Sunday, March 19, 2023

Production Booms in Prague as Safety, Incentives Lure Shoots

From the din of vehicle crashes and the crack of automatic weapons fire heard around Prague’s Old Town of late, you’d hardly think — once you realize these are blanks and epic film stunts — the city has seen a COVID slowdown in location filming at all.

True, case numbers are impressively low in the Czech Republic this summer, but well before Netflix’s “The Gray Man” rolled in for a 91-day shoot using street locations all over the city, business was brisk.

Prague/L.A.-based production house Stillking alone has what’s on track to match or surpass 2019, its biggest year ever. Recent credits include Marvel Studios/Disney Plus actioner “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” HBO political intrigue “Oslo,” Lionsgate Holocaust drama “The White Bird,” Season 2 of Legendary Television/Amazon fantasy detective series “Carnival Row” and TBS historical comedy show “Miracle Workers.”

Other Prague-based companies such as Film United have teamed on Season 3 of Amazon’s “Hanna,” British time loop show “Extinction” filmed here and post house PFX has been booked with Netflix’s animated fantasy series “Magic: The Gathering.”

HBO’s Jay Roewe, senior VP of production planning and incentives, says despite challenging times, the Czech shoot for “Oslo,” offered “an array of historic, beautiful locations” that allowed the crew “to create a stunning portrayal of the events depicted within the film.”

International productions really shut down in Prague just at the start of the COVID pandemic for about three months in spring 2020, says Stillking’s head of production David Minkowski.

“Other than that lull, we were really non-stop,” he says, crediting the local authorities for placing high value on the booming film sector and granting travel ban exceptions to incoming casts and crews in exchange for thorough on-set health checks and precautions.

With crews of some 200 flown in from the U.S. complementing an army of 450 hired locally just for Netflix’s big-budget, star-driven thriller “The Gray Man,” the smooth flow of talent was no small factor in productivity.

Adapted from the novel by Mark Greaney, “The Gray Man” team and directors Anthony and Joe Russo chose to go all in on the Prague settings of the original spy vs. spy story of a rogue CIA agent (Ryan Gosling) pursued across Europe and Asia by his rival (Chris Evans), shooting on location exteriors almost entirely. Film also stars Ana de Armas, Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton and Alfre Woodard.

The project’s executive producer, Patrick Newall, who describes the Czech locales as “breathtaking in scale, scope and design,” adds that crew competence was top-notch.

Prague transit and city hall authorities were also receptive to the demands of Netflix’s most expensive production ever, a $200 million venture and the streamer’s answer to the Bond franchise — one it hopes will outpace that historic goldmine.

As for explaining the unprecedented boom times, Minkowski posits that, aside from the global surge in productions to fuel the growth and expansion of streaming platforms, the backlog of projects that were delayed last year is a major factor.

But what really helped Prague shoots in particular, he says, is that “we had incredible support from the government. They worked out very quickly how to operate and get people in despite the E.U.-wide ban.”

That’s fortunate, he adds, because “the thing about our industry is, we can’t stop. Even if theaters are closed, you still have screens. We will figure out how to operate under unimaginable conditions. Our industry as a whole figured out how to make a safe work space and make our movies.”

Big-scale productions have, if anything, found the timing of their shoots in the Czech city to be ideal, as Prague’s usual summer tourist crowds have still not returned and a surfeit of crew talent is available owing to layoffs in other industries over the past year.

Unemployed hotel concierges in particular were a boon for Stillking, says Minkowski, noting they can find anything the production needed quickly.

The large number of projects also reflects new capabilities, say local producers, who note that crew base and a talent influx are expanding constantly.

Many, in classic Czech tradition, have viewed the tidal wave of inbound projects with a mix of grumbling and acknowledgement of the benefits. With only one major studio in Prague, the historic Barrandov — which was founded in 1931 — it’s increasingly difficult for homegrown, low-budget productions to get much space there.

Indeed, when factoring in Hungary’s offering of several large, new studios, it’s no wonder so many Prague shoots are now hitting the streets — and locales just as remarkable nearby, such as the Kacina and Dobris castles used by HBO’s atmospheric “Oslo” along with an ornate baroque monastery in Doksany.

A major new studio “would be ideal for Prague,” say Minkowski and others.

Watching traffic disruptions and tram redirections to accommodate major action sequences filming in July, some in Prague have questioned why major Western studios need to dominate the sector to the extent they have.

But Czech producer Pavel Strnad, who serves on the board of the Audiovisual Producers Assn., counsels patience and the long view.

Major incoming projects are worth the headaches, he argues, but adds that locals would benefit more if foreign productions were required to commit to a minimum number of local trainees on crews.

“The crew training should be part of the tax incentives — the industry will benefit from that in the first place.”

While continuously tweaked, the 20% cash rebate offered for projects shooting in the Czech Republic have indeed been a success story, says Czech Film Commission director Pavlina Zipkova, noting the pot has recently been sweetened by $13.9 million for a current annual total of $55.7 million.

Strnad also says the demands of incoming shoots have now reached the point where the city urgently needs a dedicated film office to facilitate permits and access to the city’s famously gorgeous and varied settings.

“There should be someone with the film expertise who can work also on political level on the city side,” he says.

The Czech Film Commission is the main point of contact for inquiries from abroad, but Zipkova agrees a film office should now be added to the infrastructure.


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