FNE Visegrad YR2022: Q&A with Czech Producer Ondřej Zima


    PRAGUE: FNE spoke to Czech producer Ondřej Zima from FILM KOLEKTIV, Evolution Films and Offside Men, about the challenges he faced as a producer during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the film industry in the Czech Republic is recovering.

    Ondrej ZimaIn 2006, whilst still a student, Ondřej Zima and two other producers established a dynamic production company called Evolution Films (EF). The main objective of EF is to produce original audiovisual projects: feature films, documentaries and animated works.

    Together with the screenwriter and director Jan Prusinovsky and the Evolution Films company, he created a new production company called Offside MEN in 2011, which is exclusively focused on the development, production and distribution of its own creations. Zima is a member of the Association of Audiovisual Producers (APA).

    FNE: What is your strategy for getting production back up to pre-pandemic levels?

    Ondřej Zima: I cannot merely answer this question, because I am afraid that the entire audiovisual sector has changed fundamentally since 2019 and a return to the same level of audiovisual production is simply no longer possible. This fundamental change in the audiovisual sector, when the importance and volume of production are shifting from the so-called "big screen" to the so-called "small screens", has begun long before the pandemic, however the pandemic accelerated this change terribly.

    We are presently in the process of this very dynamic change and it is therefore very difficult to predict what will happen and when. We already know that the changes we had predicted to happen on the Czech and Slovak audiovisual markets in a few years are suddenly here. Therefore, generating a longer-term strategy is useless in these very turbulent times, because what is true today is no longer true tomorrow. What we are trying to do is closely monitor the situation on the market and react flexibly to it.

    FNE: What were the biggest challenges of shooting during the pandemic?

    Ondřej Zima: Even starting shooting during the pandemic was a big adventure. For me, the uncertainty whether COVID-19 would prevent companies from continuing filming was completely insane. Needless to say, of course, the biggest concern was for the health of all our co-workers. The most significant challenge was to be always standing by to change the plans, schedules, locations etc., depending on the positive COVID-19 test results of our cast or crew members.

    FNE: What can you tell us about your latest projects Emma in Love / Chyby (2021) and Two Ships / Marťanské lodě (2021)?

    Ondřej Zima: Both these projects are close to my heart and each for a different reason. They started their cinema distribution within one year, which is a coincidence and the COVID-19 is to blame for that.

    Emma in Love was prepared for eight interminable years and it is the further collaboration with my friend, coproducer and director Jan Prušinovský with our joint production company OFFSIDE MEN. In terms of genre, it is a romance, which is a surprisingly very rare film genre. That seemed strange to us at first, and during the production we found a reason why that was. Romance is a very difficult discipline and Jan himself says that Emma in Love has been the most difficult film for him so far. I am very happy we managed to make this film about love, which I really like.

    Two Ships is also unique for me as it was a project that I developed and produced with my colleague Silvie Michajlova. It all started in 2017 when we were developing another film in Brno, which wasn’t shot eventually. During these preparations, we found out that Brno has this unique atmosphere, the same Prague had in the 90s; things are just happening there. And we decided to capture it and started looking for a contemporary authentic Brno story. At the same time Silvie got a book of poems, The Martian Ships by Martin Kyšperský (the author of the story and the leading protagonist in the film), and everything started to move. We searched for the best matching screenwriter for a while and the choice of director Jan Foukal came instantly.

    We shot both of these projects before the pandemic. Actually, we finished Two Ships at the end of January 2020! Unfortunately, the distribution of Emma in Love was a disaster because of the pandemic. The film was originally scheduled to premiere in the summer of 2020 and it hit theatres a year later. In both cases, it was clear that the art house films audience did not return to Czech cinemas during 2021. The question is whether they ever will.

    FNE: Did you receive the government support you needed during the pandemic?

    Ondřej Zima: The state support for culture and the audiovisual sector was just not functioning. The setup of the COVID KULTURA programmes was mostly out of reality, so indeed we didn't  apply. However, I must say that specifically our companies associated under the parent company FILM KOLEKTIV were retrospectively evaluated as lucky, when only the Restore Point sci-fi project produced by Jan Kallista was severely affected in production, and also we lost several foreign service deals.

