'Game of Thrones' to 'Spider-Man': Why Big TV and Film Productions Shoot in Eastern Europe

9:50 PM 5/14/2019

by Stjepan Hundic

With its mix of generous incentives, professional crews and state-of-the-art facilities, it's no wonder Eastern Europe is hosting everything from art house hits ('Cold War') to tentpoles and high-end TV.

'Hanna,' 'High Life,' 'The Spy Who Dumped Me'
'Hanna,' 'High Life,' 'The Spy Who Dumped Me'
Courtesy of Amazon; Cannes Film Festival; Lionsgate Entertainment

In Central and Eastern Europe, the battle for international production shoots used to be a race to the bottom. Territories competed mainly on labor costs, and the cheapest workforce won. Things have changed. These days, the region is looking to partner with foreign producers by offering high-end production services and smart financial incentives to make shooting in Budapest or Warsaw, Zagreb or Tallinn as simple (while still as cheap) as possible. The Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia have followed Hungary’s lead in introducing tax rebates to bring in foreign production and have buffed up their film promotion bodies to make shooting in and among territories nearly frictionless. With both tentpoles (Spider-Man: Far from Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune reboot) and high-end series from Netflix (The Witcher), Amazon (Hanna) and HBO (Game of Thrones, The Sleepers) choosing the region, the strategy obviously is working. No longer competing solely on price, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe now push their unique appeal — historical, cultural and geographical — as well as those tasty incentives, to pull in foreign shoots.

Here’s everything you need to know about shooting in one of the world’s busiest locations sectors. 

  • Hungary

    Amazon’s original series 'Hanna' was partially shot in Hungary.
    Amazon’s original series 'Hanna' was partially shot in Hungary.
    Courtesy of Amazon

    Under the leadership of the late, great producer Andy Vajna, Hungary was the region’s pioneer, transforming its stodgy staterun film support system into a well-oiled production machine, as adept at attracting visiting big-budget tentpoles — Robin Hood: Origins with Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx, Villeneuve’s Dune reboot, the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate featuring Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis — as delivering homegrown success, with the likes of Laszlo Nemes’ groundbreaking, and Oscar-winning, Holocaust drama Son of Saul. Production spending in Hungary has topped $400 million annually since 2016. 

    Vajna died this year, but the foundation he built remains. "Budapest, the capital that can stand in for Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Amsterdam, Vienna, London or Buenos Aires, is the most popular location to shoot films in continental Europe," notes Agnes Havas, CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund, who points to a recent increase in Hungary’s tax rebate systems (from 25 percent to 30 percent) as an indication that the country remains a go-to spot for visiting productions. Unlike the system used by some of its neighbors, Hungary’s incentives are extremely flexible and producer-friendly. Up to 20 percent of the eligible spend for the rebate can be spent outside of the country.

    But while Hungary has made a name for itself as a spot to shoot big Hollywood productions, the country continues to support more art house fare, backing local talent and co-productions. The Hungarian National Film Fund provides grants of up to $220,000 per project for non-Hungarian productions with a local, minority co-producer on board, favoring films "with a strong artistic appeal or directed by filmmakers with an international track record." Funding from the film fund has to be spent in country.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION: 

    Incentives: 

    30 percent tax rebate, of which 25 percent can be foreign spend; extendable to 37.5 percent by adding 7.5 percent non-Hungarian costs. 

    Minority Hungarian co-productions can receive grants of up to $220,000. 

    Facilities: 

    Korda Studios: 6 soundstages on 161,000 square feet Origo Film Studios: The largest studio in Hungary with 9 soundstages totaling 194,000 square feet and a 1,000-square-foot greenbox stage. 

    Mafilm Studios: Boasts the largest outdoor tank in continental Europe Stern Film Studio: 4 soundstages on 55,000 square feet. 

    Recent Shoots:

    Terminator: Dark Fate; Denis Villeneuve’s Dune; Netflix series The Witcher

    Local Facilitator: 

    Agnes Havas, CEO Hungarian National Film Fund (filmalap@filmalap.hu; +36-1461-1320; www.mnf.hu/en) 

  • Czech Republic

    The Czech Republic recently hosted the shoot for 'Spider-Man: Far From Home.'
    The Czech Republic recently hosted the shoot for 'Spider-Man: Far From Home.'
    Splash News

    The Czech Republic has long been, and continues to be, a go-to location for high-end period drama (everything from Amadeus to Keira Knightley starrer The Aftermath to Taika Waititi’s World War II dramedy Jojo Rabbit) and top-drawer action (Hellboy, Spider- Man: Far From Home).

