The four musketeers stand alone

V4 countries in the European film market

5 November 2013

At the beginning of summer 2013, David Ondříček’s movie In the Shadow came to Polish screens. The author of Samotári, very popular here over a decade ago, this time presents a stylish film noir set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. The Polish cinematographer Adam Sikora was director of photography, the Polish Film Institute the co-producer, two Polish regional film funds also supported the project, and some of the pictures of the film set in Prague were actually shot in Łódź. Ondříček’s last film naturally raises questions about the Visegrad Four cooperating in the field of cinema, which seems most natural in view of their geographical proximity and similarity in historical experience, yet in practice surprisingly rarely becomes a reality.

Interestingly, it was not much better in socialist times, when these countries were part of the Eastern bloc and the internationalist friendship of the brotherly nations was officially decreed. In the late 1960s, Poles and Hungarians were planning a lavish historical super-production dealing with the hero of both nations – General Bem – but the project fell through as potentially politically dangerous, and the decision was made, as industry memory goes, in Moscow. Similarly, an attempt to make a movie about another common hero, Janosik/Ondraszek, this time a Polish-Slovak film, proved unsuccessful during the socialist era. In its way stood a dramatically different, as it turned out, perception of the main character on both sides of the Tatra border separating the potential co-producers. Cooperation with the other film industry of the Czechoslovak state had a little more endurance. Its result was the comedy Zadzwońcie do mojej żony/Co řekne žena?, and Barnadovo was the location for Aleksander Ford’s Border Street. Of the latter film, Edward Zajicek, the unrivaled, unofficial chronicler of the history of Polish cinema, writes that the result of the collaboration between the director and Czechoslovak editor “was not only an exemplary composition of picture and sound, but also the new Czechoslovak citizen” (Poza ekranem 211). This cooperation was perhaps the most prolific of the four socialist co-production attempts of cinematography.

The situation has not changed much since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In fact, the only significant phenomenon was the considerable popularity of the Czech cinema in Poland, especially among the younger Polish audience. In Poland today there is a kind of Czech cinema complex, as one faring better than the Polish counterpart in the last two decades, just as the Czech footballers and hockey players fared much better than their counterparts from Poland. The reasons for these feelings of inferiority are manifold: the Czechs, at least for the first decade after the change of the regime, had far greater success on the international scene (headed by Oscar-winning Jan Svěrák’s Kolya and a nomination for Hřebejk for Divided We Fall) and in international distribution; an interesting group of filmmakers of the younger generation has come to the fore on the Vltava River, but especially envied was their spécialité de la maison: the light, cheerful, and unpretentious contemporary comedies, so beloved on the Vistula River, the admiration for which always went hand-in-hand with assertions of the severe lack of this type of production in Polish cinema. Hungarian cinema, on the other hand, almost completely disappeared from the sight of Polish audiences, and even Polish critics.

Interestingly, these feelings of inferiority to the Czechs are based on false premises and a gaze limited only to local conditions. As the market data shows, Czech films gained audiences in only three European countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, and all Visegrad cinematography faces the same basic problem, namely, the inability to enter into the international cinema circuit. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, films from Central and Eastern Europe accounted for less than one percent of the movies in cinemas in Western Europe and attracted less than one-tenth of a percent of viewers. The only guarantee of achieving wider distribution for a film from the region is success in one of the three major festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) or in the Oscar race, but the films of the Visegrad countries did not see these too often in the last two decades.

Despite the popularity of Czech cinema on the Vistula and their decent artistic level, the two productions carried out in cooperation with the Czechs, with directors leading in popularity ratings, The Brothers Karamazov (2008, dir. Petr Zelenka, 40% Polish contribution to the budget) and the already mentioned In the Shadow (2012, dir. David Ondříček, 13% Polish contribution), have had very limited success both on the Vistula and the Vltava, yielding less at the box-office in both markets than earlier Czech productions by both directors. The impression is that these productions were considered remote by both national audiences; perhaps the incompatibility of the two films with a simple stereotype of Czech cinema operating in Poland also interfered with their reception. This is perhaps even more saddening, because co-production cooperation within the Visegrad community seems to be one of the best coping mechanisms for the medium-sized industries in the four countries. In the “global Hollywood” reality, productions from the U.S. rule supreme in the markets of all European countries (roughly 70 percent share of the individual national markets), and local output is viewed besides. In other words, Europeans, without exception, appreciate their native and the American cinema, and the productions of the Old Continent, using the industry terms “does not travel well.”