    The biggest damage caused to us by COVID-19 was associated with the films in distribution. However, the compensation for these damages remained completely uncovered. The only institution that did not cease to support Czech filmmakers was the Czech Film Fund, which prepared a special COVID-19 subsidy, an exceptional call for the COVID-affected audiovisual sector aimed at maintaining the basic film infrastructure, competitiveness and innovation. This supported us all a lot and thanks a lot to the director of the fund, Helena Bezděk Fraňková.

    FNE: How important are coproductions with neighbouring countries for your company?

    Ondřej Zima: Coproduction projects in general and European in particular are what we enjoy the most as a majority or a minority coproducer. Of course, coproductions with our neighbouring countries are the most common, which is obvious geographically and culturally.

    They say that money comes first; well, we do not fully perceive it like this. Naturally, the financial side of coproductions is very important for individual projects, but from our point of view, the personal creative side of coproductions is no less important, because this side enriches not only particular projects, but also us.

    FNE: Have any fundamental changes in your business model occurred that you think will continue after the pandemic?

    Ondřej Zima: As I said above, we are in a very dynamic course of a fundamental change in the entire audiovisual industry, when there is a shift in the importance and volume of production from the so-called “big screen” to the so-called "small screens". In my opinion, nothing can stop and reverse this change. It breaks my heart, but the era of classic films for big cinema distribution, as we knew it before the pandemic in general, came to an end.

    Of course, this does not mean that cinemas will end day by day, but some kinds of films will disappear from the classic cinema distribution. The first to go will be the art house films, which no longer earn even at minimal distribution costs. These films shall remain in the limited what I call “boutique” distribution, basically several screenings in art house cinemas. Such more demanding films will move (in fact, they are already moving) to online platforms, mainly in the form of miniseries, but also as films. I think that only blockbusters will remain in the cinemas.

    FNE: What are the plans of your companies Evolution Films and OFFSIDE MEN?

    Ondřej Zima: With the parent company FILM KOLEKTIV and the Evolution Films and OFFSIDE MEN operating within it, in 2022 we want to complete (me together with my four fellow producers) the feature films Grand Prix (directed by Jan Prušinovský / OFFSIDE MEN), Big Opening (by Miroslav Krobot / Evolution Films) and The Restore Point (by Robert Hloz / FILM KOLEKTIV), as well as the long documentaries So Far from Mikulov (by Marie Dvořáková / Evolution Films) and Happylock (by Jan Foukal / FILM KOLEKTIV).

    We also are the minority coproducer on the Slovenian film Father Figure by Nejc Gazvoda (Evolution Films in coproduction with Slovenian PERFO Production), The Moon Is the Father of Mine by Georgij Ovashvili (Axman Production, in coproduction with his Georgian production house Wagonnet) and The House of Meadows by Tereza Kotyk (Axman Production, coproduced with Austrian Plan C Filmproduktion). We are also working on several domestic and international service productions. Last but not least, I want to focus on the development of our recent projects.

    FNE: What difficulties and challenges does the Czech film industry face today and how do you see the development of the industry?

    Ondřej Zima: I consider the current lack of finances for film incentives to be the biggest difficulty in the Czech film industry. Due to the increase of foreign productions the financial limit for film incentives has been exhausted in 2022. Negotiations are underway to resolve this. The planned transformation of the Czech Film Fund into an audiovisual fund and the related major transformation amendments to the audiovisual law should bring a lasting and systemic solution.

    I consider this to be the most principal challenge for the Czech audiovisual industry, which together with the form in which the new European audiovisual directive will be implemented in the Czech Republic will determine the future of the Czech audiovisual industry. I am personally optimistic and I deeply believe in the further progress and improvement of Czech cinematography.

    The 2022 Year of Recovery for Film in Visegrad Countries (YR2021) project sponsored by the Visegrad Fund brings together filmmakers and cultural professionals across the V4 to cooperate in the recovery of the film industry, which has been badly damaged by the COVID pandemic, and to reconnect with cinema audiences across the region and across borders. We want to share the lessons learned about reaching audiences online and the advantages of hybrid events in creating new connections across the Visegrad region.