideal situation, the producer is an administrator of somebody else's money and he guarantees that the film in the form he presents it to the investors will have certain qualities and will be profitable. This is the professional role of a film producer. To be able to read a script and make the decision if it's really good, if it's possible to shoot it, to get rid of all the risks so the film is made within budget and returns a profit. In reality, the budget is always incomplete. You just have to borrow the missing amount from somewhere and make sure that the film will make the money back.
How important is the commercial aspect of the film?
Its importance is tied to your degree of dependence on its commercial use. If you put your own money in it, the commercial aspect matters quite a bit to you.
Saša Gedeon's Návrat idiota (The Return of the Idiot, 1999) and Petr Zelenka's Rok ďábla (Year of the Devil, 2002) were produced by your production studio, Negativ, and were commercially successful even though they were considered as art films.
Yes. Návrat idiota was relatively successful commercially. About 270,000 people saw this film in Czech cinemas.
Is it possible to make money on a film that won't be commercially attractive to the Czech audience but will be successful at international film festivals?
Success at a film festival doesn't bring too much money to the film. But it opens the door to a wider distribution of the film abroad. If a film wins at a well-known film festival, there is a bigger chance that a foreign distributor will notice it. For example, ifilms that won in Cannes will be automatically distributed in the Czech Republic sooner or later.
You mentioned the role of Česká televize and said they have the Czech broadcasting rights "in perpetuity."
Yes, indefinitely. This is the greatest thievery. That might sound a bit strong, but this is a very unusual arrangement. I've just found out that in Germany television companies made a deal with the producers regarding the shortening of the period they retain the broadcasting rights for German films from seven to five years. It was a demonstration of support on the part of German television networks for the sector of independent producers.
Does it matter how much money a television company invests in a film? Do they always get perpetual broadcasting rights?
We fought for a long time to convince Česká televize that when they keep the television rights for the film they should pay for it. For a long time, it used to be that Česká televize invested CZK 5 million in a 20 million film and they wanted a quarter of the proceeds from the cinemas plus the television rights for free. Now, we have explained to them that they should pay for the television rights, but it is still a question of how much these TV rights should cost. In my opinion, having television rights in perpetuity is worth at least CZK 15 million [USD 500,000], but Česká televize thinks it is only worth CZK 2 million [USD 65,000].
What is your opinion about how well Telexport, the exclusive distributor of Česká televize productions, functions?
Telexport is a typical outcome of a system based on the absolute monopolistic position of Česká televize. Česká televize wanted Telexport to distribute all Czech films for a long time. Telexport sells Česká televize entire production range, and feature-length films are only one aspect of what they handle. Of course, this isn't a good situation. Every film needs to be distributed by a distribution company [dedicated to features]. This monopoly fortunately ended two or three years ago, when Česká televize accepted that co-produced films don't have to be distributed via Telexport alone but can also go through a different distributor. And that's what we do.
Despite the pessimism of some commentators, it could be said that the Czech film industry has had a very successful decade. A number of films were produced that are not only commercially profitable but also won international awards. Do you think that recent developments in Czech film can be compared to the successes of the "golden sixties"?
Film-making has always had a special position in the Czech Republic since the sixties. But the commercial success of films from the nineties doesn't tell much about the films themselves, it tells more about the relationship of Czech audiences to the film.
How do you explain the international success of these films?
I think their international success is imperceptible. It is more like an exception to the rule. It's nice that Kolja (Kolya, dir Jan Svěrák, 1995) got an Oscar, but in the sixties Czech films were nominated almost every year. So it is very hard to compare the two. There are some minor films that got a few awards at film festivals, but when was the last time a Czech film went to Cannes? The last Czech film in competition at the Berlin festival was in 1990. Only in numbers is the participation at festivals formidable.
How difficult it is for Czech distribution companies to promote films internationally? Kolja was successful in this. In my opinion, it was conceived for an international success and for getting the Oscar...
[laughs] This is a very leading question. If you want to make a film with the aim of getting an Oscar, you won't be successful. The film was well-written, -directed and -acted, and it was a type of film that resonated with the American audience.
You don't think this was its intention?
The intention, in my opinion, was to make it as successful as possible. Svěrák simply prefers the American film style and not the German or French. Similarly, [Vladimír] Michálek didn't make the film Babí léto to be successful in America, but the film was well-received there, for some reason. So, the film can't be made with the intention of getting an Oscar. But, when such a film is made, then it is a great business oportunity.
Kolja is a perfect example of how to distribute a film in Europe. The American studio Miramax bought Kolja, and Miramax sold it to other European countries through its distribution rights and partners. So, as an independent producer, I have a problem selling this film to Hungary but Americans don't. It is because the most popular films are national films,
followed by American films; then there is a huge gap, before you get to films from other European countries. That's why it is very difficult to get European films into distribution. That's when awards from festivals can help, because they make the film attractive.
Are there any other Czech films that were bought by a big American distributor?
Musíme si pomáhat was bought by Sony Classic; otherwise, I don't know of anything else. We were very successful selling the distribution rights internationally in the case of Návrat idiota. We sold it in ten or twelve American states for cinema performance, but only in the form of two copies that basically paid for the distribution costs. The profits were minimal. It was more about making a name for the director and hisfuture films than anything else. We also sold Návrat idiota, for example, to Argentina (where the film won at the Buenos Aires festival), but the distributor couldn't make any money on it.
Do you have any exclusive contract with Saša Gedeon, since you produced his first feature-length film Indiánske léto (Indian Summer, 1995) and then Návrat idiota?
How important are co-production projects for you?
Enormously. If you have to finance a project, it is very advantageous for you if there are co-producers and you can sell the film rights to various territories. When a co-producer is interested in the project and is able to get the money for his part everything is much easier.
Have you worked with any of the foreign film crews that come to the Czech Republic to shoot films?
They come here entirely because here they can find high quality staff coupled with low prices.
The standard in the film industry is very high and also the prices are lower than in the US. Sometimes they stay for the post-production, but they don't come here to look for other co-producers.
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