A Chronology of Hollywood in Post-'89 Prague

Since the fall of Communism, the Czech Republic has welcomed an influx of Western moviemakers

This article provided by PCFE Film School.

Fall of 1989, Prague emerged from behind a veil seemingly cut from the cloth of angels. The West, first in the form of a trickle of shaggy self-seekers, and then a deluge of backpackers and businessmen, rushed in for a squeeze. The international film industry drifted in with the flotsam, lured at first by the dark charms of the city and its virginal prices.

The city was a natural film set and budgets could get up to 60 percent more buck for the dollar without any compromises in quality whatsoever.

The local workforce, schooled in the rich tradition of Czech cinematography, was savvy and cheap.

The first productions to come to Prague were international art-house crews shooting moody period pieces written in and, peripherally, about Prague.

In 1988, American director Philip Kaufman shot Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. The film was nominated for two Oscars and broadcast worldwide the grainy pulchritude of Prague.

Steven Soderbergh tuned in and ushered a crew of his own to Prague to shoot Kafka in 1991, starring Jeremy Irons. The film received mixed reviews but the city, with its signature chiaroscuro mists and cobblestone alleys, looked great.

In 1993, Prague's red carpet rolled out for Anthony Hopkins, in town for the production of David Hugh Jones's The Trial.

The carpet was pulled out again the next year for Isabella Rossellini, starring in Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved.

The money that came in gave birth to a flurry of private enterprise.

These funds translated into significantly upgraded production and post-production services.

The refurbishment was so drastic that Prague soon no longer attracted foreign productions because of its quaint alleys but rather because of its state-of-the-art post-production and production services.

Virtually overnight, Prague became the premier outsource studio for big-budget Hollywood productions.

The list of major foreign films shot in Prague tells the story on its own:

Mission: Impossible (1996); The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999); Dungeons & Dragons (2000); Spy Game (2001), From Hell (2001); The Affair of the Necklace (2001); XXX (2002); Hart's War (2002); The Bourne Identity (2002); Blade II (2002); Bad Company (2002); Shanghai Knights (2003); The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003); Van Helsing (2004); Hellboy (2004); Oliver Twist (2005); Everything is Illuminated (2005); The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (2005); The Brothers Grimm (2005), etc.

Matthew Stillman, the founder of Stillking Films, the Prague-based production company behind a good number of the films mentioned above, described Prague's pull on Hollywood in an interview with the Prague Compass:

"It's the infrastructure -- the studios, equipment, crews, hotels, equipment -- everything you need to make a film is here now. Cost-wise, it's very competitive and because the city was never bombed it has a pretty eclectic look, there's a great base of locations to do a whole variety of films -- contemporary, historical, action, whatever. So it's a combination of the infrastructure, the costs, and the locations. We have a big advantage in having all three; some places only have one"

Matthew Stillman founded Stillking Films in 1993 with 500 dollars in start-up capital and a typewriter.

His is a story of rags to riches. In the space of 15 years Stillking grew to run over 15 percent of all productions in the 300-million-dollar Czech film industry and today has an annual turnover of over a billion crowns in production alone.

In addition to Hollywood blockbusters and chart-topping music video clips, Stillking shoots more than 200 commercials a year for multinational giants like Nike, Adidas, Sony, Stella Artois, Coca Cola, and IBM.

With such heavyweight clients in town, production prices in the Czech Republic have predictably gone up and the Czech Republic no longer caters to the penny-pincher. Since the late 90's there has been a risk that Prague would lose its competitive edge and that business might go elsewhere, specifically to the film markets in Hungary or Romania.

Indeed in 2000, the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi closed its Prague office and moved to Hungary on the heels of its bread-and-butter client Proctor & Gamble Co.

In 2002, Arthur Phillips published his bestseller Prague, describing a group of North Americans living in... Budapest, the new expat hot-spot.

For years, it was unclear whether the movable feast had gone off to Hungary and whether Prague would ever be the regional film and culture capital it once was.

To make matters worse, the Czech film industry suffered from both a lack of state support at home and increasing state-fueled competition across its borders.

Hungary committed 13 million euros to its local film industry in the early 2000s and, in its 2003 audiovisual law, offered an additional 20 percent rebate on any money companies spent on local productions.

New studios were erected in Romania and Prague lost the production of Oscar-winner Cold Mountain to Bucharest in 2003.

Nevertheless Hollywood's machinery is in place in Prague and the city is still a deal compared to Los Angeles. Several of the filmmakers lured to Budapest returned to Prague after bad experiences.

Filmmaker Tom Karnowski is quoted in the Prague Tribune saying, "My experience was much harder in Hungary. We pretty much had to start at square one. It's easier to come here and just get started since things are already set up."

While studios are cheap in Romania, the infrastructure is not yet in place and crew and staff still have to be imported.

Prague today has greater resources then ever to train crew professionals.

The national film academy FAMU continues to deliver Czech filmmakers for the local market annually. And in 2003 the PCFE Film School emerged, bringing hundreds of international students to Prague seeking professional training.

In a little over three years since it opened, PCFE Film School had been named one of Europe's top film schools, in Premiere magazine's January 2006 issue.

While schools develop talent, film festivals nourish and expose it, something indispensable to any healthy film industry. This year's calendar of major Czech film festivals includes the following:

• Febio Fest, focusing on the best of last year's international distribution premieres, retrospectives and tributes with a special section dedicated to gay and lesbian cinema

One World Film Festival, dedicated to human rights documentaries

Karlovy Vary, the country's most prestigious festival presenting more than 200 new releases from around the world

Fresh Film Festival, the largest international festival of student films in the region

Jihlava Documentary Film Festival, a festival of international documentaries from the Czech Republic and abroad

Ani-Fest, an international festival dedicated to animation

The Czech Republic produces a respectable 15 to 25 domestic films annually.

Most adhere strictly to the Czech school of dramatic comedy, or dramedy, but recently, Hollywood-style teen films have started to surface, written and produced for profit and aimed at a mass youth market, among them Snowboarďáci (2004) and Rafťáci (2006).

This is understandable considering the almost impossible task of making a profit in a market of 10 million viewers.

A production with a budget of $1 million would need to draw in 10 percent of the population to break even on ticket sales -- a daunting task.

Indeed, top local directors need to subsidize their more personal projects by moonlighting on international commercials.

One can then understand the frustration felt when the long anticipated audiovisual law, intended to increase state support for Czech film from $3 million to $9.6 million, was vetoed last spring.

Czech filmmakers were anticipating a period of release from the burden of having to fundraise from outside sources for their films.
Before 1989, the film industry was entirely subsidized by the state -- a relationship that yielded such pearls as Closely Observed Trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966), Loves of a Blonde (Miloš Forman, 1965), and The Ear (Karel Kachňya, 1970).

Today, Czech filmmakers are sentenced to fundraising both in the private sector and through international partnerships. For the present, the deep-pocketed West is a welcome guest.

Stillking Films
PCFE Film School 
Barrandov Studios
Czech Film Center

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