No More Vienna Clichés!

The Vienna Film Commission wants to help put the city on film, but avoiding kitsch can mean seeing the grittier side of town

On The Town | Eugene Quinn | September 2010

There are big changes in Vienna’s 3rd district, with an enormous media hub rising out of the ashes of the old Schlachthausgasse, or slaughterhouse, in the oddly named St. Marx Quarter. In 10 years, ORF hopes to reunite its spread out resources in one new building. Pioneering the move east is the newly-created Vienna Film Commission, whose project manager, Alexandra Czernin-Morzin told me more:

Founded to strengthen the film industry in Vienna, the Film Commission (VFC) has the goal to get more people working in the industry, and also helps Austrian film-makers find the right location or crew. They are responsible for shooting permits in Vienna and have a database of locations and crew, accessible from the VFC website.

An arm of the city government - part of the MR7 Culture Department, with funding from the Vienna Tourist Board, the Chamber of Commerce, MR7 and the Press Department - the VFC’s mission is to "make Vienna look good on film."

Films about a city are not always good PR – as with the recent British film In Bruges, a dark portrait of professional assassins, that left its host city feeling bruised. A recent critical success made in Vienna, Revanche, from Götz Spielmann, is also unlikely to have pleased the local Tourist Board. It looks oppressive.

"Yes," agreed Czernin-Morzin. "It’s another point of view to see the Gurtel or prostitutes."  They try to persuade filmmakers to show the city’s best side, she told me, but have only so much power.

"If someone asks for a permission to shoot in Vienna, we go over the script and try to influence them a little bit."  This is not always so easy. Last week she saw an episode of Tätort, a well-produced, long-running, German crime series on Sunday evenings, sometimes shot in Vienna. This episode was on German television, produced by Germans, but shot in Finland.  She was shocked by what she saw.

"They showed Finland as a country of murderers, drunk people, German tourists disappearing everywhere, everyone stealing your car, girls of 12 and 13 working on the streets," she remembered. "I am sure they got a lot of money from Finland to shoot there. Awful. I thought, ‘How can they pay them?’ This is something we don’t want to happen here."

Hundstage, set in the Vienna suburbs, presents Austria as a freak-show. The people are fat and annoying and regularly attack each other physically. It’s not beautiful. Still, it’s a great film and brings to life suburban boredom and sadness. "Yes," she agreed, "I think you have to present another part of the city – not only nice things like the Riesenrad or Burgtheater, but also the suburbs and everyday life." In reality, the VFC is still too new – after only 9 months – to have played a significant role in the shaping of scripts for films shot in Vienna.

"But we influence them to go to new locations," Czernin-Morzin said. "Not always in front of the Cathedral, but to explore different parts of the city."

Before the VFC was established last year, filming was organised more informally. She chuckled at the word ‘informally’."It was difficult for film-makers here to find the right way," she said, "especially for foreign filmmakers, because the law here is so different, and to know where to send applications. It wasn’t easy."

They’ve also opened their doors at a time when Austrian film is doing well. These are good times, I thought. It must be nice to be noticed. "Yes," Czernin-Morzin agrees, "that’s already a chance to push it a little bit more."

With the growing interest, there are now three institutions dedicated to the promotion of film in Vienna:  The VFC, the Austrian Film Museum and the Film Archiv. I was curious how the responsibilities divide up.

"Mmmhh, good question, to be honest I have no idea," Czernin-Morzin  admits.  So there was never any question of combining the three groups?  "I don’t even know from whom they are getting their money." These are separate agencies with independent missions, which, while surprising, may also have its advantages. Those who are promoting Vienna are not the same people serving as presenters, critics, interpreters and archivists.

Promoting Vienna is a big undertaking. At that moment, managing Director Marijana Stoisits was in Los Angeles at a major locations trade fair. They had a small booth jointly with the Tirolean Film Commission, which was their first time promoting Vienna as a location.

Czernin-Morzin herself comes to the job with 20 years experience in production, first as a production assistant, then location manager – including on the popular Austrian series Kaisermühlen Blues – and has done several small productions of her own. This makes her more sensitive to the needs of filmmakers interested in shooting in Vienna.

One of the themes of our discussion was the discrepancy between international film-makers’ perception of the city as a sweet museum, and the buzz and experimentalism of resident movie people. As we look out of the window, there is the Gasometer, T-Mobile hq, motorway flyover, with other notable and evocative buildings including the Arena, Hundertwasserhaus and a permanent circus tent, not far from the Donaukanal.  When I have visitors for a second time to stay here, I bring them on a bike tour of the 3rd district to shake off any lingering scepticism they may hold about the dynamism of Vienna. The 3rd district is the most filmic neighbourhood we have, and so entirely appropriate for the nascent VFC. One of their roles is to wander city streets scouting new locations, taking thousands of photos.

"When there’s a request to close the Ring to film, that means a meeting with people coming from the tram department, also the traffic, the local district, the police, chamber of commerce, MR46, who are responsible for the streets, the garbage department, we’re there," says Czernin-Morzin, picking up the theme. "Film-makers tell us what they would like to do and all the logistical details are sorted out. " A week earlier, they had had a site visit in the 2nd district, near the new Messegelände Conference complex. "And it was like, ‘This is Vienna?!’ - so modern, so completely different to anything else I have seen here.’ That’s what we try to tell people: Vienna is not only the cliché of nice old buildings, but a lively and modern city."

About 10% of the activity in Vienna is for feature films, 60% for documentaries, and the rest TV. The percentage of foreign film-makers is surprisingly high, at 30% of the total.

"When a film really takes off internationally, and portrays a city well, it can generate a huge amount of tourism," Czernin-Morzin  says. "Plus there’s a feel-good factor for locals. The best example of this is Rosamunde Pilcher and Cornwall. Everybody knows that landscape now." Pilcher is a British writer of romantic fiction, with a niche market in the English-speaking world, but a regular feature of Sunday night German-language television, that has led to awards from the British tourist board.

The Austrian government commits a significant amount of money in subsidies to filmmakers, about €5million a year in 2010 and 2011, and €10-12m beginning in 2012, principally to encourage more international co-productions.  Although an English-language form doesn’t exist yet, international applications are already being presented. Applications require a local co-producer and the size of the subsidy will generally depend on how much will be shot in Vienna. They also make quick decisions on who gets the money, within five weeks of receiving an application.

Competitors in the region include Salzburg, Budapest and Prague, all very popular. "But they’re no longer cheaper," Czernin-Morzin says, making Vienna, with its first-class infrastructure and the cooperation of the city government, an attractive alternative.  In addition, the VFC has started a bi-monthly ‘Stammtisch’  [a regulars’ table at a local tavern] where anyone interested in making film in Vienna can meet with the city officials in rotating districts, open to the public. The next date will be announced on the VFC Facebook site.

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    the vienna review September 2010