How to Get the Most Out of Shooting in Eastern Europe

1:30 AM 2/18/2018

by Nick Holdsworth

From studio tentpoles like Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller Red Sparrow (shot in Budapest) to low-budget, art house dramas like Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (shot in Poland), the region’s myriad rebates, incentives, co-production schemes and versatile locations have everything a budget-conscious global film producer could want.

'PAINTED': Courtesy of Silver Screen. 'IRON': National Film Center, Latvia. 'KINCSEM': Courtesy of Skyfilm Studio.

Since Hungary launched the first film incentive scheme in Eastern Europe in 2004 — which now offers up to 30 percent refunds on local spend for productions taking advantage of its studios and locations — nearly all other territories in the area have introduced their own schemes, realizing that the halcyon days of the 1990s, when low costs and virtually undiscovered panoramas were enough to attract the Hollywood dollar, are long gone.

These days, international producers have a wealth of locations — and generous tax incentives and rebate schemes — to choose from throughout Eastern Europe.

Indeed, tailored national incentive schemes, myriad film commissions, and bespoke assistance via national film institutes and other bodies are available to help filmmakers cut their cloth to fit.

Such major international production hubs as Prague and Budapest — both of which boast world-class studio facilities — regularly attract top Hollywood productions, such as soon-to-be released spy thriller Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence. Poland, which is planning to introduce a 25 percent rebate scheme, has positioned itself as a major center for international co-productions. And even smaller territories like Estonia and Lithuania are beginning to leverage versatile, often untouched locations to draw top film and TV productions.

As Edith Sepp, head of the Estonian Film Institute, observes in a remark that could be echoed by almost any film commissioner in the region: “Estonia is the perfect place for shooting a film if one is looking for something new but does not want to face anything too extreme. We have very professional and reliable production companies, experienced crews and always something extra to positively surprise foreign producers.”

Here’s a guide to getting the most out of five Eastern European shooting locations:

  • Czech Republic

    Harvey Keitel (center) on the set of Vaclav Marhoul’s 'The Painted Bird.'
    Harvey Keitel (center) on the set of Vaclav Marhoul’s 'The Painted Bird.'
    Courtesy of Silver Screen

    CASE STUDY The Painted Bird
    Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski’s Holocaust story has been a labor of love. Marhoul spent two years negotiating the rights to the 1965 novel — which stirred controversy at the time of its release for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war — and a further six in development before starting principal photography in March 2017 on location in Ukraine. Writing the screenplay took three years alone — as long as it took to raise the financing for the $5 million project.

    Marhoul courted a number of A-list Hollywood actors for parts in the film — which recounts the experiences of a young Jewish boy wandering alone in the Polish countryside during World War II — before securing Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier and Julian Sands in key roles. Following the Ukraine shoot, the film will move to a location in the Czech Republic and then spend all of June in Poland.

    Producers include Czech and Slovak public TV, Poland’s Film Produkcja, and the state film funds of the Czech Republic and Ukraine.

    Marhoul credits the Czech fund with providing nearly a fifth of the film’s budget: “The Painted Bird has been accepted as a project with high cultural value and, after the audit, we shall get back around 900,000 euros ($1.1 million).”

    He adds: “The Czech Republic has many professional, experienced people, English-speaking crews and a whole range of services and studios, great accommodations, locations and incentives. And filming here is still much cheaper than in the West.”

    INCENTIVES

    Though a long time in the making — industry figures backing the scheme faced a decade of obstacles including repeated presidential vetoes until it was approved in 2012 — the Czech cash rebate system is now one of the region’s best-established programs. Features, documentaries, animation and TV series are all eligible for 20 percent rebates on Czech spending and 10 percent on international spending. Projects have
    to pass a cultural test, with top points for those that employ local and EU teams. International productions drawn recently to the Czech Republic include Borg McEnroe, which shot in August 2017 and premiered in September in Toronto, Paul Rudd’s Sundance entry The Catcher Was a Spy and Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, starring Kit Harington and Natalie Portman.

    TALENT TO WATCH Michal Hogenauer

    A graduate of Prague’s legendary film school, FAMU, Hogenauer made his first cinematic mark when his graduation film, Tambylles — a short feature about an 18-year-old delinquent returning home after a spell in a juvenile detention center — premiered in Cannes’ prestigious Cinefondation sidebar in 2012.

    Now the 33-year-old, who is artistic director of Prague’s Febio Fest Film festival, has just completed his debut feature, Outside (working title), a study in emotional manipulation. A co-production with the Netherlands that benefited from Czech film fund development, the $1 million film shot on location in and around Riga, Latvia. Inspired by Christian cult Twelve Tribes, which advocates beating children with canes to maintain discipline, the film revolves around a young Czech woman who goes to work as an au pair for a family that has similar views.

