Behind the scenes, a ‘subsidy war’ is raging in Central Europe among national film commissions, which have been steadily sweetening rebates and incentives to attract lucrative Hollywood and other foreign productions. Czech Film Commissioner Pavlína Žipková says 2018 was a record year in spending and shooting days, with foreign productions – especially TV series – drawn in by top-notch crews, services and “eleven centuries of architecture” for locations.
Pavlína Žipková had been working the commercial side of production for nearly two decades before joining the Czech Film Commission in late 2016. She line produced commercials and music videos, and scores of documentaries and feature films, including one nominated for an Oscar and the cult horror film ‘Hostel’. Before getting to the current business climate, I asked her how she got her own start in film.
“I didn’t study film. I studied at a high school of economics, and after the leaving exams I didn’t really know what to do. Then there was an advert in some newspaper and people were looking for crew on some independent film. And I always liked film, culture, liked to read books, things like that. I answered the ad and was very honest. I said I hadn’t really done anything yet because I was 18 or 19 years old. But I fell in love with the director. So, I thought, ‘Okay, this is wonderful. I just need to do my best’.”
Just to clarify … You fell in love with the director’s work – or with the director?
“With the director himself! (laughs) So I studied during the night as well because I wanted to be really good – and they accepted me as an assistant. But it was a freelance job – not a job, really, because it was an independent film, a short film. But this is how it started. Then, later, I fell out of love with the director and fell in love with the work.
“I think it was in 1994 or 1995, something like that. At the time, I would say there were only about 20 production companies in Prague. I only had had this experience with that short film, but I wrote a CV explaining in colour all the work I did on this short film. I visited all of the production companies – without making phone calls, without making prior arrangements – I was standing at the reception desk of each one, insisting that I wanted to see the manager or someone that I need a job.
“Out of these 20 production companies, three accepted me. So I picked one and started working as a production assistant on commercials – mostly foreign productions – and within a year, I was a production manager. That’s basically how it all started. And I was doing that for 10 years, and later on films and documentaries.”
I read that you spent some time in the UK and also in Namibia. Was that film-related?
“None of that was film-related, actually. The UK was right after high school. I stayed in London as an au pair. Namibia was an entirely different experience. My partner at the time was Namibian, and he actually ran a petrol station in Namibia, in Okahandja. So I became a manager of a petrol station there – for two years!”
Did you learn any valuable life lessons there?
“Very invaluable, actually. We had 30 employees and it was open 24/7. And as you can imagine, everything is different over there, basically. Everything. But wonderful – I have great memories of that time.”
What was the first feature film that you worked on?
“It was ‘Hostel’ – the Eli Roth horror film.”
And what was that like?
“Amazing! It was an amazing experience. My first time with a large American production, basically.”
Typically, working on films, you have a very intense period of a few months, half a year, and then maybe nothing. How did you spend your off time?
“Well, in waves, really. Mostly in bed, staring at the ceiling or at the heavens! (laughs) It’s a strange life. You have these periods where you work more than extremely hard and then there is this quiet – and you really need a long quiet time.”
What was the first documentary you worked on – and how was that experience?
“It was ‘Joan of Arc: Child of War, Soldier of God’, directed by Pamela Mason Wagner. It was very, very low-budget, despite the fact that it was American. I was the main producer on it, so I really could do what I wanted – I wasn’t working with 10 other producers. So that was great. It was sort of a small shoot and an intimate crew. I was with it from the very start, from helping the director with the script, writing it so that it was adjusted to certain Czech locations that played French locations, obviously. So, that was my first baby, really – I consider it my first baby rather than ‘Hostel’, actually.
“Yeah, but very successful!”
So, this all sounds like very good preparation for the work you are doing now. You joined the Czech Film Commission –
“Two and a half years ago, in November 2016.”
And you’ve been the Commissioner for a bit over a year.
“A year and a few months.”
What did you expect going into it, and how has it turned out to be?
“A stable job! That was the first thing I expected, and that’s correct – it is. And the fact that you have a filmmaking background and experience with foreign productions is extremely valuable for the job because in the Czech environment, you cannot study to become a Film Commissioner. You really need to learn everything from the first steps. So having a filmmaking background – a physical production background – is really good.”
If there is anything like a typical week for you, what would that be?
