PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — avid Listvan clung to the bars blocking the stairwell of the Titanic, while the people around him shouted for help. Suddenly, a frothing wave swept them all down the stairs and into darkness.
"We had a great time," Mr. Listvan recalls, as he sips a latte at a cafe in Prague. Listvan was not a passenger on the ill-fated ship; just a stuntman taking the place of expensive actors.
A multi-million-dollar film industry has made Prague, the Czech capital, a European moviemaking mecca, second only to London.
Since the fall of communism 11 years ago, hundreds of foreign productions have come here to take advantage of its extraordinarily low costs, highly skilled technicians, and stunning locations. Last year, "Hart's War," "Blade II" and "Bad Company" were all filmed here.
The British stunt director for Titanic in 1996 hired a Czech team to do the sliding tilting decks and falling into the ocean that were considered too dangerous for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. Listvan and his colleagues at Filmka, a Czech stunt company, are now known across the Western world for doing top-notch work for a fraction of the usual price.
Foreign producers spend up to $200 million annually in Prague, but they also save tens of millions of dollars, usually from 25 to 50 percent of their overall budget including the added travel expenses, just by doing some of their production in the Czech Republic.
"The foundations of this success run deep," says Tomas Kreci, senior representative for Milk and Honey, a Prague production company. "It's not just the low costs. It's craftsmanship, facilities, and locations."
The heart of Prague's international appeal is Barrandov Studios, built in 1932 by Milos Havel, uncle to the current Czech president Vaclav Havel. Before World War II, the studios turned out several films of international acclaim, including the first "talking picture." Then, successive fascist and communist regimes used the world-class studios to produce propaganda. The occupying Germans built three large interconnecting stages, totaling 37,000 feet in shooting space, which still form the studios' core and the main attraction for foreign producers.
"There are some bigger stages at Universal or Warner Brothers," Clayton Townsend, executive producer of "Bad Company" told TIME Magazine. "But the quality and workability of the Barrandov space is equal if not superior to anything you'll find in Los Angeles."
During the communist era, Barrandov produced 70 to 80 films. A few foreign productions came to Prague even then, notably Milos Forman's US production of "Amadeus" in 1983, which received the Oscar for Best Picture.
With the return of capitalism in 1989, domestic film production dropped off dramatically. Only the massive influx of foreign films, launched with "Mission Impossible" in 1996, saved the Czech film community from the financial collapse and artistic depression that has afflicted its neighbors in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Last year, "Hart's War" with Bruce Willis, "Blade II" with Wesley Snipes, and "Bad Company" with Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock were all filmed in Prague.
The Czech Republic is still able to produce 30 domestic films a year, twice what its larger neighbors turn out. While "Blade II" had a total budget of $70 million, with just $15 million spent in Prague, most Czech features cost less than $1 million.
"Two hundred million dollars is a huge boost for our local economy," Mr. Kreci says. "You are only putting money in without taking anything out or polluting the countryside. There is no negative side effect. Film production is the ideal foreign investment."
Productions by wealthy Western studios now support thousands of Czech stunt workers, cameramen, light and sound technicians, and set designers. Listvan worked on "Saving Private Ryan" and "The World is Not Enough" abroad and, in Prague, on "Hart's War," a World War II movie that is enjoying its opening season in the United States.
Yet some analysts worry that Prague's sudden stardom may not last. Prices and labor costs are expected to rise when the Czech Republic joins the European Union in 2004. Then, the country may lose its competitive advantage and end up as just another unknown country, too small to produce even its own films.
"Eventually, a cheeseburger will cost as much in Prague as it does in Paris," says Mike Cella, an American actor and industry analyst in Prague. "At that point, you are going to see a lot of this work go away."
Last year already saw a major slump in foreign productions, though for a variety of reasons. In the spring, Prague's studios were so busy with major Hollywood productions that others were being turned away. But in the summer, US actors threatened to strike over so-called "run-away films" going to cheap locales such as Prague, and Hollywood stopped sending productions overseas for a few months.
Then came Sept. 11, and not only were there no more Hollywood films in Prague until year's end, but some that had already been finished were shelved for "inappropriate material" dealing with terrorist plots.
Norbert Auerbach, a consultant for Barrandov remains optimistic. "There are always lulls, and foreign productions don't come here just for the low prices," he says. "The quality of work here is much higher than in any other country in Central and Eastern Europe. And, as an added advantage, the labor here is not unionized."
Prague's most serious competition, according to Auerbach, comes from countries like Romania, which has an upgradeable film infrastructure and prices that undercut even Prague due to substantial state subsidies.
Listvan, however, isn't worried about his job security. "I say the sooner we join the EU, the better," he says. "Prices may rise, but we are ready to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world."