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Hollywood East...Take Two

Letter From the Czech Republic


In a farmyard deep in Central Bohemia, a fierce-looking man in a jumpsuit labeled "social deviant" is doused in gasoline, then set on fire. "Make sure he's good and lit," a middle-age bystander laughs nonchalantly before strolling off for a cup of tea.

For Lloyd Simandl, president and owner of Vancouver (B.C.)-based North American Productions, human torches are all in a day's work. "Lots of explosions, lots of guys getting burned, lots of computer effects," he grins. "That's what the public wants."

It was also what the film industry in the Czech Republic wanted when the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union brought down the curtain on state-subsidized celluloid. By pushing low costs, good locations, and a skilled workforce, the Czechs lured some 40 Western movie units in 1993 alone. Their films included Pinocchio, Sigourney Weaver's Snow White in the Black Forest, and Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as a lovelorn Beethoven.

But success caused many Czechs to get caught up in another Hollywood trait: greed. "Advance teams would come out, find locations, accommodation, catering crews, agree on prices, then go home to rustle up the dough," says South African director Winnie Bauer. "When they came back six months later, they'd find the contracts had been ripped up and folks were demanding 10 times the price."

NASTY SHOCK. Things came to a head in 1995 when actor and producer Tom Cruise and director Brian DePalma arrived in Prague to make the $50 million action flick Mission Impossible. Dubbing the exorbitant cost hikes blackmail, Cruise nearly pulled out before finally paying up. Other producers did shy away, and last year, just 10 full-length films were made here.

Now, the Czechs are setting out to charm Western filmmakers all over again with new controls and incentives. At the center of their plans is a proposed independent film commission, similar to one in Britain. The commission would smooth the way with officialdom and location owners and impose a uniform standard of professional ethics. The laissez-faire Czech government is reluctant to underwrite the commission's $2 million annual cost; two years ago, it cut funding to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, which draws 20,000 cineasts each year to the West Bohemian spa town, 82 miles west of Prague. The Culture Ministry wants the film industry to take its cue from Karlovy Vary and find private financing for the commission. The festival, second only to Cannes in age, got Philip Morris Cos. to pick up most of last year's $2 million tab; this summer, it's Mercedes-Benz's turn.

Still, the tightfisted government is helping the film industry by allowing corporations--Czech or foreign--to write off contributions to the arts. The reason is advertising. Government incentives "pay for [themselves] in tourist revenue. Look at what Crocodile Dundee did for Australia, or Braveheart for Scotland," where tourism quadrupled the summer after the movie came out, says Karel Kasal, locations chief of Barrandov Studios. Formerly state-owned but now in private hands, Barrandov is a huge film complex on the outskirts of Prague. In addition to state tax incentives, Prague Mayor Jan Koukal has proposed a system of set prices for city-owned locations. Prices will hold firm for a year.

Meanwhile, private efforts to encourage filmmakers' return are under way. Post-production studios, which set up shop in Prague during the boom to handle the early rushes and computer graphics, have hired representatives to sing their praises in Hollywood.

Nobody is promoting the Czech Republic more than Barrandov, however. Just two years ago, Barrandov took in $25 million from visiting film companies. Last year, it didn't host a single Western production. Among the big-name projects it missed out on was Evita, which was scheduled to film some of its exterior scenes in Prague. Following the Cruise fiasco, nervous executives went to Budapest instead.

Now, Barrandov is distributing CD-ROMs documenting hundreds of locations available in the Czech Republic, from forests and medieval towns to cosmopolitan sites. Prague, the only East European capital to emerge unscathed from World War II, has ready-made architectural sets, from 12th century Romanesque through Baroque to the world's only Cubist buildings.

"Just by moving his computer mouse around, a producer sitting in Los Angeles can walk around downtown Prague," explains Kasal. Text provides such details as availability and daily hire fee. "If a producer goes through us," pledges Kasal, "then all parties are bound by the figure quoted."

AUTHENTIC COSTUMES. Kasal rolled out his CDs at Karlovy Vary and Cannes last year, and his hustling is already paying off. Work is about to start on a big-screen romantic comedy, The Barber of Siberia, starring Richard Harris and Julia Ormond, and Virgin Bride, a TV epic on the life of Joan of Arc that calls for 5,000 extras. Barrandov says its wardrobe and historical props clinched Virgin Bride. The studio has the largest such collection in the world, most of it looted from the country's mansions and chateaus in the 1950s.

It's too early to tell whether the Czech film industry will recapture its golden days. American actress Dale Wyatt, who worked in Italian cinema before founding a theater group in Prague, believes the Czech Republic may go the way of Italy. "In Rome, they had the weather, the locations, cheap facilities," she says. "Then it got too expensive, too corrupt, and people said, `Whoa. Italy? No thanks."'

If the Czech film industry is revived, it will be because Western producers can still tap into a skilled workforce while avoiding union problems and soaring costs back home. By filming in Prague, Lloyd Simandl is able to make pictures for just $2 million, which he says is half the cost of filming in Vancouver. If things stay that way--if the Czechs really have come to their senses--the tale of the little film industry that tried might have a happy ending after all.By JAMES DRAKE EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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