The joint potential of the four countries looks quite good. They have a strong tradition; at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century these, for at least a decade, belonged to the leading cinematographers in the world. Now, the economic situation of Polish cinema after years of turbulence and transition since 1989 has healed, and each year it produces well over thirty feature films, even up to forty. In the Czech Republic, twenty-five to thirty feature films are produced each year, and more than twenty were being produced in Hungary until the film industry fell into a financial crisis in the last few years. Slovaks make up to ten features each year. This adds up to almost a hundred films produced every year in the region, with strong public support and a market of 65 million potential viewers, and with good growth prospects (with citizens of the Visegrad countries statistically buying about one ticket per citizen per year; the European average is two tickets per year and progress in this direction, up until now rather slow, is expected). This potential is also defined by possibilities for combining the budgets of projects through co-production, and, it would seem, a reservoir of historically and culturally close audiences. Visions of the Visegrad cinema pooling resources up until now have turned out to be a pipe dream, because industries of the four countries apparently do not seem to see each other as any closer than most other European industries, and it is difficult to indicate an above-average number of co-productions, which would go numerically or qualitatively beyond projects undertaken jointly with Germany, Russia, or the UK.

Linda Beath, a specialist in co-financing, divides the Old Continent into five distinct geographical and cultural areas, with a specific yet slightly different approach to markets, budgets, and international cooperation. These areas are: industrial (central), Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Southern European, and Eastern European (including the Visegrad countries, Baltic States, former Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria).

The Visegrad countries land in one “basket” but, first, Beath argues that the Polish film industry has been growing rapidly since the creation of the Polish Film Institute in 2005 and gradually coming to the specifics and financial levels of the central region, and, secondly, the issue of co-production is still, in her view, one of the biggest weaknesses of the Eastern European area (but, it must be added, a potential for future development). The model for the region certainly could be Scandinavia and institutional arrangements developed there. The Nordic countries traditionally maintain a strong position on the European film market, and what’s more they are very happy to co-produce with each other, creating a clearly distinct cinematic area. They cooperate with each other on such a regular basis that they encourage local producers to be even more daring and go beyond the region. Scandinavia has both a regional institution that supports the production and distribution on the basis of public funds (Nordisk Film & TV Fund), as well as a private company with a century-old tradition of specializing in regional co-production, having strong local offices in the three countries and a partnership agreement with independent studios in Hollywood (Nordisk Film). Nordic countries also benefit from the expert support of researchers and practitioners who meet at conferences such as the Scandinavian Think Tank, willing to think about film in terms of the region, not just individual national industries.

Meanwhile, in the Visegrad countries, there are no funds or even legislation to support co-productions in the region. The modest history of joint ventures in recent years is rather rich in artistic and market failures rather than spectacular successes. Although model in financial terms, the co-production by all four countries of the region Janosik: True Story, directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik, proved a defeat on both counts, as was the Polish-Czech comedy Operation Danube by Jacek Glomb, rather awkwardly trying to present in a comic convention the intervention of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Strawberry Wine by Dariusz Jablonski was funded in co-production with Slovakia, and Piotr Mularuk’sYuma was co-produced with the Czech Republic. The effects of regional co-production projects undertaken without the participation of Poland seem to have fared slightly better. The Czech-Slovak Lidice (2011, dir. Peter Nikolaev) and the Slovak-Czech-Hungarian Bathory, with minority British and American input (2008, dir. Juraj Jakubisko), proved to be successful, at least in terms of audiences.

