Czech audiovisual sector gets picture of how it is doing

Photo: Miloš Turek

What is believed to be the biggest ever survey of Czech cinema visits and overall audiovisual habits has just been completed by the business body that groups producers of films, documentaries, adverts, and tv serials - the Audiovisual Producers’ Association (APA). They have a lot to be cheerful about from the results, but there are still some worrying consumer and industry trends that will need to be faced.

The Czech film ‘Cesta Ven’ or ‘Way Out’ picked up most of the awards at the Czech film industry ceremony a month ago. The film broke some new ground in using a novice Roma actress in the starring role to tell the story of a young woman trying to survive in an environment where she is confronted every day by prejudice.

But perhaps at the backslapping awards ceremony there might have been a bit of reflection as well. It’s more than a decade since a Czech film was shortlisted for the best foreign film at the Oscars and almost 20 years since Jan Svěrak’s Kolya won the academy award. The winner last time round was the stark black and white film, Ida, from neighbouring Poland.

Czech producers, the people who shepherd film projects from when they are still just a glint in the eye through filming and beyond, last year commissioned the biggest ever survey of the Czech cinema and audiovisual sector for the last 25 years to get a better grip on how they are doing and what are the main challenges they have to face. They recognized that the industry and audiovisual markets are at a crossroads. And some were saying the Czech industry was not what it was.

The results were unveiled last week in many ways they might represent a rebuff to the doubting Tomášes. Starting with the good news, one of the main messages is that despite the Czech reputation for trying to get something for nothing, 87 percent of the sample survey are paying for audiovisual content in one way or another. An overwhelming majority of those are buying cinema tickets with a lesser proportion buying DVDs and even smaller quantity paying for films on cable or paying to download material.

Overall cinema audiences in the Czech Republic were slightly up in 2014 with 11.54 million visits compared with just over 11 million visits in 2013. But this is still well short of the recent peak of just over 13.5 million visits in 2013.

And the number of new Czech film releases last year was at a relatively healthy 52, or around a fifth of the 264 new showings that year. That is one of the strongest local showings in Europe, only beaten by traditionally strong cinema culture countries such as France and Italy, and the trio of Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
And those new Czech films are usually doing better than their foreign peers when it comes to the numbers of bums on local cinema seats. Although Czech films only accounted for a fifth on premieres in 2014, they grabbed around a quarter of cinema ticket sales. Key factors seem to be that Czech films can plug into the particular local sense of humour, the identification with recongnised local stars, and also a willingness to back local productions.

And on the overall quality of Czech films? Just over four out of 10 respondents said they believed the quality was higher, around half said it was unchanged, and just 11 percent said it was worse.

The bad news? Well the Internet is clearly a major factor to reckon with now for the Czech audiovisual sector with connection charges cheaper and many households now plugged into fast services. Just under 55 percent of Czechs say they have viewed some audiovisual material on the Internet in the last year, mostly films. Around 40 percent of the population say they are now using the Internet more than 20 hours a week at home, almost three-fifths say they are on the net at home daily.

And while a thin majority, 51 percent, of the films or serials being viewed on the Internet are foreign, a mix of Czech and foreign films and serials are watched by almost four out of 10 Internet viewers, with just 12 percent searching just for Czech films and content.

Needless to say that most of the downloading and viewing is for free with almost two-thirds of Czechs saying they never paid for such audiovisual content and just 6 percent saying they paid regularly.

And the uphill battle for the audiovisual sector is clearly that most Czechs see no reason to pay when material is for free. What’s more downloading or streaming films and serials is regarded as relatively easy and quick and there is also a fair choice of new releases and wide offer of content on offer. Around one in 10 Czechs argue that they don’t trust Internet payments anyway.

Photo: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Against this, trips to the cinema are now regarded as relatively expensive by many Czechs. The average cost of a family trip, including popcorn and any extras, now comes to around an average 310 crowns. While around half of the survey respondents said they were going as frequently to the cinema as before, 37 percent said they were going less often with the cost, other activities, and the family given as some of the main reasons.

Pavel Strnad is one of the top Czech producers and chairman of the APA. He has been behind some major films, such as Protektor and Alois Nebel and more recently Fair Play as well as the award winning documentaries Katka and René. I asked him what he believed the main messages of the survey were.

“It actually showed that 87 percent of people paid for watching audiovisual content during the last year, which is pretty good news for us. They either went to the cinema and bought a ticket, or they went and bought or DVD, or they paid for the online streaming service.”

And why was the main focus of this survey on cinema because we’re talking about producers and the whole industry is a lot wider?

“It is still, I believe, that 70 percent of the people that paid, paid for a ticket to the cinema. So it shows that the audience that is paying to watch films and the audiovisual content is still mainly in the theatres. We would like to encourage the audience to pay also for the online content, but the situation on the Internet is quite difficult these days and we hoped that this would start a discussion on how to make the situation better.”

To what extend is the cinema industry at a crossroads now? The figures there show a dramatic rise in Internet use and downloading of films.

“Yes, well, the market is getting bigger and bigger, which is good news for us. At the same time we only see a small part of the audience paying for these services and that is the reason why we would like to work on that as well.”

Pavel Strnad, photo: Czech Television
One good news is that Czech films do seem to be holding their own against foreign films, they are still popular here. From that message, should it be taken that there should be more Czech films and is there room for more Czech films on the market?

“I believe there is still room for more Czech films but we have to think about the quality of the film and developing better scripts and better stories. It is not about the quantity but the quality.”

In what way will this survey lead to some concrete results, maybe getting other revenue streams or deal with piracy? In what way is this a platform for future action?

“Well, it definitely gives us a platform for talking to distributors and cinemas and also to online services in that we can show them that there is an interest in Czech films and that there is a potential.”

But is there any way that you can deal with the download servers such as Ulozto or getting some money out of them? Is there any way of getting the Czech legal system to do something?

“I think that would mean changing the legal system.”

Is that possible or do you want that?

“Well hopefully.”

A final question, I go back to England quite a lot and there are quite and a lot of villages have cinema clubs. Many cinemas have disappeared in the Czech Republic, isn’t this an idea that could be looked at in the Czech Republic, using small….

Photo: Miloš Turek
“There is still a network of film clubs around the country. That is something that could be …there is a potential of course but on the other hand that’s not what would change the situation on the market.”

And for the rest of the industry, not just the cinema, are things looking good in television and commercials?

“We are quite optimistic also in tv production.”