Prague back in spotlight for film shoots but big features still likely going elsewhere

Photo: Tomáš Adamec, Czech Radio

Prague was a big hitter in the film world for around a decade until 2008, becoming a venue to shoot high cost feature films. But the shoots started going elsewhere when the Czech Republic failed to roll out the sort of film subsidies other locations were offering. That eventually changed and Prague has clawed its way back as a venue, though perhaps not the first choice one that it once was.

Matthew Stillman,  photo: Stillking
Matthew Stillman helped found Prague-based film production company Stillking Films around 22 years ago and has witnessed the rise, fall, and recovery of the local film sector. With outposts in other European cities and around the world, he has also got a handle on how the overall business is shaping up. And the business is booming, especially with the likes of Netflix and National Geographic feeding a frenzy of tv series making.

I sat down with Mr. Stillman at his offices at Prague’s Barrandov Studios and asked him first of all to chart the recent fortunes of the Czech film sector.

“TV probably started coming to Prague in 1995 and feature [films] probably in 1997 to 1998 started picking up. And there was a lot of volume of big features from around 1997 to 2007 and 2008. Then what happened, I would say in 2007 or 2008, is that this industry had evolved into a large industry. The idea of people shooting out of Los Angeles and London and the cities where the projects were conceived prior to the early 1990s people did not really use to do that because there was too much risk with travel and locations. But with technology and companies opening up in different places the world became a lot smaller and it became a lot more accessible for different productions. That grew quickly through 2007 to 2008 and by that point an industry had evolved which was probably 7 to 10 billion US dollars of foreign production. Other governments became very much more aware of it. The Hungarians, in this area, introduced a very aggressive subsidy to try and attract it. The Czechs didn’t until about 2010 or 2011. So Hungary got a steal on Prague over those years. Also Berlin was doing quite a lot and the UK subsidy, which used to be called sale and leaseback, and applied to the whole of Europe was in place. So Hungary and the UK in particular had strong years from 2007 to 2011. Because of that they became the regular destination that Prague had bPhoto: Tomáš Adamec, Czech Radioeen.

“Prague, I would say, is more the medium to lower budget features and tv series.”

“Now we are in a phase where Prague is back catching up to that, to where it once was. But the subsidies are still more effective in Budapest and London so the bigger studio features still tend to be there. We have an office in Budapest and we are doing at the moment one for Universal called Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence. We just finished one with Charlize Theron, also for Universal. And Prague, I would say, is more the medium to lower budget features and tv series. Now in Prague there is Knightfall which is a Jeremy Renner 12-part series about the legend of King Arthur. We are also working on one with Ron Howard called Genius which is about Albert Einstein, which is another 12-part series.

Barrandov Studios,  photo: Google Street View
“So we have been doing a lot of series in Prague as well, which is great. It is interesting because tv has evolved a lot and there is a lot more drama, a lot more narrative and character exploration. A lot of top writers have shifted from features to tv and a lot of good actors have because they are meatier roles. Film has become, as we probably all know, a lot more action based. From a creative aspect, tv is fun and interesting. That is probably what is happening more now in Prague. As I said, there are a couple of smaller features that we are probably doing at the same time. In Budapest we are also doing Maigret there, which is a Rowan Atkinson tv series. There is another one called Camp X. And that is probably how it sits at the moment. The Prague subsidy is probably at 20 to 25 percent. The Budapest one is effectively 35 percent and it is generous to foreign crew and cast from outside Europe, which the Czech one is as well. But it means that the bigger projects look to there first. And as Budapest evolved, a lot of the infrastructure evolved. There are good crews there and there are also three or four additional studios that were built over the last seven or eight years. Whereas in Prague there is Barrandov and there is Prague Studios, there is probably four similar type set ups in Budapest.

“There is more demand that ability to supply at the moment.”

“The overall industry, tv and film, is very vibrant at the moment. There is a lot of production looking for a lot of housing and there is a lot of support. Now we have to fit projects in by slots really, when there is studio and crew availability. There is more demand that ability to supply at the moment.”

Can you shift work between locations, is it possible to do that?

Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
“We also have an office in Bucharest, so we tend to shoot between those three places. And it is difficult to shift a project in mid-production or to shoot one project in two places because essentially of cost. A lot of the pre-production you would have to double and the movement is expensive and you are doubling up on a lot of things. So, there is not much that is shot between places. What happens more is that people try to find the slots that we were talking about. If Budapest is jammed then they will probably come to Prague or maybe Bucharest. It depends a bit on the nature of the project. Bucharest is good for certain things. Prague you know the locations and the look of Prague, Budapest is similar, not quite the same architecture, but a lot of films could be shot in either Budapest or Prague and then it becomes a question of availability, space, and crew and all those sort of things.”

Sobotka/Babiš government,  photo: archive of the government
As regards the incentives, do you get a feeling that there is in the Czech government a feeling that the Hungarian incentives should be matched or are they happy now that Prague has caught up to some extend and things can be left as they are?

