The Czech Republic’s auteur cinema falls victim to global streaming wars
- Owing to HBO's decision to cease production in the country, emerging domestic auteurs and producers will inevitably face more obstacles
In an effort to reduce costs, HBO has cancelled all original productions in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The surprising move was revealed following the company’s merger with Warner Bros Discovery (see the news). There are dire ramifications for the local audiovisual industry as a result of this decision. Even though global streamers such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV+ have been shooting their original productions in the Czech Republic (see the news), they have not been producing local programming. In addition to episodic narratives, HBO has supported many local documentary projects by emerging filmmakers: Jan Gebert’s When the War Comes [+see also:
film profile], Martin Mareček’s Over the Hills [+see also:
interview: Martin Mareček
film profile] and Tereza Nvotová’s The Lust for Power [+see also:
film profile], among others, have been co-produced by HBO.
When the announcement was made, the domestic series Sleepless, produced by HBO and directed by Ivan Zachariáš, had already been removed from HBO Max’s local library, along with the gastronomic travelogue Czech It Out! by Matěj Chlupáček, which had only premiered in April. The Winner, the first-ever Slovak series on HBO (see the news), was still in post-production when HBO broke the news. HBO will not carry on with the series, and it will probably be sold elsewhere after its completion. The decision comes at a particularly difficult time for the Czech audiovisual industry. Disaster had been averted only recently when the government decided to pump more funds into film incentives; otherwise, the biggest productions would have moved to other countries (see the news).
HBO is a platform that had a stable base of subscribers, making it the second-largest VoD service in the Czech Republic, rivalled only by Netflix. However, unlike Netflix, the company had a long history of producing local content and, most importantly, prestige television. Burning Bush [+see also:
film profile] by Agnieszka Holland and Wasteland by Alice Nellis and Ivan Zachariáš rank among the quality TV productions, both of which were produced by domestic outfit nutprodukce.
“It’s surprising that the domestic market is not currently interesting enough for HBO or Netflix to produce their own original programming. How is it possible that Netflix has more subscribers than HBO without producing a single series or movie in the country? Unfortunately, there is an explanation: that Czech original production does not play a major role in the decisions of the Czech users of streaming platforms. However, if that explanation were true, it would be tragic not only for a lot of Czech filmmakers, but in the long term also for Czech viewers,” Tomáš Hrubý, of nutprodukce, told Cineuropa.
Besides the threat of big international productions leaving, a local crisis is also unfolding. The national public broadcaster has also announced dramatic cuts (see the news), which will have an impact on the creation of original domestic productions. Czech Television is behind many films that premiere at A-list festivals, including Ordinary Failures [+see also:
interview: Cristina Grosan
film profile] and Victim [+see also:
interview: Michal Blaško
film profile], which bowed at the recent edition of the Venice Film Festival, and Il Boemo [+see also:
interview: Petr Vaclav
film profile], which will be revealed in the main competition of the imminent San Sebastián Film Festival. Besides, Czech Television has only recently extended its original programming portfolio with its first-ever VoD-only series, TBH, which was bound to spearhead a new direction for the public broadcaster.
HBO's decision to pull out of the Czech Republic does benefit one party, however. The local version of the streaming wars led by Netflix and HBO has been joined by domestic platform Voyo, a VoD service run by Czech television channel Nova and Slovak station Markíza. Additionally, Voyo carries local content that has become the most powerful draw for the domestic audience, thus giving it a de facto competitive advantage. The local content was supposed to propel Voyo into the top three of the VoD services active in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The service has created a Voyo Original label for its original programming, which so far includes the true-crime series Guru and Roubal (see the news), and the biopic miniseries Iveta. Voyo is scaling up its original programming by producing more local content, such as a sequel series to Iveta, the true-crime show Hojer (following the former chief of Prague’s crime unit, who investigated the most sadistic murderers in Czechoslovak history) and the Czech answer to Netflix’s Sex Education, Sex O’Clock.
“We are the strongest local player, and we offer the highest number of domestic films and series on the market. Our investment in local content and the creation of our own Voyo Original programming is behind the rapid increase in Voyo users. We plan to press on with this strategy, and to further strengthen and gradually increase investments in our own productions,” Daniel Grunt, head digital officer CME, told Cineuropa. Voyo has a distinct “brand” for its programming, largely consisting of genre fare, but most importantly, it’s audience-driven content, and that’s by design. Voyo and HBO have different strategies, fairly distinct audiences, and certainly different budgets. Yet Voyo also gives opportunities to up-and-coming domestic filmmakers, similarly to HBO. However, its primary goal is to produce local content for the local audience, whilst HBO took chances on auteur projects that frequently crossed national borders, and thus created added value for the country.
Meanwhile, Voyo’s ascent looks set to be slowed down by Disney+’s penetration of the Czech market, and a new player will also reshuffle the cards in the local streaming wars: SkyShowtime, a joint venture between Comcast and Paramount Global, has announced its forthcoming arrival in the Czech Republic on 20 September.
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