    “As a result of manipulation within the family, she gradually begins to lose herself and abandon her humanity,” says Hogenauer, who cites Austrian auteur Michael Haneke among his influences. “I’m fascinated with manipulation — how people communicate and manipulate each other, and how society manipulates people.”

  • Estonia

    Siimets’ 'The Little Comrade.'
    Siimets’ 'The Little Comrade.'
    Courtesy of Amrion

    CASE STUDY Captain Morten and the Spider Queen

    The world’s oldest stop-motion animation studio, the multi-award-winning, Tallinn-based Nukufilm, founded in 1957, is nearing completion of Captain Morten and the Spider Queen, its first animated feature. Directed by Kaspar Jancis, the family film tells the story of a boy named Morten who finds himself shrunk and aboard one of his own toy ships, where he is tormented by a wicked Spider Queen and Scorpion Pirate. A co-production with Ireland’s Telegael, Grid FX (Belgium) and Calon (U.K.), the film features an all-Irish star voice cast that includes Brendan Gleeson (Paddington 2), Ciaran Hinds (Frozen) and Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones).

    Nukufilm CEO Andres Mand says the production, which involves nine animators working on puppets and sets in both Tallinn and Galway, Ireland, took advantage of public funds and tax incentives in Estonia, Ireland and Belgium that included Screen Flanders, the Irish tax incentive, the Estonian film institute and the EU Media program to achieve its 6.2 million euro ($7.2 million) budget.

    INCENTIVES

    Estonia’s Film Estonia cash rebates, introduced in 2016, are worth up to 30 percent of in-country spending, and in 2017 a total of 1 million euros ($1.2 million) was set aside to fund it, twice as much as the first year’s amount. So far, the scheme has attracted local spending of $2.2 million, double what was expected. Currently, there are seven new projects in production from Denmark, Germany, Finland and Sweden.

    TALENT TO WATCH Moonika Siimets

    Siimets' debut feature, The Little Comrade, is based on the best-selling memoirs of Estonian writer Leelo Tungal, about her life as a child during the dark days of Stalinism in postwar Soviet-occupied Estonia.

    A graduate of the Baltic Film and Media School at Tallinn University, Siimets has worked as a TV director for Estonian Television and attended Judith Weston’s directing master classes in Los Angeles. The Little Comrade, made as part of the Estonian centennial film program marking 100 years since independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, is due to premiere in Tallinn in late March.

  • Hungary

    'Colette' still
    'Colette' still
    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    CASE STUDY Kincsem

    Hungary’s National Film Fund, headed by Budapest-born Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna (Evita, Nixon), placed a $7.8 million bet on the lavish 19th century horse-racing melodrama Kincsem, which raced on to break box-office records, taking $2.3 million domestically — an impressive number for a small country of 10 million people where cinema attendance lags behind bigger Eastern European markets. Vajna says the decision to back the crowd-pleasing drama reflects the national fund’s dual aims of supporting both art house fare (it backed Hungary’s 2016 Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul) and commercial projects.

    Says Agnes Havas, CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund: “It is great that a period romantic movie set in the 19th century, featuring the story of an undefeated thoroughbred, became a real domestic theatrical success.”

    INCENTIVES

    Hungary stole the march on other Eastern European territories nearly 15 years ago when it became the first, in 2004, to introduce a generous tax incentive.

    Today Hungarian incentives can save international producers as much as 30 percent, and this year the national film fund anticipates incoming production spending of around $530 million. A government collection account maintains around $130 million to pay out tax rebates, making Hungary’s scheme the gold standard for the region. 20th Century Fox’s upcoming spy drama Red Sparrow shot in Budapest in 2017, with the city doubling for Moscow and Helsinki. The biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley as the eponymous French novelist, which recently premiered at Sundance, also shot in Budapest, as did Blade Runner 2049, which took advantage of Korda Studios in Etyek.

    TALENT TO WATCH Arpad Bogdan

    Bogdan, whose first film, Happy New Life, picked up a Berlinale Panorama special mention in 2007, is back in the sidebar this year with his second feature, Genesis, inspired by true events (the neo-Nazi terrorizing of a group of Roma families that resulted in six murders) and informed by biblical notions of family. Bogdan says the subject matter is particularly important to him because he was raised from the age of four in foster homes.

    “What could I possibly know about any of this, when I never grew up in a family?” he asks. “I, as one who has only ever known a damaged family model, have got a lot to say about that secret, about that wonder, about that hell, about that heaven that is family.”

  • Latvia

    The ambitious TV project 'The Age of Iron' used multiple locations in Latvia to re-create the Thirty Years’ War, which took place during the 17th century.
    The ambitious TV project 'The Age of Iron' used multiple locations in Latvia to re-create the Thirty Years’ War, which took place during the 17th century.
    Courtesy of National Film Center, Latvia

    CASE STUDY The Age of Iron

    A major new European documentary and drama series, The Age of Iron, which explores the history of the Thirty Years’ War that raged in northern Europe from 1618 to 1648, took advantage of Latvian locations and skilled crews as well as local incentives. Produced by Nestan Behrens of Germany’s Looks Film and TV with European public broadcasting giants ARTE and ZDF, the project encompasses six hourlong documentary episodes and three 40-minute dramatized sections along with multimedia and interactive apps.

