Hollywood goes even further east

British studios with their world-class facilities and technical crews used to be the first choice in Europe for big-budget movies. But increasingly US film-makers are choosing to shoot in the Czech Republic. How did Prague become such a rival in just 10 years?
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The Independent Culture

Just 10 years after the fall of communism and the collapse of its subsidised film industry, Prague has become the film capital of Europe, and has succeeded in taking the lead away from Britain in attracting Hollywood producers. "Paramount, Columbia, TriStar Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox are just some of the big Hollywood names now associated with film-making in the Czech Republic," says Matous Forbelsky, a marketing manager at Prague's biggest film studios, Barrandov.

Just 10 years after the fall of communism and the collapse of its subsidised film industry, Prague has become the film capital of Europe, and has succeeded in taking the lead away from Britain in attracting Hollywood producers. "Paramount, Columbia, TriStar Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox are just some of the big Hollywood names now associated with film-making in the Czech Republic," says Matous Forbelsky, a marketing manager at Prague's biggest film studios, Barrandov.

The renaissance in the Czech film industry has meant that an array of big-budget films that would otherwise have been filmed in Britain are now being made in Prague. "The director of Shepperton Studios himself has acknowledged that we're now the biggest competitor to the British film industry in the fight to attract big American productions," says Forbelsky. "If a film comes to Prague, it's very likely to be a film that would otherwise have gone to Britain."

The Monkey King, a Hallmark production that is currently being made for the American NBC channel with a budget of almost $30m (£20m), is one such case in point, according to its producer Steven Harding: "Originally we planned to shoot the film in England, like two other films now shooting in Prague, but to get the quality of film we wanted we would have had to seriously overshoot the budget. Hence Robert Halmi, our executive producer, drew up a shortlist of cost-saving alternatives, which included Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Lithuania. And, it has to be said, Prague clearly stood out above the rest."

While Prague is clearly cheaper than Berlin, it also offers a level of expertise and facilities that, according to industry insiders, cannot be matched by countries such as Hungary, Poland and Lithuania. This, ironically, is partly thanks to the Nazi occupation of the city during the Second World War, when a number of well-equipped studios were set up to produce propaganda movies for the German war effort and to school the local Czech population in Nazi ideology.

"The history of Barrandov clearly plots the history of our country, both good and bad," says Forbelsky. "It was built during the pre-war democratic republic, by the father and uncle of the current president, Vaclav Havel. After that it fell into the hands of the Nazis, and then the communists. Now that we've returned to capitalism, it's apt that it's so popular with the Americans."

According to Forbelsky, Czech studios are at least a third cheaper than Britain's Shepperton and Pinewood studios. In addition, the monthly wage of a Czech camera crew can be as little as a quarter of that of a British crew, at about £200 a week, and highly skilled set workers can be bought for even less, according to one Czech studio manager.

"We've had one artist working on set-building for the last two months who's been earning about as much in a week as his British counterparts earn in a day," he explains, "and he just happens to be a famous Czech sculptor. How can the British hope to compete with that?"

Most of the six major films currently being made in Prague do include a small contingent of British crew members, as well one British director, the veteran Peter MacDonald, whose name is associated with blockbuster film series such as Batman, Superman and Rambo. "If you walk down the corridor at Prague's film studios you're likely to meet five or more famous film-makers, all working on different films," says MacDonald. "By contrast, I was in pre-production at Pinewood before I came here, and the place was deserted - and there's nothing sadder than an empty film studio."

According to MacDonald, it is not only a cheap, highly skilled labour force that makes Prague so attractive, but also the beauty of the city itself and the locations on offer. "If you're working with a big Hollywood star used to the sort of creature comforts of LA, then it may be difficult to put forward somewhere like Bucharest or Warsaw as a serious option. But Prague doesn't have that problem and, what's more, it has some fantastic locations."

From Hell, a Twentieth Century Fox production that stars Johnny Depp and is directed by the Hughes brothers, is yet another film with a budget running into the tens of millions that fled British shores to come to Prague, partly on account of the locations on offer. It is based on the graphic novel about Jack the Ripper by Alan Moore.

"If you want to create Victorian London, as in the film From Hell, or medieval England as in the big Columbia picture which is also shooting in Prague, then the truth is that you're better off doing it here than in Britain," claims Steven Harding. "Considering what's on offer in terms of studio cost and locations, it really is no surprise that Prague is currently the film capital of Europe."

Ironically, it is the four decades of oppression under communist rule which have saved many of the country's prized film locations from modernising restorations, and which has done much to enchant Hollywood producers.

Not all Czechs are jubilant about the American invasion of their film industry, however. "For the last 10 years, our TV sets have been pumping out US culture," says Jan Andel, a Czech film-maker. "And now we're even making their films for them. As a result, the price of studio space and equipment has rocketed, meaning that we can no longer afford to make our own movies."

In reality however, the Czech Republic still makes an enviable number of its own films every year, and the current Hollywood investment has done much to modernise the Czech film industry and to expand its skill-base. "There are one or two areas where the Czech film industry is lacking," explains Peter MacDonald. "Visual effects is one of them; another is the number of top-notch crews at their disposal. But the fact is that the US films being made here are expanding and improving the skills of Czech crews all the time. Once they have those skills, they can go on to make Czech movies, and whether it's a porn film, an arty B-movie or a blockbuster, the quality is sure to be high."

Ultimately, however, it is not beautiful locations and highly-skilled labour that have made Prague so attractive to Hollywood producers, but rather cheap labour and a lack of unionisation, qualities which have similarly convinced other labour-intensive industries to relocate to Central and Eastern Europe.

"While I've been here, one Czech worker fell off a ladder painting a set, and broke his back," said one British crew member currently working on a film in Prague. "He's not entitled to any compensation from what we've heard, and so we had a whip-round for him. And if that's the sort of thing that makes the Czechs cheaper, I don't even want to try competing."

Prague's film studios, however, are about to be bought by a Canadian company. According to Forbelsky, this will make them attractive not just because of the cost savings, but also on account of the latest equipment and facilities that will then become available. "With the investment that we're expecting, we're planning to build newer, bigger studios, as well as new sound studios and visual effects facilities, that will all be state-of-the-art," says Forbelsky. "While we're currently enjoying a lot of success at the expense of our competitors such as the British, we know that there's still a lot to be done."

More worrying for the British film industry is the fact that American production companies such as Hallmark, which makes up to 30 films a year, are now also investing in new studios in Budapest, and there are signs that British productions are now also heading east.

"We've also attracted a lot of business from smaller UK productions," says one Czech studio producer, "with films such as Plunkett and Maclean, starring Robert Carlyle, and the BBC's The Scarlet Pimpernel, which has been here again filming a follow-up with Richard E Grant."

The current boom in the Czech film industry has been compared to Britain in the 1970s, when the likes of George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg set up shop in London to avoid the high prices in Hollywood, and thereby revitalised the British film industry.

The director Peter MacDonald, however, who has experienced the highs and lows of the British film industry over the past several decades, is far from worried by Czech competition. "In film, everything is relative to the cost of Hollywood," he says. "I once worked on a Hollywood film in which the lead actress's make-up artist earned more each week than a four-man British camera crew.

"But nobody's cheap forever, and like the British film industry, which is regularly written off and yet always manages to bounce back, it remains to be seen whether the Czechs have the wherewithal to stay in the running once the American trend for making films in this part of the world has passed on."

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