The system is working. Now we need to go beyond its borders

27. 6. 2018

Author: Martin Svoboda

Radim Procházka is a Czech film producer and director, teacher at FAMU Film School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Audiovisual Producers' Association (APA) responsible for documentary production. He sat down with the Institute of Documentary Film to speak about the current state of Czech documentary film from the perspective of a movie producer.

The main constant of Czech cinema is one that is shared across small national systems – documentaries cannot expect commercial success leading to profit. “Documentaries are on the same level as arthouse cinema – the quality and success is measurable only by awards, festival presence and TV sales,” Procházka explains.

But the Czech environment has its own specifics as well. There’s been an established system of cooperation between FAMU Film School, public Czech Television and the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. “You can learn how to shoot at FAMU, than you can produce a film with Czech Television that will air your movie after its premiere at the Jihlava Festival – one leads to the other and everyone is happy,” says Procházka. He praises mainly the festival: “Jihlava has managed to put documentaries back into cinemas, to promote them and to stir up debate.” But with the praise comes a warning: “On the other hand, this is a closed loop system and it’s the reason Czech documentaries sometimes don’t feel the need to confront the international market.”

The basic source of money for Czech documentaries is the Czech Film Fund. “In theory, you can get up to 90% of the budget from the public institutions but documentaries usually stop at 60%,” explains Procházka. “The other important thing is incentives or tax relief which can cover up to 20% of the budget, if you spend a specific amount of money.“

Reliance on the Czech Film Fund is tricky because the institution doesn’t want to hold the position of central power of Czech cinema as the state institutions did before 1989. The goal is to support several single projects but also to let enough space for the free market. One of the ways to achieve it is the thesis of “more money to fewer films.” The Fund’s Board prefers splitting the money between fewer projects. Procházka would rather see more projects getting some support but he also agrees that it is necessary for the amount to be substantial: “I’d surely prefer more money to more movies.”

In practice, the Fund definitely is the driving force of Czech documentary cinema. Its support usually forms the basis for the future budget of a movie. “That makes sense,” says Procházka, “but when you count on this support after positive evaluations and meetings and in the end don't get it, that prepared train loses its locomotive and must wait at least another half a year before the next hearing. Because many institutions, most notably Czech Television, wait for the decision of the Fund and shape their own verdict after it, there is no other way. So in the end, support from the Fund is a matter of life and death for many documentaries. And many of them end up below the limit even though everybody at the Fund likes them. That's a pity.“

According to Procházka, the Fund is fortunately in a very good shape overall. “It works so well more and more filmmakers submit their applications. There are great and respected professionals on the board and they do have quite a lot of money to give. It is necessary to be well-prepared and confident – you can’t cheat these guys.“

Because the system within its borders is functional almost as much as it can be, it is time to take the next step – international expansion of Czech cinema. “There’s been a shift in thinking over the last few years,” explains Procházka. “Czech producers finally try to deal with this aspect of distribution and promotion. It is very important we finally had three films at IDFA last year. That, of course, is not a matter of sudden change of quality of selected films – but of the fact that producers were active enough to get their movies there.

The task is not an easy one: “Karel Och, artistic director of the Karlovy Vary IFF, said to me that when he finally managed to get somebody from Sundance to visit his festival in 2006, it was hard to find a Czech producer willing to meet him. We’ve passed this point and today the situation is quite different. Czech producers travel the world and the most important festivals to make contacts and prepare sales. It will still take some time before we climb to the top – we are taking one step at a time. But we are taking them as we speak,” Procházka promises.

He disagrees with the critique of Czech international irrelevance: “Many people, filmmakers included, think only of Cannes, the Everest of festivals. But first, there are lower peaks to climb. Before we can win the Golden Palms and Oscars as Poles and Hungarians do, we must regularly confront the wider world of film festivals. And we do that. You need to give diplomacy and production quality the time they need to grow.”

The role of the conservative Czech Television, the main co-producer of documentaries, can be problematic from this point of view. It focuses on its broadcasting and doesn’t much care about international distribution through festivals. “We still need to push them a little,” says Procházka. “Czech Television is still not used to thinking about its projects in this way.”

Czech film also has the distinct problem of being out of fashion. According to Procházka: “It was quite different in the 1960s through the new wave and the early 90s after the fall of communism. We were a part of an international environment then and the world was eager to reach out to us. Today this kind of focus is directed to more important and more remote parts of the world. The competition is great in this case – almost every nation produces its own cinema.”

Czech producers benefit from the fact that several internationally relevant events take place in the country – the Jihlava IDFF, dok.incubator and the Institute of Documentary Film, whose annual East Doc Platform is the largest documentary film market in Central and Eastern Europe. “When somebody from the West wants to know what’s happening in the East, they go and check the East Doc Platform,“ believes Procházka.

Procházka’s priority in the Audiovisual Producers' Association (APA) is to fine-tune the Czech system so that it’s ready for an expansion of Czech movies beyond the local borders.

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