“Well, there is nothing like a typical week. That’s the thing. There are some similarities with the production work. I can probably say that I spend 60 percent of my time in the office and 40 percent I spend travelling, not just the world but in the Czech Republic as well.”
“What we’re trying to do, the main mission of the Czech Film Commission, is to promote the services of Czech filmmakers abroad – we want to attract foreign investment. We go to foreign producers and say, ‘Look, this is the best country, the best location for your work. Please come and film here!’
“What we also do is try to explore new locations within the Czech Republic that have not been shot yet, or only very rarely. We have a network of regional Film Offices, there are 11 now all over the Czech Republic, and with their help, we try to promote these places to producers – to local producers as well.”
In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the benefits of film tourism – people see a TV series or film, and they want to visit the actual locations, Have you seen a rise in that? Is it something you work on, for example with the state agency CzechTourism?
“Not with the CzechTourism agency but with the regional Film Offices. If they have a successful shoot, a successful film – or TV series, mostly, these days – we try to educate them on how they can help the film production or main producer to promote their work. Like now, the extremely successful series ‘Most!’ which was shot in that city is going to be a shining example. We are working on that because it has only just finished broadcasting on Czech TV.”
That’s a Czech production and targeted really at Czech audiences, I would think. But I understand that in recent years there have been a lot of Danish, German, French and other productions. How does the Czech Republic compete against other Central European locations?
“Well, we try to compete with the incentives, which are now actually one of the lowest in Europe because we offer 20 percent. But alongside the incentives – which were not in place before and might not be in future – what we really can build on is the history of the cinema. Czech filmmakers have always been working, had a chance to work with foreign productions from the States, the UK, England, Germany, France.”
“So, they are top in the world, really, in all fields involved in the filmmaking process. So that’s the great asset we have – not just people who are skilled with their hands, but great heads of departments who can lead foreign productions – DOPs, production designers, make-up artists, costume designers. All these people are extremely skilled.”
“So that’s one thing. The other big plus is locations. We have eleven centuries of architecture that you can film over here. You can even film a ‘sea’ sequence on these huge lakes. We have mountains, rivers, fields – and we have four distinct seasons. So these are all great benefits – especially to American productions.”
I also wanted to ask you about the European Film Commission Network (EUFCN), which you joined not long ago. You are allies, and yet you are rivals. How does that work?
“Well, it’s quite interesting that you see it like that – and I probably would see it like that if I were from the outside. But we are friends, really. We are trying to help each other because even though since the incentives were established we really have something now that you could call a ‘subsidy war’—all the countries around us are raising the incentives, raising the percentage.”
“But when we sit down with all these Film Commissioners, and we have now 93 members in 28 European countries, we share experiences and are able to learn one from another. And when there is a country trying to establish their system, they invite us and we teach them how a Film Commission can work, what is its purpose, who should they approach, how sensitive it is – how friendly they need to be with the politicians, especially, and things like that. So, within the Film Commissioners family, you don’t feel competition, at all.”
You mentioned that the Czech level of incentives is still rather low, at 20 percent. Could you briefly summarize what it means to a foreign filmmaker?
“Well, the world quite changed when the first incentives were established because before that foreign filmmakers used to set the budget before they decided to go to a foreign country and film there. Now what happens quite often is that they don’t really do that – they look at the percentage of the incentives, which in some cases doesn’t really make sense because there are still quite huge differences in the costs in each country. Like if you compare the Czech Republic with France, their crews and services are about 40 or 50 percent more expensive. So, if you think about it like that, it’s really interesting, because you need both – you need incentives but also to know the prices of services and crews.”
What are some of the TV series and films that have shot in recent months that international audiences can look forward to seeing?
“For example, there is ‘Whiskey Cavalier’, which is wrapping now but the pilot is out already. Prague subs for Paris and Moscow. And we wrapped ‘Knightfall’ by the end of 2018. It’s the second part of a medieval story about the Templar Knights. There have been so many – I just don’t know which to name first!”
Foreign productions spent a record 1,072 shooting days in the country last year, about 200 more than in recent years. Foreign filmmakers and TV crews spent nearly 5 billion crowns in the Czech Republic in 2018, a jump of nearly 2 billion crowns compared to 2017. The state paid out only 800 million crowns through the incentives scheme, a solid return on investment.