Czech Film in North America: Distribution and Exhibition

By Irena Kovarova (Freelance film programmer, New York)

© Irena Kovarova, 2006

Czech films have been regularly present on American screens for at least five decades. The number of locations and the specific venues for screening them has followed the changes in the access of foreign films to various types of cinemas. In this article, I will examine the situation of the past decade, during which I have lived in the United States and have first-hand experience with Czech film exhibition and distribution in this territory.

The journey of foreign films to American audiences starts in most cases through presentations on the international festival circuit. European festivals in Berlin and Cannes, and North American festivals in Toronto and Sundance are cited as those most frequently visited by American film professionals, who screen films for acquisition and sales of distribution rights, and to acquire them for screenings at local festivals or the so-called calendar cinemas.[1] Other European festivals—like the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the San Sebastian International Film Festival, or even the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival—are visited by professionals on an irregular basis, unless they are seeking special kinds of films, in which case they attend them regularly. Most of the Czech films that have been commercially distributed in American cinemas in the past decade have been screened at one of these festivals.

The presence of Czech films in North American cinemas is not frequent these days. General commercial distribution is even more infrequent and seeing these films in regular cinemas that present films in so-called first runs may even be considered a special occasion. This pattern, however, reflects what is happening with the distribution of foreign films in North America in general and cannot be attributed to a lack of quality in Czech film production, which some dissenting voices back at home see as the primary reason. With some notable exceptions, some of the best Czech films released during the last ten years have either not found a distributor or have been picked up only by small, specialized distributors.

Festivals of various kinds in North America seek out Czech films for their programs and a number of them have been screened at large festivals, such as the Toronto IFF and the Sundance FF. Over the years, however, Czech films have been presented not just at long-established festivals, but also at up-and-coming ones; along with the two mentioned above, the list includes the San Francisco IFF, Tribeca FF, AFI Fest, Palm Springs IFF, Telluride FF, Cleveland IFF, Vancouver IFF, Starz Denver IFF, and Seattle IFF, to name a few of the annual festivals—with or without a competition program, and organized as stand alone events. Last year, even the New York Film Festival included a Czech film in its program, for the first time in 27 years after it screened Věra Chytilová’s The Apple Game (Hra o jablko, 1976). It is natural that the choice of films for festivals depends on the tastes of programmers and their wish to present audiences with the widest variety of world cinema, to which, in the eyes of many American programmers, Czechs filmmakers make a significant contribution. The programmers, of course, are not forced to make decisions on the basis of profitability and the financial success of the films they select is not an issue.

Next to these large annual events, there is a multitude of festivals around North America attached to calendar house programs, such as the New Directors/New Films organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York; the various European Union festivals held, for instance, in Chicago, Washington DC, and a number of cities in Canada; and other regular programs that survey a certain kind of cinema and include Czech films on some recurrent basis. Another type of exhibition venue for Czech films are the regular or irregular series that focus exclusively on Czech films, frequently including a thematic or directorial retrospective. The demand for such programming is constant and finding an interested programmer for such series is not difficult. One of the organizers of such touring series, the Czech Center New York (where I had worked for five years), has been quite successful in presenting Czech cinema in North America through this avenue. In the past ten years, there have been more than 15 retrospectives and series of Czech films that have been brought to American shores and presented on tour in the US and Canada, each in at least five venues.

At the heart of this success is the interest of programmers who are well aware of the quality of Czech films and filmmakers, and who frequently take on the role of curators and initiators of such film series. These series have been screened in important venues for foreign cinema, such as the AFI Theaters in Los Angeles and Silver Spring (formerly in Washington DC); Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, Museum of Modern Art, and Museum of the Moving Image in New York; the American Cinémathèque and UCLA in Los Angeles; The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinémathèque; Facets Cinémathèque and Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago; Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; Northwest Film Center in Portland; Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver; Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley; Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus; Cinémathèque Ontario in Toronto; Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal; among many others. Last but not least, among the series screening Czech films in America regularly is the annual New Czech Films program at BAMcinématek, presented each fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and co-produced by the Czech Center New York, which will see its seventh edition this year.

The touring packages of films (7-10 on average with the largest series comprising more than 30 films) included retrospectives of filmmakers—Věra Chytilová, Pavel Juráček, Karel Kachyňa, Jiří Menzel, František Vláčil, Jan Švankmajer, and Karel Zeman—and thematic series such as the Czechoslovak New Wave, Czech Animated Films, and Czech Horror and Fantasy on Film. Rare Bohemians, a series of six films produced in the past decade, is currently on tour and a retrospective of Czech films from the period 1926 to1949 will start touring in December 2006.

