Made in Europe
There's probably never been a better time to shoot your film in Europe.
Consider the financials: France, Italy and Spain have introduced new tax incentives to compete with the successful schemes in Germany, the U.K. and Hungary; facilities in Eastern Europe are offering clearance-rate prices and while this time last year one U.S. greenback dollar bought 55 pence, today it buys 61 pence, making shooting in Britain more cost effective than it has been in years.
Ridley Scott seems to think so. The British director picked home-town operation Pinewood Shepperton for his "Robin Hood," a reimagining for Universal. The new take on the robbing-from-the-rich-giving-to-the-poor tale stars Russell Crowe in a dual role of both Robin Hood and his nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Pinewood also played host to "The Wolfman," Universal's resurrection of its classic horror franchise, directed by Joe Johnson and starring Benicio Del Toro as the man cursed to howl at the moon and Hugo Weaving as the Scotland Yard detective on his tail.
Warner Bros. has David Yates' back-to-back shoots of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" parts one and two set up at Leavesden Studios, while on the other side of London city, at Shepperton's soundstages, Warners had Louis Leterrier directing the "Clash of the Titans" remake. An update of the 1981 film based on the Greek myth of Perseus, "Clash of the Titans" stars Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Guy Ritchie's rough-guy remake of "Sherlock Holmes," also for Warners, shot largely in New York but returned to London for extensive location work.
A sampling of the high-profile shoots in London this year includes:
-- John Madden's "The Debt," a Miramax production shot at Ealing Studios. Starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington, it follows Israeli Mossad agents tracking a Nazi war criminal over 30 years.
-- "Gulliver's Travels," Fox's live-action comedy from the Jonathan Swift classic directed by Rob Letterman ("Shark Tale") and starring Jack Black as the eponymous Gulliver.
-- "Nanny McPhee 2," Susanna White's sequel to her 2005 feature, with Emma Thompson reprising her role as a warty, tougher version of a Mary Poppins-style nanny. Working Title is producing.
-- "Nowhere Boy," the John Lennon biopic which director Sam Taylor Wood shot on location in Liverpool and at Ealing Studios for Film4. The film stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff and newcomer Aaron Johnson as the young Lennon.
-- "Cemetery Junction," a comedy from "The Office" and "Extras" team of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant set in a 1970s British insurance company.
With all this activity, it comes as a bit of surprise that revenue at Pinewood actually fell slightly in the first half of the this year to £11.8 million ($19.4 million) from £13 million in first-half 2009. Pinewood blames the SAG dispute and "wider economic pressure" for the dip, but insists, "overall demand remains strong."
"If you look at the whole package -- the tax incentives which are essential for any territory to compete these days, the top-of-the-line facilities and most importantly, the talent we have built up here -- you can see why productions keep coming back," Pinewood's Group Corporate Affairs director Andrew Smith says.
But while Britain might still be the go-to territory for big studio fare, the island is coming under increasing competition as other European territories pile up the incentives to woo international productions.
Germany's 20% tax credit incentive, the DFFF, has proved phenomenally successful since its introduction in 2007, helping draw projects both Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Roman Polanski's "The Ghost") and auteur (Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon," Lars von Trier's shocker "Antichrist") to the territory.
German studios -- primarily Studio Babelsberg outside Berlin and MMC in Cologne -- have sweetened the pot with their own financing incentives, investing directly in production in exchange for a guaranteed number of on-set shooting days.
Joel Sliver has made Babelsberg his European base, shooting three big-ticket pictures there in the past four years: "V for Vendetta" (2005), "Speed Racer" (2007) and "Ninja Assassin" (2008). This year will see No. 4, with the mystery thriller "Unknown White Male," the first in a slate of midbudget pictures Babelsberg will co-finance and co-produce together with Joel Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment. Directed by Spain's Jaume Collet-Serra, hot off his success with "Orphan," the film stars Neeson as a man who awakes from a coma only to discover that someone else has stolen his identity.
Babelsberg hopes the cooperation with Dark Castle will serve as a model for future slate deals with other production companies. By making a minority investment in individual features, the German studio is looking to secure a steady stream of international projects for its soundstages.
"Because the German tax rebate is capped at €10 million ($14 million), we don't really compete with Britain (where there is no cap) on the huge productions," Babelsberg boss Carl Woebcken says. "The real competition is for midbudget productions. For them, every incentive helps."
On the other side of the country, Cologne-based MMC has taken a page from Babelsberg's book, starting a long-term relationship with Canadian producer Andras Hamori.
Hamori brought Stephen Frears to Cologne to shoot interiors for his Michelle Pfeiffer period piece "Cheri," and later this year Hamori's H20 Motion Pictures will return with "The Gate." Directed by Alex Winter, the remake of the 1987 horror classic about a portal to the underworld, "Gate" will be the first all 3D film to shoot in Germany.
Hamori will follow up with "Running Wild," Kevin Kerslake's adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novella starring Samuel L. Jackson as a psychiatric adviser to the police who helps investigate when parents and children in a quiet suburban community begin disappearing.
As with "Cheri" and "Gate," MMC's production arm MMC Independent is on board as a co-producer, a useful credit when it comes to tapping Germany's regional subsidies. "Cheri" picked up backing from the Filmstiftung NRW in neighboring Dusseldorf, in addition to DFFF cash, adding to the support it received from the U.K. Film Council.
