The Limited Possibilities of Czech Documentary Film

Interview witch Czech producer Richard Němec


Czech producer, Richard Němec, has also been involved in the distribution of documentary films for a long time. In the year 2000, he founded the production company Verbascum in which for example, the documentaries Climbing HigherKha-Chee-Pae or On the Outside were made. In 2009, he founded a sister company Verbascum Imago, which focuses mainly on the distribution of documentary films. His primary goal was to get documentaries in cinemas, but now he also emphasizes the need for a creative approach and finding alternative ways to search for an audience. In the interview, the producer explains on what principles the project Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas works, and also what is, according to him, the main job of an expert of the State Cinematography Fund.

You have produced many Czech documentary films with your company Verbascum, for example those made by the directors Miroslav Janek or Olga Špátová. Often times you also distributed your films or were involved in the distribution process. How did you try to reach your audience?
For each movie you need to think about who is its audience, respectively, who will pay to see the film or will search for it. In the first year of the Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas we introduced the film A Catapult of Fate by Jan Gogola Jr., which did not have a high attendance at its cinema screenings. We then released it on DVD and, in contrast, it sold very well. People who listen to the band Katapult, who the documentary film was about, do not go to the movies too often, however, there is a strong community centred around this group and everyone wanted to take home a physical carrier. The sale of the DVD worked great. Similarly, it worked this way in the community centred around mountain climber Radek Jaroš of the movie, Climbing Higher, who publishes DVDs and books from his expeditions. DVDs along with some of his books are selling well in today’s times, although this format is on the decline.

Do you also use internet distribution such as VOD or streaming portals?
I think it is important to explore new channels through which you will get the film to an audience. Although the audience is not very large yet, and revenues are negligible, it is essential to allow the viewers who are looking for the film, to see it. I also think that the opportunities will gradually change and it is important to invest in this direction. Two generations who do not consider piracy to be something immoral grew up here, any education and development in this regard would be beneficial. For promotional reasons we made one film from the restoration project of Ján Špáta films available for free on the VOD portal There were a total of eighteen films and we wanted to introduce John Špáta to today's generation. The film had a large viewership and it served this purpose nicely.

Is it also effective to use the most well known video portal YouTube?
Yes, this is another option. Movies registered by a producer on YouTube are protected. The owner of the rights can determine in advance the way the audiovisual content uploaded by anyone to the page will be handled.  There are options of absolute or partial blockage - automatic deletion of videos of a certain length, free uploading or monetization of content. On YouTube you can have an ad before the movie or even during it, which generates some money. The Czech Republic is an exception; where alongside Google (and YouTube) a domestic search engine with its own video portal operates successfully. When we were on an expedition to K2 with Radek Jaroš, besides shooting Climbing Higher, we were also preparing an eight-part series Mission K2 for, which we broadcasted via satellite directly from the base camp. The series had a viewership of over one million three hundred thousand, which is a huge audience for the documentary film genre, capable of competing with conventional distribution channels. In this case it was not about finding a financing source for the film, but mainly about the publicity effect, where we managed to create a community and promote the feature film Climbing Higher.

“It is important to think about who is the audience of your film, who will pay for it.’’

What do you think is the usual budget of a Czech documentary film?
The usual amount is between 1.5 and 2.5 million Czech Crowns. But we can also work up to higher budgets. For example, Climbing Higher cost more than 4 million Crowns. Financing opportunities are fairly limited. The Czech Television coproduction stake largely does not depend on the film’s budget. Specific financial and production capacities are allocated to certain broadcasting slots. It also works similarly to this in regard to the State Cinematography Fund. We found ourselves in a situation where we needed to look for other sources. We looked abroad, but a documentary about the mountain climber Radek Jaroš who is very well known in the Czech Republic is a local film. In the end, we made ​​the film with the help from commercial partners who financially participated on Climbing Higher in exchange for product placements. It was quite unusual financing, sponsorship is not too common in Czech documentary film.

What other sources apart from commercial partners did you use?
We also realized a successful crowdfunding campaign on the server where we collected 60 thousand Crowns more than our goal amount of 300 thousand. With crowdfunding, there is another important effect, you create a community which lives with film and shares it further amongst friends.

Climbing Higher

A producer must finance his movie using multiple sources. What are common funding opportunities for Czech documentary films in addition to the support from the State Cinematography Fund?
There are not many. You can co-produce with a television broadcaster, either with Czech Television or HBO. Prima also participates in co-productions in a limited manner, they coproduced Old Man and the World for example, and they were also interested in Climbing Higher. You can also deal with pre-sale rights or minimum guarantees - prepaid advances on future revenues. There is the possibility of sponsorship and crowdfunding. Some creators have fan groups around them who are happy support them. International co-production are certainly another possible route, but not universally applicable. In Europe, we can find a large number of production companies, which cooperate with one another long term and jointly develop projects on an international level. Also, there are international funds: Eurimages and MEDIA - Creative Europe, which provide grants to European films. Finally, it is also possible to use incentives by which the State Fund returns a certain portion of the payments paid in the Czech Republic. The amendment to the media law proposes to reduce the minimum amount of eligible costs for documentary films, thus opening a door to receiving funding even from this source.

