The western edge of Uhelny Trh, a small cobbled square in Prague's historic center, was a curious sight last week. A fruit and vegetable market had sprouted in an alley better known for its doorways of ill-repute, under a distinctly French street sign inscribed "rue Martin." A few passing tourists tried to buy fruit, but a gleaming new Japanese sedan and the movie camera gave away the game -- another TV commercial was being filmed in Prague.
A few miles away, the Hollywood heart-throb Matt Damon was stalking a film set in a Miramax production about the fairy-tale writing Brothers Grimm. A few weeks earlier, a nearby Prague courtyard had been transformed into the Munich beer garden where Adolf Hitler took control of the Nazi party in 1933.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Prague has emerged as one of the world's favorite low-price, high-quality locations for filmmakers who want to shave 30 percent or more off the cost of a major production. But as the Czech Republic prepares to join the European Union next May, producers and film service companies here fear that unless they act quickly they may soon price themselves out of the market.
"The Czech Republic shouldn't be a cheap place to shoot, but a professional place," said Pavel Strnad, chairman of the Czech Association of Audiovisual Producers and president of Negativ Film Productions. "Once we enter the EU, it won't be cheap anymore, so we have to offer something besides cheap locations."
That point came home with a jolt last year, when the Hollywood studio Miramax bypassed the Czech Republic for Romania to recreate 19th century American battlefields for the US$100 million-plus Civil War epic Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.
With its exquisitely preserved city center, and acres of unspoiled countryside dotted with well-preserved castles, Prague is a filmmaker's dream set. Equipped with two of Europe's largest soundstages, and a homegrown film industry whose technical crews are among the best in the business, Prague has become a magnet for Hollywood directors and TV commercial producers, and filmmaking has become a US$250 million a year industry in the Czech Republic, the production companies say, most of that from abroad.
The money has had a healthy effect on Prague's film infrastructure. Dozens of independent film service companies, from lighting suppliers and caterers to post-production studios have sprung up, and production companies say Prague has enough talent and equipment to manage at least four major productions simultaneously. Among the big films made here recently were Blade II with Wesley Snipes, Hart's War with Bruce Willis, action movie XXX, with action hero Vin Diesel, and Sean Connery's current big-budget antique super-hero film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
But Prague production companies, mostly run by entrepreneurs in their 30s, fear their current prosperity could end up as little more than a bubble unless they pull together to compete against other low-priced venues, and other locations that have been attracting films through strong tax incentives, like Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
"There were booms in other countries -- Italy in the 1960s, Spain in the 1970s, England in the 1980s," said Matthew Stillman, a Briton who in 1993 founded Stillking Films, which has grown to be Prague's largest production services company, and has begun co-producing films as well. "If we want to protect the production industry, we need to get things in place to smooth and ease the process of making films."