01 April 2019
Progressive Czech production company Bionaut is rapidly expanding, both in terms of the number and the type of its projects, as it adapts to constant change in the industry. The company’s latest work coming down the pipeline is an ambitious mix of genre, form, format, and subject matter.
Article by Martin Kudláč for Czech Film Magazine / Spring 2019
The audiovisual industry is increasingly mercurial. Audience tastes, with an appetite for more and increasingly diverse content, have opened up opportunities the same way the digital transformation did, leading to the democratization and wider circulation of content. It is a phenomenon both global and local, and Czech companies are no stranger to these trends, turning to alternative distribution, such as streaming channels and VoD. As technological behemoths rolled out their own streaming services with original content.
Bionaut, a Czech company selling household appliances online entered the arena of online distribution, mixing acquisitions with original content. Bionaut is known to Czech viewers mainly for Finicky History, a popular format of a cooking show with an educational bent, for the online shop’s new VoD service. This actually isn’t as surprising as it might seem. Bionaut is one of the most progressive production companies in the Czech audiovisual industry, boasting a large and highly diversified portfolio of projects that have swelled considerably over the company’s nearly two decades of existence.
Vratislav Šlajer founded the Prague-based company in 1999, during his first year studying production at FAMU. Enchanted by moving pictures since his childhood, Šlajer, a true prodigy, had shot two films by the time he was thirteen. Though he entertained thoughts of becoming a director, he ultimately heeded the call to become a film producer and says he has no regrets.
In an interview with online magazine 25fps, Šlajer said he sees producing as a “decisive, driving and creative profession,” and elsewhere described it as offering more “variability” than directing. Clearly, variability has defined Bionaut’s portfolio under his leadership as head producer and managing director. Currently, Šlajer is serving a second term as chair of the Czech Republic’s Audiovisual Producers’ Association, which protects the interests of domestic producers, and he is also an active member of the European Film Association and the Czech Film and Television Academy.
Hailing from the younger generation of Czech producers, Šlajer (born in 1977), like his peers, embraces innovative approaches, defying old formulas and traditional models. Under his guidance, Bionaut has developed into a fully integrated production company, covering fiction, documentary, and animated film. Over time, it has established a foothold in the domain of television and, more recently, online series. The company’s structure mirrors its constantly branching activities with a modern management style and the business acumen it needs to not only survive but thrive in an increasingly competitive industry.
At the center of the extensive production company is Bionaut Films, primarily focused on arthouse production. In 2005, Petr Bílek, Bionaut’s founder and Šlajer’s producing partner, established the production outfit FilmBrigade, a sister company to Bionaut Films, to work on mainstream film and television projects. Despite the two operations having different artistic visions, they were set up to complement each other, economically and creatively. Šlajer left FilmBrigade in 2013, but continues to straddle the worlds of independent arthouse and commercial mainstream production with confidence under the Bionaut banner.
A Cornucopia of Genres, Formats, and Stories
One of Šlajer’s most notable projects is Walking Too Fast, a drama that toys with genre elements and expectations. The 2010 film, directed by Radim Špaček, netted five Czech Lion awards and five Czech Film Critics’ Awards. Who’s Afraid of the Wolf (dir. Maria Procházková) was introduced at the Berlinale in 2009, and Vendetta (2011, dir. Miroslav Ondruš) won four Czech Lions. After their award-winning collaboration on Walking Too Fast, the creative team of producerdirector Radim Špaček, writer Ondřej Štindl, and cinematographer Jaromír Kačer reunited for a follow-up project, the 1990s coming-of-age drama Places.
