High Cinema ... In Spa Town

2012-23 BKLOT The Door H

Helen Mirren (left) will be on hand to introduce Istvan Szabo’s "The Door," in which she and Martina Gedeck star, and receive a special Crystal Globe for her contribution to world cinema.

With its decidedly relaxed atmosphere and eclectic mix of gems from Eastern and Central Europe, the 66-year-old Karlovy Vary event offers an intimate, stress-free alternative to the usual festival frenzy.

Now that the craziness of Cannes has faded and before gearing up for the Venice and Toronto film festivals in late summer, industry players in the know like to slip off to the Czech Republic for a week's recovery in a spa town in Western Bohemia.

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which runs from June 29 to July 7 this year, is as old as Cannes, but the events could hardly be more different. While Cannes is all flash, glamour and big business, the Czech fest is a more intimate affair. Industry insiders mix with thousands of backpackers and students who descend on the historic town, giving the event the feel of a college campus during orientation week.

"I went by complete chance many years ago and loved it," says FilmNation COO Milan Popelka, a regular KV attendee for the past decade. "It's got a real duality: You've got the people who hitchhike in and sleep in tents, then you've got the industry contingent, from business people to first-time filmmakers."

Unlike Cannes or Berlin, Karlovy Vary has no formal market, and the festival's laid-back approach is more conducive to networking than dealmaking. But experienced distributors and sales agents appreciate its slower pace, which allows more time to talk about new projects and pick up the occasional title that slipped under the radar in Berlin or Cannes. The fest also gives the industry a leg up with its in-progress screenings -- which show footage of the region's best new projects -- and helps set up one-on-one meetings among filmmakers, distributors and sales agents. "All the Eastern European distributors come, so it's a good place to meet, maybe talk about deals you started in Cannes, keep up relationships," says Dirk Schurhoff, managing director at German sales group Beta Cinema.

Michael Werner of Swedish sales group NonStop recalls how the successful Karlovy Vary premiere of the Norwegian comedy Buddy in 2003 helped reassure buyers the film would play for a European audience. "The fans there were treating the actors like rock stars," he says. "If a film works in Karlovy Vary, you can be sure it will work elsewhere."

The fest has earned a reputation for uncovering young European talent. Baltasar Kormakur's career took off after the Icelandic director won the event's best film Crystal Globe for the crime thriller Jar City in 2007. Based on the strength of its reception, Kormakur got Mark Wahlberg to star in 2012's Contraband, his first Hollywood production, and is currently prepping the action film 2 Guns, which will star Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

Karlovy Vary's competition lineup could offer similar discoveries this year. Highlights include the "philosophical Western" Hay Road from Portuguese director Rodrigo Areias, the existential thriller To Kill a Beaver from Polish veteran Jan Jakub Kolski and the Italian conspiracy film Piazza Fontana from Marco Tullio Giordana.

Karlovy Vary can't compete with Cannes' star power, but organizers always line up a few A-listers to give the fest a splash of glamour. This year's event includes Helen Mirren, who will receive an honor for outstanding artistic achievement. During the festival's first weekend, she will introduce a screening of The Door, the new film from acclaimed Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, in which Mirren stars.

"Intimacy" is the word Karlovy Vary's artistic director, Karel Och, likes to use when summing up the fest. If Cannes, Berlin and Toronto are big shows and big business, then the 66-year-old event in the Czech spa town is, according to Och, "about a group a friends, some fans, some in the film business, all united by their love of cinema."


WHERE TO EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY: One of Karlovy Vary's charms is not having to plan your time off. The action stretches along the Tepla River from festival headquarters at Hotel Thermal through a medieval town center packed with spas, restaurants and nightclubs. But if you do find yourself at loose ends, here are suggestions for your KV downtime.

Hotel Embassy
Nova Louka 21, from $124

Chances are you'll be spending a lot of time here anyway as a guest (everyone from Mozart to Sigmund Freud has stayed here) or at one of the festival parties that take place in this family-owned resort. But be sure to make a reservation at the Embassy restaurant, where you can dine at a table overlooking the river.

Aeroport Club
Divadelni Namesti 243/1

The spot to unwind with a fine Czech beer and some ear-splitting music. This is probably the last time the pop-up Aeroport will set up shop at its current location -- a former Czech Savings Bank branch -- so get your taste of urban chic while it lasts.

Cafe Elefant
Stara Louka 30

OK, Cafe Elefant is more classy Vienna than gritty Prague, but there's no better spot for a few minutes of contemplation between screenings. Opulent and elegant, it has been a hotspot since the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stop in, forget your diet and have a thick slice of Sachertorte.

The Spa Hotel Imperial
Libusina Street 18, from $158

There are literally dozens of world- class spas to choose from in Karlovy Vary, but this is the absolute best. The Rothschilds used to take the waters here, and the Imperial's guest list of Hollywood royalty stretches back to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Book an afternoon and have a massage, a mud facial and an oxygenated herbal bath.