Why foreign film shoots are flocking to Southeast Europe

During a recent visit to Serbia, actor John Malkovich announced plans to partner with colleagues DW Moffett and Matt Dillon to build a state-of-the-art film, music and media production facility. in neighboring North Macedonia, a small mountain town. country of barely two million people.

That might seem like a gamble for a country with a modest domestic film industry that serves little foreign filming. But Malkovich – a self-proclaimed ‘son of the Balkans’ whose father is of Croatian descent – insisted the studios had the potential to transform film and TV production in the region. Dubbed Stonebridge Studios, the project is now awaiting approval from the government of the former Yugoslav republic, which the studio’s backers say is expected to earn 1.6 billion euros ($1.6 billion) in GDP as international productions flock to the country.

While the backing of a high-profile celebrity ensured the announcement would raise hopes – and eyebrows – across the region, industry players across South East Europe aren’t standing idly by. crossed while Malkovich and his partners wait to innovate. Driven by low production costs, a race for cash rebates and the limited capacity of central European hotspots Hungary and the Czech Republic, the region is already experiencing an unprecedented production boom, Greece, Croatia, Serbia and neighboring countries attracting big-budget studio projects for the dazzling coasts of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, the Black Sea region and the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Increasing volume

Croatia was one of the first Balkan nations to court Hollywood productions a decade ago after HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ chose the medieval town of Dubrovnik to film the exteriors of King’s Landing. With stunning locations inland and along the Adriatic coast, qualified teams and a competitive 25% cash back, Croatia has since attracted productions such as HBO’s ‘Succession’, ‘The Wheel of Time’ from Amazon Prime Video and “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” from Lionsgate. ”

It shows no signs of slowing down. “The volume is growing,” said Nebojša Taraba, co-founder of Zagreb-based production company Drugi Plan, which served Eagle Eye and Beta Film’s period drama “Hotel Portofino.” At the same time, due to the increasing sophistication of local crews, “more and more productions are coming in for almost all filming in Croatia,” he added.

Sun-kissed spots, ancient wonders, and 40% cashback have helped Greece become one of the hottest spots in Southeast Europe. After hosting David Cronenberg’s Cannes competition title ‘Crimes of the Future’ and Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner ‘Triangle of Sadness’ (below), the country recently hosted the biopic ‘Rise’ from Disney+’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and the highly anticipated “Glass Onion” from Rian Johnson. : A mystery at loggerheads.


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Johnson’s Netflix blockbuster (pictured, top), which features a star-studded ensemble cast including Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe and Kathryn Hahn, spent five weeks filming in the Mediterranean nation before moving to Serbia, a a country that has seen its own fortunes increase since the introduction in 2016 of a 25% cash rebate that rises to 30% for productions with budgets over 5 million euros ($5 million).

Recent titles on target in the country include Chloe Domont’s ‘Fair Play’ for MRC and ‘True Haunting’, a Sony Screen Gems horror film directed by Gary Fleder. Talk to Variety at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Andjelka Vlaisavljevic of production service company Work in Progress, which handled both shoots, said Sony was so impressed with Serbia’s offers that it returned months later with “Horrorscope,” another horror film from Screen Gems that is currently in pre-production.

More than just a vote of confidence in the Serbian industry, this loyalty has allowed local teams to learn from “the best in the business”, said Vlaisavljevic, who has worked on more than 50 international productions, including “Crawl” and Paramount Spyglass. Reboot “Hellraiser”. Whereas in the past, foreign productions had to bring in their own department heads and assistants, “now they are working on the fourth season of [PBS’] “Miss Scarlet and the Duke” and everyone else – even the directors and cinematographers, the production designer, the costume designer – are from Serbia. »

Uptrend

Romania has one of the region’s most established industries, having hosted Miramax’s $80 million civil war drama “Cold Mountain” nearly two decades ago. Productions on target in the Eastern European country over the past year include Tim Burton’s ‘Wednesday’, the upcoming Addams Family TV series for Netflix, and ‘Django’, a reimagining by Sky Studios and Canal Plus of Sergio Corbucci’s classic 1966 western that was arguably the European western. biggest television production in 2021.