“Well it’s really a question of political will based on an understanding of the economic advantages of doing it. The UK have been very active in producing their reports and providing as much incentive as they can. And so have the Hungarians. The Czechs were less so. There was no political will until the Sobotka/Babiš government. There was a small incentive before but there was never really the political will for it. The people who were in charge of finance did not see, or did not want to see perhaps, the economic advantages that the exporting of services can bring. Other people are a lot more pro-active about that. The UK is particularly strong about trying to develop its creative industries. It has really designed a whole network of, not just film incentives, but other subsidies and support to develop its creative industries and the results from that are quite phenomenal if you look at the recent reports that have come out of the UK government. Others have other priorities or it depends on the nature of governments, if they are short term and unstable mean that they are not willing to enter into these kind of three, five, seven, or 10 year planning developing infrastructure, developing industry in a particular place. So, this government, the Sobotka/Babiš government, is a lot more pro-active about it and a desire to do it. I would not say the political will is as strong as it was in Hungary previously, and I don’t think that the economic benefit as a result of that has been reaped fully in the Czech Republic as much as it has in Budapest or Hungary.

Photo: Steve Linster,
“I think that is a situation which is evolving. They are talking about increasing the incentive, maybe not next year but the year after. But it’s a political decision that should be based upon understanding the advantages and benefits that can be reaped from creating sufficient infrastructure and support for the infrastructure so that Czech services can be used and exported. The Czech environment was possible the best environment in the world 10 years ago. It was a crushing shame that it was not supported in the right way because ultimately who suffered through that was the Czech state and Czech people because they had a brilliant opportunity because of the brilliant infrastructure, crews, architects, everything. That was not fully developed. Hopefully, now we are in a phase of re-growth.”

Jake Scott,  photo: LG전자CC BY 2.0
I pressume that a few years ago some of the talent went elsewhere, where the work was, and that they left Prague and the Czech Republic five or six year ago?

“Yes, what happens is that people come here, directors or producers, and they work with crew and are surprised how great they are. Ridley Scott’s son came here, Jake, and he made a film. And a lot of the Czech crew, especially in stunts, wardrobe, different departments, Ridley then took to do subsequent films in Morocco and different locations, Spain., because they were great crew. As you say, some people move, some of the top camera people have moved. The crew base shrunk, that’s for sure. “

As regards the Czech incentives, there has been some evolution of the incentives. At one stage, if I understand correctly, they were limited to one year and they are now available over a few years. There is more flexibility there but on the other side of the coin there is also much more scrutiny of the accounts and what they are getting as well…?

“There is no film shot here that has not been able to reclaim a rebate and the full rebate.”

“It used to be a one year thing that was replaced by a three year one. It is essentially a revolving fund which is supposed to one budget year but actually there is no film shot here that has not been able to reclaim a rebate and the full rebate. I would say the issues are perhaps more around administration and presentation of that than they are around the effectiveness of the rebate that was established. Like I said, everyone that has come here has got it. But most people did not trust it and did not come because it was not presented in the right way. Now, yes, it’s deeper and longer. There have been more resources applied to it. It can be cancelled, but that can apply to anywhere else as well. There’s a longer term programme there, it might be slightly politically sensitive we will see. We will see what happens with new governments but that can happen anywhere.”

Looking forward as you do, maybe three to five years, do you still see a strong industry based on both those pillars, film and tv, or do you see the tv series gaining even greater share and the Netflix phenomenon and all that becoming even more powerful?

“At the moment there is a scramble to aggregate eyeballs across the Internet and Internet platforms.”

“There is a kind of liberalisation of content which happened with the development of broadband and the rise Netflix, Amazon, Apple and people like that. Up until around five or six years ago, films were distributed by five or six studios and they essentially controlled the market and the product of film at that end of the market. And tv was also limited to a few broadcast networks in Europe and the US and UK for English language. That has all changed significantly in the last few years and the result is that the liberalisation of distribution has created a lot of opportunity for new entrants onto the market. Some of those guys are now the strongest, the Netflix and Amazons and National Geographic. They are the ones that are actually financing a lot of the stuff. In film and tv right now there is a huge demand. Also with data that is now available you can make particular films to hit particular markets and you can distribute them that way. So the desire for content, all content, but particularly tv and film, is particularly strong at the moment. In the tv market at the moment there is a scramble to aggregate eyeballs across the Internet and Internet platforms. They are probably overproducing because they are trying to put their stake in the ground and say we have got, whatever it is, a billion eyeballs subscribing to Netflix or Amazon. At some point, you would expect their models to mature a little bit and less content to be made. That is probably true in perhaps three, five, or seven years. But the general trend, we may be in a bit of a bubble at the moment in terms of tv, but the general trend is for a lot more demand for content because it can be a lot easier distributed."