An interesting phenomenon for Central Europe is the so-called “runaway productions” by Hollywood studios, done wholly or partly outside the United States. The Czech Republic and Hungary were for years among the European leaders in this type of prestigious order for production services, and in this respect far outdoing Poland, lacking appropriate regulatory incentives. In this respect there is competition, not cooperation between the countries of the region. The Czech Republic has gained immense popularity as a great location, with well-trained crews and flexible employment rules already in the 1990s. Since then, Mission ImpossibleBourne IdentityCasino Royale, and The Chronicles of Narnia, among others, were filmed in and around Prague, and it has been called the “Hollywood of the East,” not without reason. In 2004, Hungary passed a law allowing filmmakers a twenty percent return on expenditures incurred in the country at the time of shooting, which was a very attractive incentive for foreign producers and led to a boom in the Hungarian film industry. Titles such as MunichHellboy IIGood Day to Die Hard and the flagship co-production project for the region, the Borgias, were shot in Budapest and its surroundings. The press discourse brought another impressive moniker, this time it was the “Hollywood on the Danube.”

It’s hard to conceal the rivalry aspect here. In 2008, an official report of the Czech Ministry of Culture presented in graphs a meaningful decline in foreign investment in Czech cinematography, correlated with Hungarian regulations and enhanced by a simulation of the investment, had the Czech Republic not lost it to its neighbor (Report on the Czech Cinematography 38-39). In 2010, a similar legal regulation granting a return of twenty percent of expenditure on production was passed on the Vltava. Nevertheless, it failed to recover the position of the only regional hegemon. This is best evidenced by the case of the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) by Tomas Alfredson – a great adaptation of the classic spy novel by John le Carré. An important sequence of the novel is a Cold War secret mission in Prague and Brno. Meanwhile, in the cinema version, in contrast to the original and a previous BBC miniseries, said secret mission takes place in Budapest. As it turns out, the fight of the audiovisual industries for the prestigious and lucrative orders in production services is even able to change the paths of British spies.

It would be difficult then to speak of a wider-ranging regional cooperation in the Visegrad countries. Film industries in the four countries still operate in the national interest, and international co-operation is undertaken on a European scale, in a free process of selecting a partner for each project, in which regional community is not a decisive factor. Similarly, while global players perceive the geographical region as a whole, investments are made in the framework of national boundaries and regulations. HBO Europe has fifteen continental branches, including four in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania). Each of the units operates its own production projects and there are no permanent, regular forms of cooperation between them.

What emerges is a question common to all other attempts to integrate the region of Central and Eastern Europe: what benefits that go beyond those offered by cooperation with major countries of Western Europe can individual players gain by a common project? It seems that the only factor capable of the cinematic integration of the Visegrad countries would be based on Scandinavian institutional and financial solutions, in the form of a special fund for co-production in the region. But this, of course, does not come free. The effectiveness of such measures, however, seems to be foreshown by the case of the Czech comedy entitled Polish Film (2012). The Czech director, Marek Najbrt, could not get the budget over on the Vltava. His prize of one hundred thousand dollars at the Off Plus Camera Festival in Cracow came to the rescue, and an additional 1 million zlotys to launch his next film was granted by the PFI, with the provision that he organize the shooting in Poland. Najbrt changed the scenario by introducing auto-thematic elements into the script (trials and tribulations with the filming of the movie, and the need for it to be made in Poland), and the charming comedy moved its setting to Cracow, pretending to be Brno.

The streams of funding and institutional arrangement can bring about such funny effects and perhaps set a feeling of artificiality, yet it is difficult to point out another way to integrate Central European film industries. Without such solutions, the Four Visegrad Musketeers will compete separately to gain entry into international circulation and distribution to a wide audience and, on the other hand, to the notebooks and databases of Hollywood producers. In the latter case, it is impossible to hide the fact that the musketeers are not only fighting separately, but turning their swords upon each other.


The author is a lecturer at Adam Mickiewicz University and Film School in Lodz. Author of the book Globalne Hollywood, filmowa Europa i polskie kino po 1989 roku [Global Hollywood, European Film and Polish Cinema after 1989] (2010).

The article was originally published in Visegrad Insight vol. 2 (4) 2013.