At a three-story sound stage in south Prague, Crossing Lines star William Fichter probed a murder case in The Hague as 15th Century Romans in crimson and gold robes practiced lines for an episode of The Borgias.
Makers of the two popular television shows are shooting at the 90-year-old Barrandov Studios, using the Czech capital’s architectural diversity and technical expertise at a facility founded by late President Vaclav Havel’s uncle Milos. Munich-based Tandem Communications, which spent 10 million euros ($13.7 million) to shoot the crime show’s first season in the Czech Republic, is now in its second season.
“We needed a place that can get you, let’s say, an Irish or Scandinavian look at the same time, so we found incredible flexibility in Prague,” said Crossing Lines Executive Producer Rola Bauer, a co-founder of Tandem. “We still shoot in Paris and elsewhere, but Prague is the most versatile.”
The foreign TV business has become a lifeline for Barrandov Studios and the Czech film industry, which in its heyday produced blockbusters like Mission Impossible and the Chronicles of Narnia and has since slumped as business was siphoned off to incentives in Hungary. The parliament’s Dec. 19 approval of annual subsidies worth 500 million koruna ($24.78 million) is not enough to bring back big-money film-makers, hurting budget revenue at a time the government pledged to boost the economy with more spending, industry experts say.
Instead, Barrandov needs to rely more on small-screen shows, commercials and independent movies rather than big-ticket productions to stay in business and compete with studios abroad, say those who work in the Czech film industry.
“We urgently need more as I have to roll over some projects from last year,” said Helena Bezdek Frankova, the director of the Prague-based Czech State Film Fund, which oversees distribution of money to projects. “Let’s hope that there will be some money from next year’s budget. It’s a pity as local producers are negotiating huge projects that would otherwise come here immediately. ”
The film industry is a key contributor to the economy of the post-communist nation of 10.6 million people and its budget.
The government of former Premier Jan Fischer first approved a cash rebate program in 2010 that promised to return 20 percent of money spent in the country to respark interest.
That year, foreign production spending totaled 943 million koruna in the Czech Republic, according to the Czech producers’ association. In 2012, that rose to 1.56 billion koruna, lower than the peak of 5.02 billion koruna in 2003 and higher than the 705 million koruna spent in 2008.
Big-budget films are traditionally a windfall source of income. For instance, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which had a budget of 202 million koruna and filmed over 18 days in the Czech Republic in 2010, contributed about 6.8 million koruna of net income to the public budget.
Since then, business has been limited, with Ridley Scott’s Child 44 being this year’s only top-drawer movie in production in Prague.
That leaves television as a bread-and-butter business for local crews and Barrandov. At the moment, Crossing Lines and the Borgias, which stars Jeremy Irons as the infamous pope, are being produced alongside the BBC’s Musketeers.
Tandem also created the Golden Globe-nominated mini-series the Pillars of the Earth with Donald Sutherland in Hungary.
Even so, the Czech rebates don’t have enough funding, are more cumbersome than incentives in Hungary and lack the stability to bring back Hollywood blockbusters as the industry becomes driven more by enticements, industry executives say.
“Prague is doing very well hosting smaller European co-productions,” said Stillking Films producer David Minkowski. “But the $150 million American or British movies that we used to get are not here and won’t be coming because there is not enough money in the incentive program.”
Prague-based Stillking worked on Hollywood blockbusters including James Bond’s “Casino Royal,” the “Chronicles of Narnia” fantasy, and Ghost Protocol.
There is no guarantee how much money will be available each year and when productions will actually receive it as some projects are rolled over to next year. That creates uncertainty for film producers, according to Ludmila Claussova from the Czech Film Commission.
For 2013, the government raised the cap from 300 million koruna to 500 million koruna. Since the demand is high, most money is already allocated to projects that apply in January.
“If someone’s deciding about where to shoot in March, he’s not going to come here,” said Claussova.
For smaller productions, such as the Crossing Lines, Prague, still makes the most sense because of the local skills and expertise found in Barrandov studios, said Holger Reibiger, a production supervisor on the set.
The maze of sets depicting the crime-fighting basement laboratory at the International Criminal Court in The Hague give the series its sleek, high-tech look, said Reibiger.
At one desk, actor Fichtner’s character, Carl Hickman, a fictional New York cop-turned EU investigator, is arguing about where to best find Europe’s latest serial killer over and over again as the director re-shoots the scene.
“I really like the technical expertise at Barrandov,” said Reibiger, as he sat inside the life-size facsimile of a French fast train, complete with toilets, luggage racks and blue screens attached to windows to add scenery whizzing by. “It’s easy to work in and Prague is very easy to live in.”