Prague

By Krosnar, Katka; Piore, Adam et al. | Newsweek International, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Prague


Krosnar, Katka, Piore, Adam, Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


In a blizzard-swept forest, 600 Allied soldiers trudge through frozen mud toward the Stalag 3 prison camp. Inside the barracks, an American GI looks through a window as German guards drag his struggling buddy beyond view. A shot rings out. The camera rolls. And MGM counts the savings. Shooting "Hart's War" in a Bohemian forest north of Prague cost MGM just $70 million, and more than a quarter of that went to star Bruce Willis. "I sold the movie to MGM on the basis that it could be made for the price of two cheeseburgers and a Coke," says "Hart's War" producer David Ladd, relaxing during a break in filming.

These days it seems the secret ambition of every other city in the world is to be a big-time film producer. But in a world sprouting low- rent alternatives to Hollywood, the buzz is all about Prague. Fleeing high costs, strict work rules and actor and writer strikes at home, U.S. studios are farming out more and more work to locales from Cambodia to Canada--but no would-be Hollywood is hotter right now than the graceful capital of the Czech Republic. In the past 18 months, six of the seven major American studios have used Prague as an all-purpose European backdrop. The city doubled as both Zurich and Paris for a Universal spy thriller, "The Bourne Identity," starring Matt Damon; as fifth-century England in "The Mists of Avalon," a TNT-Warner Brothers television drama, and as London in "From Hell," an updated Jack the Ripper tale from Twentieth Century Fox with Johnny Depp. Anthony Hopkins is on the way to play a CIA agent in "Black Sheep" for Disney, and Wesley Snipes arrives this week to reprise his cartoon-based crimefighter in "Blade II."

The one city Prague has not played in the American movies lately is itself. With medieval architecture that survived World War II, and a film industry that kept its talents alive under communism, Prague is way ahead of East European rivals like Budapest and Warsaw. The fairy- tale city, complete with a ninth-century castle overlooking the Vltava Bridge, made $100 million serving as a set for American movies last year, double that the year before. It is stealing productions away from the real London, Paris and even Berlin--despite heavy government investment in the former East German studios at Babelsberg. Prague's attractions are timely. "A lot has to do with what's in vogue," says Paul Rayman, film commissioner in Alberta, Canada, which can't begin to compete with Prague's mix of Baroque, Gothic and neoclassical buildings. "They can do 16th century, 17th century, 18th century. When Westerns are in vogue, that helps us. Right now World War II movies are kind of big. So people go to Europe and places like Prague."

It's a classic movie revival. The former Czechoslovakia had perhaps the strongest filmmaking tradition in Eastern Europe, and certainly the most vibrant during and after the communist period. In the thaw leading to the Prague Spring of 1968, the authorities gave producers like Milos Forman freedom to produce widely heralded films like "Closely Watched Trains." Even after the Soviets cracked down, the Czech industry remained productive, if not as creative, churning out up to 45 films a year. Most came out of Europe's second largest film studio, Barrandov in Prague, which was founded in 1931 by the father and uncle of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright-president. The studio fell quiet after the Velvet Revolution toppled the communist state (and its film subsidies), and now it is back. "The boom all started with Barrandov studios. Other countries in this region just don't have that kind of studio facility," says David Minkowski, head of film at the Stillking production company, which has operations throughout Eastern Europe.

Outsiders started to take notice after a Czech production, "Kolya," won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1996. First came European pop-music videos and commercials, then American TV films, then independent films, followed finally by the big Hollywood productions.

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