    Carine Leblanc (a producer with French company Slot Machine) and Gunnar Dedio (of Looks Film), both of whom had the experience of working with Latvian production company Film Angels Studio while shooting Sergei Loznitsa’s feature film A Gentle Creature, say they were impressed with the efficiency of Latvian crews. “People here do things without verbosity; everybody knows the task entrusted to them,” Leblanc told the Latvian National Film Center.

    Dita Rietuma, director of the center, says the production took advantage of local incentives and the wealth of locations appropriate to a series about a major 17th century conflict. “Latvian locations are often used to replicate other European landscapes and architecture,” she says. “Although covering only an area of just under 65,000 square kilometers [25,000 square miles], Latvia offers a range of diverse environments that have been ‘left behind’ by various different foreign powers over the centuries.”

    INCENTIVES

    Cash rebates, capped at 25 percent of local spend, are available for international co-productions shooting in Latvia via two programs: the National Co-Financing Program, run by the National Film Center, and the Riga Film Fund, administered by the city council in the capital city Riga. Support can be combined from both funds, and in 2018 a total of $2.2 million is available, with an open deadline for submissions. So far 25 international projects from 10 countries have completed projects with support from the two rebate schemes, including productions from Germany, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Scandinavia, the U.S. and U.K.

    TALENT TO WATCH Davis Simanis Jr.

    Simanis is the son of a renowned Latvian cinematographer who has been working on film locations since the age of 17. The recipient of a Ph.D. from the Latvian Academy of Culture, Simanis made his film debut in 2006 with a short documentary, Version.LNO. His 2016 feature debut Exiled, starring Ulrich Matthes, made a strong showing on the international festival circuit, including events in Moscow, Shanghai and Cairo. His latest film, The Mover, is dedicated to Zanis Lipke — the “Latvian Oskar Schindler” — who saved more than 50 Jews in Riga during World War II. The drama will premiere in Riga this year.

  • Poland

    Jagoda Szelc
    Jagoda Szelc
    Courtesy of Martin Kulakowski (PFI, The Polish Film Institute)

    CASE STUDY Cold War

    Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War shot in 2017 in Poland (Lodz and Wroclaw), Croatia and France (Paris) with renowned cinematographer Lukasz Zal. In the film, co-financed by the Polish Film Institute and produced by Opus Film, Pawlikowski — who won a best foreign-language Oscar for Ida in 2015 — again uses Poland as the landscape in which to paint a story of love, this time about a couple prevented from being together because of the tumultuous political climate during the height of the 1950s Cold War. With international sales being handled by the U.K.’s Protagonist Pictures and French firm MK2 Films, the $5.3 million drama stars Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Joanna Kulig and Agata Kulesza.

    INCENTIVES

    Poland’s system of film support relies on a revolving system of grants — rather than tax incentives — and is chiefly designed to support local production in one of the region’s few markets with a big enough domestic exhibition market to support commercial filmmakers. The Polish Film Institute subsidizes up to 40 features a year, as well as 160 documentaries and animated films.

    There is also money available for international co-productions and, since 2016, funding for minority co-productions. Last year, the Polish Film Institute supported 15 minority co-productions, including Rafael Kapelinski’s Butterfly Kisses, which took the Crystal Bear for best film in the Berlinale’s Generation (14plus) sidebar in 2017. There are now two calls each year with fewer projects supported, but larger amounts given. Last year, three co-productions out of the 15 supported received more than 370,000 euros ($457,773) and the average per project has risen from 147,000 euros ($181,872) in 2016 to 168,000 euros ($207,853) in 2017.

    “Among the strongest co-production partners this year were France and Germany, Czech Republic,” says Robert Balinski of the Polish Film Institute’s film production department. “We are also very happy about the ongoing cooperation with the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy.”

    Plans to introduce a 25 percent tax incentive have been delayed by the complexity of introducing the legal framework, but as a government bill, the scheme is likely to move forward.

    TALENT TO WATCH Jagoda Szelc

    A graduate of the Wroclaw Fine Arts Academy with a background in documentaries and shorts, Szelc has her first feature, Tower. A Bright Day (Wieza. Jasny dzien), screening in the Berlinale’s Forum sidebar, while she continues her studies at the directing department of Poland’s Lodz Film School. The feature, about a confrontation between two long-estranged sisters who share both biological and emotional interest in the child one of them bore, won awards for best debut and best screenplay in 2017 at the 42nd Polish Film Festival in Gdynia.

    This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 18 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.