On many occasions American journalists have stated that commercial distribution of foreign films in North America is facing a steady decline. No exceptions are made for Czech films, and the fact that distributors are increasingly wary of taking chances on “small European films” is clearly demonstrated by the fact that so many deserving Czech films have been left out. Even distributors that have acquired challenging films that eventually succeeded in mainstream cinemas—as, for example, Zeitgeist Films did with Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika; dir. Caroline Link, 2001), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002—still do not theatrically distribute large numbers of films in any given year (in the case of Zeitgeist Films, the number is between 5 and 7 feature-length films, which also includes documentaries).

Even though there is quite a hunger for Czech films from the period of the Czechoslovak New Wave in calendar cinemas, selling new Czech films to distributors and booking them in first-run cinemas can be quite a challenge. Out of the 1,200-plus foreign language films distributed in the US in the past decade, only 11 of them were Czech (of the 219 feature films released in the Czech Republic from 1996 to August 2006). The complete list of Czech films released in the US from January 1996 to September 2006 is as follows:

Kolya (Kolja) (dir. Jan Svěrák, released by Miramax Films in 1997; Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1996)
Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti) (dir. Jan Švankmajer, released by Zeitgeist Films in 1997)
Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) (dir. Jan Hřebejk, released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2001; nominated for Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000)
Little Otik (Otesánek) (dir. Jan Švankmajer, released by Zeitgeist Films in 2001)
Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) (dir. Jan Svěrák, released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2001)
All My Loved Ones (Všichni moji blízcí) (dir. Matej Mináč, released by Northern Arts Entertainment in 2002)
Autumn Spring (Babí léto) (dir. Vladimír Michálek, released by First Look Pictures in 2003)
Želary (dir. Ondřej Trojan, released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2004; nominated for Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003)
Up and Down (Horem padem) (dir. Jan Hřebejk, released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2005)
Lunacy (Šílení) (dir. Jan Švankmajer, released by Zeitgeist Films in 2006)
Something Like Happiness (Štěstí) (dir. Bohdan Sláma, released by Film Movement in 2006).

The repetition of some names on the list (as short as it is) demonstrates two facts: distributors like to “bet on a horse” that has previously brought large profits (Jan Svěrák and Jan Hřebejk), even if he is one of youngest filmmakers in the country, and that auteur films are attractive to specialty distributors. The latter is the case of Jan Švankmajer, whose entire film production since the feature Faust (Lekce Faust, 1994) has been distributed by Zeitgeist Films. If we were to include producers in the above list, another recurring name would be that of Ondřej Trojan. His Total Help Art production house has been extremely successful in making deals with Sony Pictures Classics, brokered by Neil Friedman of Menemsha Films. Judging from interviews with Emily Russo, the Zeitgeist Films co-president, and Neil Friedman, the acquisition selection process on either end of the distribution spectrum is not very different, only their goals and audiences are. Zeitgeist Films matches its films to the niche audience consisting largely of art house cinemas, while Sony Pictures Classics targets larger, more mainstream audiences. Although personal tastes are at play, in this case they need to result in profitability. However, the box office revenues for Zeitgeist Films and Sony Pictures Classics from their respective Czech acquisitions are not comparable. For instance, Divided We Fall brought in box office receipts roughly 3.5 times more than for all three Švankmajer features combined—Faust, Conspirators of Pleasure, and Little Otik—but it was still 4 times less than Kolya earned for Miramax Films.

It would be a mistake not to mention the distribution of Czech films on video and DVD, as well as broadcasts on television. Since no exhaustive research has been conducted in this area, I will give just a few examples. Facets Multimedia is doing an outstanding job of promoting Czech cinema in the video world through its releases of Czechoslovak New Wave films on VHS-tapes and on DVDs in the NTSC-format and as a specialty online-store that distributes numerous other releases of Czech films on video; Criterion Collection has released some of the best Czech films; and all of the Czech films distributed in the U.S. theatrically are available on video or DVD through Netflix, the popular online DVD rental location serving millions of Americans. In addition, Netflix carries some Czech films that were released directly in digital formats—for instance, the horror flick Choking Hazard (Marek Dobeš, 2004). Television sometimes provides access to Czech films through pay-per-view service or even on satellite channels, like the screening of Petr Zelenka’s Wrong Side Up (Příběhy obyčejného šílenství, 2005) on Link TV. This area, however, is vast and deserves a more detailed and qualified survey.

There are distributors and audiences for all types of films in North America. The important thing is to find a suitable match and a distributor unafraid to take on a challenge. It sometimes seems that film distribution is closer to alchemy than any sort of science and sure bets can quickly turn into disasters. Even some seemingly very attractive film titles can end up being ignored by audiences and no one can explain the reasons. We should, therefore, appreciate every effort that brings Czech cinema to these shores. The hope remains that more Czech (and Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian, Polish, Russian, Romanian, and the list goes on…) films receive distribution or appear in cinemas in any way possible.

