Czech Filmmakers Fight For Survival Without Subsidies

CZECHOSLOVAKIA'S once-renowned film studios are facing an uncertain future as the nation's tough economic reforms take hold. Built by the family of President Vaclav Havel before World War II, the studios were once considered the finest in Eastern Europe. But that reputation quickly faded after the communists took control of the studios after the war.

Communist ideologues turned the 600,000-square-meter complex on Barrandov hill overlooking Prague into a heavily subsidized assembly line that relentlessly churned out dreary socialist realist epics and bland, politically correct productions. The sets were also periodically rented out to Western film companies in return for desperately-needed hard currency.

Czech-born American director Milos Forman and other Czech directors shot numerous critically-acclaimed films during a brief interlude of artistic freedom in the late 1960s. That period ended in 1968 when the Prague Spring reforms were crushed by Soviet tanks. Mr. Forman's Oscar-winning "Amadeus" was later made at the Barrandov studios in 1984. Barbra Streisand's 1983 movie "Yentl" and other lesser-known Western productions were also filmed at the studios.

Before the communists were ousted from power in 1989, the government spent more than 200 million crowns ($6.6 million) a year to produce 30 domestic films. It pocketed another $7 million annually from joint venture deals with foreign filmmakers.

While censorship disappeared with the disgraced communist regime, Barrandov's executives must now find a way to keep operations afloat without benefit of government subsidies.

Legislation formally ending the state monopoly on film production is expected to be passed later this year. That, Barrandov officials say, will force cutbacks unless foreign investors are found soon to see the studios through the bumpy transition to a market economy.

The pinch is already being felt. Barrandov has laid off scores of its 2,200 workers. Films by such directors as Oscar-winner Jiri Menzel and even film versions of Havel's literary works are in jeopardy. Budget woes have already cast uncertainty on the outcome of a film version of playwright Havel's "Beggars' Opera."

"More than half of our employees are facing layoffs," says Vaclav Marhoul, Barrandov's general manager.

MR. MARHOUL and his fellow managers also have few illusions about the future.

"The era of tough competition is here to stay," says Jaroslav Boucek, the studio's economic director. "Next year we are going to be in exactly the same situation as any fledgling private film producer." The government has promised financial help to soften the transition, approving more than 100 million crowns ($3.3 million) in state grants to subsidize talented script writers and filmmakers.

"Anyone with a good script can now reasonably hope for financial help," says Mr. Boucek, who estimates that about 15 films could be made with the aid of such grants each year.

Boucek says the state subsidies are designed to cover a maximum of half the production costs, with the remaining half financed by the producer.

Even with such help, officials admit that Barrandov will have little chance of long-term survival without a generous foreign partner. "We simply can't go it alone," Marhoul says. "A marriage of some kind is inevitable."

Despite the difficulties, studio officials say they are optimistic. "Our main assets are a long tradition of filmmaking, skilled, but relatively cheap labor, and a new, young company image," says Marhoul.

He says about 30 projects are already under way "with solid Western backing."

But he adds: "In this business you never know for sure until the last shot is filmed."

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