You are the content and economic expert for the State Cinematography Fund. What exactly does your job entail?
When preparing evaluations, I try to point out possible ambiguities in the application and lead the applicant to some blind spots or cracks that they can fill. I do not comprehend the role of expert as the person who should judge and decide, but as the one who prepares documents for the Fund Council to then decide on the division of financial backing. It is not in the Council’s competence to check everything as the application contains many attachments and details, also for every prompt dozens of applications are filed.

“I try to point out cracks and blind spots in the applications for grants.’’

Do you think the State Cinematography Fund should promote films that have an audience and it is highly possible that they will earn back the money?
The Council draws up a concept on the basis of which it decides. Only rarely does a documentary film earn money and has a profit in absolute numbers in the Czech Republic. In concrete cases the allocation of support is at the discretion of the Council. Cinematography should be developed as a whole, whether it is a short, animated, documentary or even a so called "commercial" film, which thanks to public subsidies may succeed when competing at international festivals and markets.

Along with the Jihlava IDFF you have prepared a few years of Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas – a distribution model which allows a few current Czech documentaries to enter cinema distribution. How did this project come about?
Previously, distributors were not too interested in documentaries, as they did not feel it was sufficiently profitable. As a producer myself, I used to have trouble getting my documentaries to cinemas. So in 2012, along with Marek Hovorka, we came up with the concept of the project Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas, which brings five documentaries into distribution simultaneously. If the cinema wants to screen any of the five films, they must program at least three. The goal is to promote Czech documentary films as a whole. We were pleased that in the first year even Martin Mareček was interested in entering his film, Solar Eclipse, which was the most successful Czech documentary of that year, successful even at the Czech Film Critics Awards, Czech Lion and other awards. The film was seen by over twenty thousand people in the cinemas, which confirmed that our concept works. Other distribution companies realized documentary film is a genre worth presenting in cinemas.

Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas 2014

In what way do you choose the films?
Primarily we choose from Czech Joy, which is one of competition sections at the Jihlava IDFF. But there always is an exception. In the first year, for example, we included the piece Em and He by Vladimír Michálek which was introduced in the Special Screenings section. The decision mainly comes down to mutual communication and negotiation with the specific film producers. We try to combine films so that we introduce various films with different potentials; successful ones that can attract the attention of viewers, alongside smaller creations which the project can help.

From what sources do you fund Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas?
Czech Joy in Czech cinemas is dependent on the support from the State Cinematography Fund. Apart from this we have partners with whom we cooperate with on promotions, then the distribution itself brings in part of the income. The show promotes films and young filmmakers who do not know much on how to distribute their films. Thanks to our project they have a chance that their films reach an audience. In 2013, Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas did not take place, because although we received backing from the Fund, it was so small that it was not realistic to carry out the project. I think of our project as a service to documentary film, which is not based primarily on earnings and will not do without funding.

“Crowdfunding creates a community of people, who live with the film and share it amongst their friends.’’

After last year's Jihlava IDFF the Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas also did not take place. What is the reason?
Unfortunately, this year's situation is similar to the one in 2013; the backing from the State Cinematography Fund has been inadequate. We are deciding whether it would be possible to adjust the project somehow. In terms of finance, in 2014 we ended right around zero and we know that there is no point in continuing with lower funding because the films would get less publicity and their end results would take a hit.

Do you leave the promotion and programming up to the individual cinemas?
The cinemas receive the basics from us - every film has its poster and a few stills. We prepare a poster for the project and a brochure in which every film is presented, including the synopses. Thanks to this everyone who comes to the movies, also gets to read about the other films. We also have a trailer which presents all five films. The viewer goes to see one movie and can get acquainted with the rest, it is cross-promotion. We give the cinemas freedom in introducing the films, because they themselves know best what kind of an audience they have. For example, some cinemas screen documentaries every first Tuesday of the month, some present the films during a weekend event.

What kind of feedback did the project have both from the cinemas and audience?
The package of documentary films works well for the cinemas because it is easier to promote under the brand Czech Joy in Czech Cinemas. Sometimes the creators are not too well known or the topic itself is not so attractive. However, initially we also received negative reactions. The cinema workers were annoyed that they could not order just one film. But the conditions were set this way even due to the State Cinematography Fund. The film Solar Eclipse was very well received by the audience, but even the others were seen by four to five thousand people, which is comparable with the results of European films in our cinemas.

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21. 03. 2016

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