A Note on Distribution and Exhibition in the UK by Peter Hames

While the United Kingdom is a much smaller market, there are a number of parallels with the US example. Surprisingly, only nine feature films have been given a release since 1989 (compared with over 30 in the 1960s). Six of these were, however, co-productions with the UK. They include three co-productions with Portobello Pictures—The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Život a neobyčejná dobrodružství vojáka Ivana Čonkina; dir. Jiří Menzel, 1994), and Jan Svěrák’s Kolya and Dark Blue World. Three were also produced with Keith Griffiths—Jan Švankmajer’s Faust, Conspirators of Pleasure, and Little Otik. There was also British television involvement in Faust and Little Otik. The only films without British involvement have been Petr Zelenka’s Buttoners (Knoflíkáři, 1997), Jan Hřebejk’s Divided We Fall, and Czech Dream (Český sen; dir. Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák, 2004).

The National Film Theatre has presented four series that included films from Czechoslovakia: the 60s Reclaimed, The Magic World of Czech Animation, The Cinema of Pavel Juráček, and a retrospective of the Slovak director, Juraj Jakubisko. A series on Jan Švankmajer is planned. Czech films have figured prominently at a number of film festivals, including London, Leeds, and Edinburgh. London, for instance, since 1989 has featured the work of F.A. Brabec, Věra Chytilová, Saša Gedeon, Jan Hřebejk, Miroslav Janek, Aurel Klimt, Jiří Menzel, Vladimír Michalek, Marek Najbrt, Alice Nellis, Jan Němec, David Ondříček, Michaela Pavlatová, Maria Procházková, Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák, Martin Šulík, Jan Švankmajer, Jan Svěrák, Helena Třestíková, Zdeněk Tyc, Petr Václav, Roman Vávra, Ivan Vojnár, Bohdan Sláma, and Petr Zelenka.

The Czech Centre in London has organized 25 series, including František Vláčil, Gustav Machatý, The Velvet Generation, Fantastic Realism, Horror and Fantasy, Prague on Film, Věra Chytilová, Czech Musicals, Karel Kachyňa, Comedy, Jaromil Jireš, and Kinoautomat. These have mainly been organized at the Riverside Studios in London. Nine series have toured with five programs going to more than five venues each. These have included: Made in Prague: New Czech Cinema, Bohumil Hrabal and Jiří Menzel, The Magic World of Czech Animation, New Bohemians, and Prague on Film. The most prominent regional venues have been in Edinburgh, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham, and Oxford. As distributors have become more “conservative” or simply remain unaware of many titles, cultural initiatives seem to have increasingly shifted to cultural organizations and individuals. But these initiatives are not limited to Czech film and competition for “specialized” screenings has become quite intense.

While six Czech New Wave films were released in the early 1990s on VHS, mainly by the British Film Institute, the initiative for DVD has recently shifted to Second Run DVD, which in the past year has released films by Karel Kachyňa, Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer, Juraj Herz, and Jiří Weiss, with František Vláčil to follow. Releases from other companies have included films by Svěrák and Švankmajer (his short films are imminent), and Czech Dream.


Notes

1] Calendar cinemas are also known as repertory theaters. These terms are used quite loosely and include a variety of cinemas that range from the smallest art house cinemas to those that are part of large cultural institutions like museums, universities, or art centers. What unites them is that they create monthly programs promoted by mailings of “program calendars”—hence the term—but many of them also combine repertory programming of films with first-run films fresh in distribution.

Illustrations and Credits

Fig. 1: Bohdan Sláma’s Something Like Happiness (2005) was screened at the Toronto IFF, San Sebastian IFF, and New York FF in the fall of 2005 (courtesy of Negativ)

Fig. 2: Czech Dream (Filip Reminda and Vit Klusák, 2004) was screened at many festivals in North America (courtesy of Taskovski Films)

Fig. 3: Jan Hřebejk’s Divided We Fall (2000) was nominated for an Oscar (courtesy of THA Productions)

Fig. 4: Case for a Rookie Hangman (Pavel Juráček, 1970) toured in North America as part of the Juráček retrospective (courtesy of Czech National Film Archive)

Fig. 5: Jan Svěrák was awarded an Oscar for his feature Kolya (1996), which also became the biggest Czech box office success in America (courtesy of Svěrák’s official website, www.sverak.com)

Fig. 6: Lunacy (2005) is the latest Jan Švankmajer film distributed by Zeitgeist Films (courtesy of Athanor)

Fig. 7: Wrong Side Up (Petr Zelenka, 2005) is one of the Czech films going from festivals directly to cable TV (courtesy of Negativ)


© Irena Kovarova, 2006

Updated: 30 Oct 06