Similarly, "Gate," received about $1.2 million in subsidy cash from NRW. To tap nearly $2 million in backing from regional bodies HessenInvestFilm (Frankfurt) and MFG Baden-Wurttemberg (Stuttgart), the project has moved digital postproduction to the Frankfurt and Stuttgart studios of visual effects company Pixomondo, which handled work on "Ninja Assassin" and Roland Emmerich's upcoming disaster epic "2012."
This kind of patchwork financing -- with shooting done in several countries, or in several regions within a single territory -- has become the norm for indie shoots in Europe. State subsidy boards from Calais, which backed Dany Boon's French blockbuster "Welcome to the Sticks," to Italy's new Piedmont fund require a local spend to free up their "free" cash.
Film France has adopted the "shoot here, get money" model for its new tax-rebate system, nicknamed TRIP. A straight-up, 20% rebate on local spend with a cap of €4 million ($5.7 million), TRIP's only requirements are a minimum five-day shoot in France and a minimum €1 million ($1.4 million) spend. Plus a little French-ifying of the production to meet TRIP's cultural test, for example, by having a French character, French source material or using French technicians on the shoot.
Film France estimates that direct economic impact from the new rebate could reach an annual €200 million ($287 million) by 2010.
Introduced into law this year, TRIP is clearly aimed at getting French-set foreign productions such as Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" or Paramount's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" to shoot in Paris, not Berlin, Budapest or Prague.
One high-profile project heading to France thanks in part to TRIP is Universal and Illumination Entertainment's "The Lorax." Chris Meledandri is producing the 3D animated adaptation of the environmentally minded Dr. Seuss book about the tree-loving Lorax and his clear-cutting nemesis the Once-ler.
But until Luc Besson and Ben Ammar convert that abandoned power plant outside Paris to a $230 million state-of-the-art studio -- completion is now forecast for 2012 -- France will lack the space for big, set-heavy productions.
"It's questionable whether 'Inglorious Basterds' could have shot in France even if the tax incentive was in place last year," one veteran European producer says. "It was a studio production which required a lot of interiors. At the moment, France just doesn't have the soundstages to accommodate that."
Neither does Italy, but with a new-ish tax credit of up to 25% of local spend (capped at $7 million a project) and regional incentives, the country expects to draw a few projects south. Italy's Piedmont region, in particular, is expecting a surge in shoots thanks to the $20 million fund set up by the Turin Piedmont Film Commission and L.A.-based Endgame Entertainment.
Annually, the fund will provide closing funding on "commercially viable English-language projects" that have 75% of their budget in place. Backing per project is capped at €4 million ($5.7 million) and 20% of the film's budget must be spent in the Turin Piedmont region.
Spain, which has a new 18% tax credit and the still-shiny Ciudad de la Luz studios in Alicante, recently played host to Francis Ford Coppola's family drama "Tetro" and the Danis Tanovic-directed thriller "Triage." Upcoming shoots include sci-fi actioner "Prodigy" from Intrepid Pictures and Kincine, starring Danielle Panabaker and directed by Chuck Russell, De La Iglesia's murder-mystery "The Yellow Mark," starring Kiefer Sutherland, and the biopic "Dali" from Simon West featuring Antonio Banderas as the Spanish surrealist master.
But whatever the incentives, rich Western Europe will also continue to find itself undercut on certain projects by facilities in the East.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania have all been hit hard by the one-two punch of the credit crunch and exchange rate fluctuations. Studios including Prague's Barrandov, Korda in Budapest, Bucharest's Castel Film and Sofia's Nu Boyana have been aggressively shaving margins and piling on the incentives to draw business back.
It appears to be working. Kevin Macdonald picked Hungary for his 12-week shoot of the Focus Features/Film4 Roman epic "The Eagle of the Ninth," starring Channing Tatum, Donald Sutherland and Jamie Bell. Fox is heading to Hungary for its big-screen adaptation of the 1980s TV series "The A-Team" starring Neeson and Bradley Cooper. And Seven Arts Pictures is set to follow suit for Mikael Salomon's "Galahad."
The Czech Republic, once the default territory in the East, has suffered from its lack of a tax incentive to compete with Hungary. Spend in the country, which peaked at more than $250 million in 2003, has shrunk to less than half that. In that time, the Czech film industry has shed more than 1,500 jobs.
"The figures are tragic. They could hardly be any worse," says Pavel Strnad, president of the country's Audiovisual Producers Assn.
Prague has played host to a couple of major shoots recently, including "G.I. Joe" and LucasArts' "Red Tails," a drama about the first black pilots to fly combat missions for the U.S. Army during World War II. Another WWII drama, Marcel Langenegger's "Brothers In Arms," produced by Mark Gill's the Film Department, is shooting in Prague and Spyglass Entertainment is expected to Czech in for "Iron Bow: The Legend of William Tell," to be directed by Justin Chadwick.
Projects set for a Bulgarian shoot this year include Peter Weir's gulag escape drama "The Way Back," produced by Spitfire Pictures, Sony's "Universal Soldiers: The Next Generation" and the Lionsgate/Nu Image remake of "Conan the Barbarian," which has Brett Ratner attached to direct.
"Ces Amours La," produced by Media Pro and directed by Claude Lelouch, recently wrapped its Romania shoot. Upcoming productions planned for the territory include Barry Levinson's "Babi Yar" and Flagship Films' "William Tell: The Legend."
Shooting in the East could get even more attractive if the Czech government this year finally succeeds in passing its own tax credit into law.
"It's getting more and more competitive, we're fighting for every production," says one Euro studio head. "It's tough for us, but for producers this is the best of all possible worlds."