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Filmmakers flock to Prague for a cheap Hollywood

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2002


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.

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"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.