With a boom in multiplex building and cinema admissions rising over the 10 million mark for the first time in half a decade, mainstream film is more popular than ever in the Czech Republic. And yet it is experimental film making that is grabbing most of the attention.

Of all the films that came out last year in the Czech Republic, it was Jan Svankmajer's Otesánek, a neo-surrealist art-house film, that walked away with the Best Picture award at the Czech Lions, the local equivalent of the Oscars in February.

Yet there were plenty of mainstream choices: One of the best-received films of 2001 was Babi Leto, directed by Vladimir Michalek (Angel Exit, Sekal Has To Die) which took top honours in the Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actor slots, while last year's top box office grosser Jan Sverak's Dark Blue World, won the Best Director award.

Yet after a year in which Czech cinema proved more popular with mass audiences than any year since the 1989 revolution, it was the avant-garde Otesánek that took the top prize.

This year, Czech producers appear to be taking a similar tack, preferring experimental approaches over the mainstream.

"There are no guaranteed smash hits on the horizon on the order of Jan Sverak", says Petr Oukropec, a producer with Negativ, one of the leading Czech production companies.

Audiences can instead look forward to more experimentation from leading directors. "I am now in post-production with three films, all of them a little bit experimental," says Oukropec. "We tested some new ways of storytelling. It's an experimental period for us."

An upcoming film from Negativ, The Street (Ulice), has a diverse number of plots, subplots and dialogues all taking place on one of Prague's main boulevards. Another forthcoming release, Love From Above (Laska z hora), the debut of director Petr Marek, is also aiming for the film festival crowd rather than mainstream audiences.

This year has already seen Year of the Devil (Rok Diabla), directed by Petr Zelenka, a black comedy that is half fiction, half pseudo-documentary, with most of the actors, including Jaz Coleman of the punk bank Killing Joke, playing themselves. Even The Damned (Zatraceni), the debut feature from Dan Svátek, took a less-then-straightforward approach to storytelling, with the tale of a Czech youth thrown into a squalid Asian prison being told in three separate parts, with audiences having to guess how the plot fits together.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Sasa Gedeon, who reportedly has only recently put pen to paper again following the critical success of Return Of The Idiot three years ago. The 31-year-old director is apparently something of a perfectionist, working on three-to-five synopses at a time, which may turn into a collection of vignettes rather than a single narrative feature. "He's not satisfied with himself," says Oukropec, whose firm is producing Gedeon's next output, whatever it might be.