But a slew of lawsuits by producers seeking to claw back money from the country’s beleaguered cashback system – which is one of the most powerful in the region when it works, reaching 40% – have started to chase the foreign productions. Bogdan Moncea, of Castel Film Studios, which hosted the filming of “Django” in Bucharest and also served Isaiah Saxon’s fantasy epic “The Legend of Ochi” for A24, said the studio currently has no “no major project” underway. “It becomes critical. It’s at a very low point – probably for a decade,” he said recently. Variety.

Across the border in Bulgaria, where the cashback system is still in its infancy, “the trend is on the rise”, according to Yariv Lerner, CEO of Nu Boyana Film Studios, which currently serves the film d “Creepers” horror and supernatural thriller. “Bagman” for Lionsgate. Production recently wrapped on what Lerner described as “a massive Disney project” at the Millennium Media-owned studio, which has also been home to Millennium’s hit “Expendables” franchise (below).

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THE CONSUMABLES, from left: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, 2010. ph: Karen Ballard/©Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection
©Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Co

“Bulgaria has long been established as a shooting destination in Europe. The infrastructure is in place. We have ample studio space, equipment and a professional team. It’s easy to make your movie here,” Lerner said. Nu Boyana is now expanding to its southern neighbor Greece, with plans underway to build a studio in Thessaloniki, where Millennium recently filmed ‘The Expendables 4’ and Antonio Banderas and Kate Bosworth’s thriller ‘The Enforcer’. .

Such cross-border collaborations are becoming commonplace in the region. While rivalries between countries jockeying for the same studio productions seem natural, local players say the spirit is more one of cooperation than competition.

As the Greek industry was operating at full capacity last summer, Serbian construction crews were hired on Netflix’s “Knives Out” sequel, according to Vlaisavljevic. When her own country lacked gaffers, she turned to the skilled crew base in Romania. For Netflix’s upcoming spy thriller “Our Man From Jersey,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, which she described as her company’s biggest production to date, Vlaisavljevic is currently filming in Italy, Slovenia and in Croatia, using the strengths each country has to offer.

Scaling

While construction of the Malkovich-backed studios in Skopje could take years, other players in the region are racing to innovate on new facilities or expand existing ones. In Serbia, local powerhouse Firefly Productions expects its splashy new film studios – featuring three state-of-the-art sound stages and a water tank – to be fully operational early next year. Another facility rising five miles from central Belgrade already boasts two 25,000 square foot soundstages, with developers looking to build three additional stages totaling 70,000 square feet by spring 2023 – and to have up to to 11 fully operational sound stages further down the line. In Zagreb, meanwhile, talks are underway to build a much-needed studio complex for Croatia’s booming industry.

The region still has a long way to go to displace production behemoths Hungary and the Czech Republic, which boast a range of world-class studio facilities and crews used to working on Hollywood blockbusters such that Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. “Dune”, is currently filming its sequel in Budapest. As member states of the European Union, the countries also provide a more seamless production experience with no customs fees or visa issues.

“These are the first destinations where all the big productions would go. We know that,” Vlaisavljevic admitted. However, production capacity in South-Eastern Europe continues to grow, with regional players able to set up increasingly ambitious projects. “When we first started working 15 years ago, we were getting small films that spent $1 million locally,” she said. But in the years that followed, budgets — and expectations — kept rising.

As global production seeks to make up for lost time after two years of travel disruptions and closures, studio space and skilled crew worldwide are in short supply. Competition is intensifying; the knives are out. Now that South East Europe has made a name for itself hosting big-budget studio productions, regional actors are trying to make sure they don’t travel elsewhere in search of greener pastures. “What I’m particularly proud of is that the same companies are coming back,” Vlaisavljevic said.

Mary I. Bruner