Šlajer, an aficionado of prestige television, has also joined forces with HBO, the pioneer of quality cable TV, to translate the Norwegian noir series Mammon for a Czech audience. Czech Television, the country’s public broadcaster, also contracted Bionaut to tackle the retro-mystery Shadow of the Ferns, a miniseries based on BBC’s Life on Mars, with company regular Radim Špaček as director. Meanwhile the crime series The Dame & The King just wrapped its second season on one of the Czech private channels, drawing a record breaking number of viewers for the finale, and Šlajer and his team just launched Doctor Martin in local cinemas, a feature-length version of the British TV series, to follow up on the success of the domestic version on Czech Television. Bionaut is already bracing for a Doctor Martin spin-off series, Sergeant Topinka.
This incredible variety has been possible thanks to the fact that in 2014 the company widened its scope by establishing three distinctive labels: one for animated projects (Bionaut Animation), one for documentary filmmaking (Bionaut Docs), and one for international genre filmmaking (Bionaut Dark). Czech-based British producer Danny Holman, who served as VP of production and ran development production at Stillking Films, is in charge of the genre sidebar. He says his mission at Bionaut is to work on projects for an international audience that will also entice Czech moviegoers, which in turn will create a market and allow domestic films to reach a wider audience. Apart from its label dedicated to animation, Bionaut also has its own animation and VFX studio, Kredenc.
Bionaut’s service and line-producing arm, Bionaut Works, has been offering creative and financial collaboration for international co-productions. Attention Lab, which carries out crowdfunding, social media and power marketing activities, supplements the company’s larger inventory of activities.
Bionaut’s structure matches its diverse and broad output, which extends not only horizontally, in terms of formal variety, but vertically as well. Šlajer and the company approach each project with the same verve, whether it be an arthouse drama, high-grossing commercial fare, a pop-culture TV series, or an award-winning documentary.
Variability and Diversity as Driving Principles
Variability is truly the defining characteristic of the company’s output and its head producer’s omnivorous appetite. Šlajer’s interests are not limited by genres or formal boundaries. What matters is the project. If he finds it interesting he will pursue it, even if he has no prior experience with that particular genre or topic. As he said in an interview with online magazine iHNed, he is willing to learn along the way, a passion-driven approach that has led him to publish comics as well as the online platform Planet Dark. As Šlajer said in an interview in online magazine iHNed, the foundation of well-executed production is intuition.
Nor are there any signs of Bionaut’s breakneck pace slowing. It has several ambitious and varied projects in the pipeline. In the Bionaut Dark department, Sara, an international psychological thriller with Czech majority funding, is now in the works, based on a Mark Christopher script, with Warsaw 44 and Suicide Room director Jan Komasa helming the project. Sunburn, planned as Czech-UKSerbian- Slovak coproduction, is a riff on the Euro psychosexual thriller tradition, and should be ready by summer 2020. Yet another highly ambitious project, Eternal Tomorrow, will be an animated futuristic sci-fi horror. Bionaut plans to accompany Eternal Tomorrow with comics, as well as venturing into the uncharted territory of video games.
Besides genre fare, a screen adaptation of the partially autobiographical novel My Cold War—by Slovak author René Benda, who will also direct in his first feature outing—will extend Bionaut’s production slate. Also in the works are an educational animated children’s series, Rosa & Dara and Their Great Adventure, and an animated series for 4-to-6-yearolds, Hungry Bear Tales. Finally, the company is also developing Different, a dark, adult-oriented miniseries based on Central European myths.
Planet Bionaut, as Šlajer refers to the ever-expanding Bionaut ecosystem, crossed the borders of its home country in 2017, setting up sister companies— Raketa, Kosmonaut, and Aeronaut— in Slovakia, Poland, and Serbia to further consolidate its international co-productions. In Slovakia, Bionaut is partnering with established professionals Zuzana Mistríková and Ľubica Orechovská from PubRes, who coproduced Švankmajer’s Insect, while the Polish bureau will be headed by Jan Komasa. This larger network of collaborators will enable the company to access a substantial pool of talent, funds, and project opportunities. In short, there’s little doubt Planet Bionaut will continue to explode, expanding its reach ever farther into the universe.