FNE Visegrad YR2021-2022: Czech Film Industry Needs to Attract Audiences

    Somewhere Over the Chemtrails by Adam Koloman Rybanský Somewhere Over the Chemtrails by Adam Koloman Rybanský copyright: Bratři

    PRAGUE: According to a report by the Association of Producers in the Audiovisual Industry (APA), the Czech audiovisual market fell by more than 20 percent, namely by CZK 1.7 billion, in 2020 compared to 2019, when the audiovisual industry recorded its best result (9.4 billion CZK) in the past 20 years.

    However, the prediction of a dramatic decline in film production did not materialise, thanks to the swift actions of film institutions and professional associations, such as the introduction of self-regulatory measures or the testing of crews. Since the end of May 2020, film production in the Czech Republic has not stopped despite further lockdowns. However, certain changes and challenges remain after two years of the pandemic.

    According to the APA, newly incurred covid-related costs have generally made production more expensive by an average of 8%. These costs include, for example, purchases of disinfectants, respirators and self-tests. "Before filming, the entire crew went for a free PCR test, but during filming, which took place in the village, it was faster and organisationally easier to test the crew every week with purchased tests. As soon as someone new arrived on set, they had to have a PCR test. That way we prevented some people with an asymptomatic covid from entering. Of course, we didn't avoid organisational problems. If a camera assistant finds out he has covid the day before the shoot, you have to find someone else by the next day," says producer Eva Pavlíčková from Bratři s.r.o., describing the circumstances of the creation of Somewhere Over the Chemitrails.

    This tragicomedy about a group of volunteer firefighters who, in their own way, deal with a possible terrorist attack in the village, was filmed during the lockdown in the autumn of 2020 and winter of 2021. "Most of the accommodation capacities were closed at that time, so we had to persuade the owners to open for us. There was also a problem with food, you couldn't just order it from restaurants or cafeterias, and if you did, everything had to be in disposable packaging," Pavlíčková recalls. At the end of filming, the government banned travel between districts. "Fortunately, the Minister of Culture gave permission that the film was a work activity and it was possible to travel for work reasons. Even though some police officers who checked us looked at us with suspicion, because for them film shooting is not work but fun," says Eva Pavlíčková, who, besides the help of the Ministry of Culture, also praises the work of the State Film Fund or the hygiene department. 

    Covid will not disappear completely, she says, but Czech film productions have already learned to work with it. They have also learned not to take this or any diseases lightly. "In the past, if someone important like an actor or a DOP had the flu, they worked anyway, because it was too complicated to interrupt filming. Yet even the flu is contagious," the producer points out.

    Both Miloš Lochman from Moloko and Jakub Košťál from Bionaut see the fact that people got used to working online more during the pandemic as a positive change. "It's not entirely pleasant, but you get more meetings done. Online technologies have sped up the preparation and post-production phase. We understood that some ways of working needed to be innovated," says Lochman, producer of Tereza Nvotová's upcoming new film Světlonoc, whose grading was done over the internet. Košťál, on the other hand, has experienced shooting a commercial whose director stayed abroad and gave instructions online. Producers also used the beginning of the pandemic to process the material they already had in their drawers, i.e. writing, dramaturging scripts, applying for funding for cinema funds, etc.

    Miloš Lochman, who worked with Nvotová on the Czech Film Critics' Prize-winning drama Filthy, considers the main negative to be "the uncertainty and the impossibility of counting cinema revenues in the financial plans". Czech cinemas had to be closed until the end of May in 2021, with a glut of premieres awaiting audiences when they opened, and many visitors were still afraid or discouraged by later government regulations. Documentaries and art films, including Moloko's New Shift, the winning film of Ji.hlava film festival, and Bionaut's Repulse, were among the victims. "Around the autumn premiere of Repulse, the rules were tightened; only those with vaccinations or immunity could enter the cinema. We had planned a special regional distribution, but most of the filmmakers who were supposed to tour the theatres with the film were not vaccinated. In the end, we pulled the film out of cinemas and are only now bringing it back," says Košťál, describing the complications.

    Nowadays, when the situation around film production is stable and filming is not restricted despite some extra costs and some measures, Miloš Lochman sees the return of people to the cinemas as the biggest issue. "At least for documentaries, normal distribution is no longer possible. Even producers now have to focus more on marketing, how to sell the film, finding and reaching the audience. That's a major realisation for me," Lochman says.

    Jakub Košťál is more cautious in his assessment of the current situation and thinks that the effects of the pandemic, together with current inflation, will catch up with us for some time to come. However, he agrees that the film industry needs people to start going to the cinemas again. "A big part of the funding is the minimum distributor guarantee (MG). But if the distributor doesn't have the revenue, it can't give high MGs. Then you need to find money elsewhere and other platforms become relevant partners," explains Košťál. "It doesn't make much difference in terms of development, but as a producer you watch the market change. For example, Voyo, the new VOD of commercial TV NOVA, is investing in new projects, so it makes sense to offer something to them." Public broadcaster Czech Television has also started to place online-only content on its iVysílání video library. And Moloko also realised during the pandemic that, with cinemas not such a sure source of revenue, they had to look elsewhere and started developing two series.

    Foreign productions have again hit the Czech Republic in a big way, thanks in part to the fact that the Czech film industry was last spring the first in Europe to introduce special covid rules. Netflix has so far only been shooting its own projects in the Czech Republic, including its most expensive film The Gray Man, but Košťál says it's only a matter of time before it starts producing local content here. "Craft-wise, the Czech Republic is already known and considered good, and now it turns out that our projects work abroad as well." In the meantime, Netflix has started exclusively buying Czech films, such as the Bionaut-produced horror comedy Shoky & Morthy: Last Big Thing. "Which helps financially and to gain your credit," Jakub Košťál says.

    Czech films are also helped by the gradual revival of physical editions of international film festivals. Somewhere Over the Chemtrails had its world premiere at this year's Berlinale, and Eva Pavlíčková was grateful to be able to screen the film there on the big screen. "Otherwise, the life of the film would have been rapidly diminished. Communication with the audience is still very important. Even though the hall in Berlin had to be half empty, it was good to hear the positive reactions of the audience, to see that people were laughing and understanding the jokes."