    The region boasts the winning formula of, as Czech Film Commission head Pavlina Zipkova puts it, a "mix of incentive scheme, quality of services, professional crews, modern infrastructure and rich locations." Add to that more than a century of cinematic tradition, and the Czech package is hard to resist. The capital city of Prague has become something of a hub for international television productions, with the likes of Amazon Prime series Carnival Row, History Channel’s Knightfall, Netflix’s Haunted and ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier shooting in the city. Series production accounted for around 65 percent of total foreign productions in 2018, with foreign TV series crews shelling out about $140 million in the region.

     

    They are pulled in, in part, by the country’s incentive scheme, which combines a 20 percent cash rebate on local spend with a 66 percent rebate on withholding tax paid in the Czech Republic by the international cast and crew — a major draw for top-end series and features. Features have to spend a minimum of $650,000 in the region to qualify, but there is no rebate cap per project. Minority Czech co-productions also can apply to the Czech Film Fund for grants of up to $1.68 million, with at least 50 percent of the grant to be spent on Czech services, cast and crew. Several regions also have their own funding and grant schemes to back productions on a case-by-case basis. 

    The Prague Film Fund is the largest, but there are similar granting bodies in the city of Brno, in Zlin and in Jesenik for their surrounding regions. Then there is the unrivaled beauty of Czech cities, from Prague, to Karlovy Vary, Pilsen and Kromeriz. "You can film 11 centuries of architecture and four distinct seasons, [and] Czech historic cities can double for major European cities such as Paris and London and many more," says Zipkova. 

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION: 

    Incentives:

    20 percent rebate on qualifying Czech spending.

    66 percent rebate on withholding tax paid in the Czech Republic by international cast and crew.

    Minimum expenditure of $650,000 for feature films.

    Facilities: 

    Barrandov Studios: 13 soundstages with 140,000 square feet in total, including MAX, Europe’s largest soundstage (43,000 square feet) and an adjoining 39-acre backlot.

    Prague Studios: 6 cutting-edge soundstages with a total area of 108,000 square feet.

    Recent Shoots: 

    Jojo Rabbit; Spider-Man: Far From Home; Amazon sci-fi thriller series Carnival Row

    Local Facilitator: 

    Pavlina Zipkova, head of Czech Film Commission (pavlina@filmcommission.cz; +420-603-554-044); Ludmila Claussova (ludmila@filmcommission.cz) 

  • Croatia

    The medieval locales of Croatia have been transformed into King’s Landing on 'Game of Thrones.'
    The medieval locales of Croatia have been transformed into King’s Landing on 'Game of Thrones.'
    Courtesy of HBO

    "Among the international production community, Croatia is known for three things: location, location, location," says Tanja Ladovic, coordinator at location production service Filming in Croatia. Perfectly situated on the border between Central and Eastern Europe, with a geography that includes Mediterranean coastlines and Alpine ranges and a history that stretches from ancient Greece through the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, communist Yugoslavia and, finally, European Union membership, Croatia can stand in for pretty much any nation from Italy to Germany, Russia to France. In the BBC’s McMafia series, Croatia played eight different countries. Even the iconic medieval city of Dubrovnik has shown its flexibility, playing Nottingham Castle in Otto Bathurst’s 2018 release Robin Hood, the casino city of Canto Bight in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and, most famously, King’s Landing in eight seasons of Game of Thrones.

    The recent increase in demand means studio space is at a premium. There are plans to build a new studio complex in the region, but for now larger productions tend to land at the historically renowned Jadran Film studio complex in Zagreb. The studios, in operation for more than 70 years,have five fully functional soundstages over 41,000 square feet and recently added a 270-degree greenscreen studio, ideal for virtual reality projects.

    Croatia introduced its first production incentive in 2012 and last summer boosted the cash rebate for visiting productions to 25 percent on local spend, adding another 5 percent for productions that shoot in less-developed regions. To qualify, producers have to show at least 70 percent of their financing to cover Croatian production costs is in place and meet a national points system, with at least 30 percent of the cast and crew made up of Croatian nationals. Minimum spend is $296,000 for feature films and $110,000 per episode of a TV series. An EU member and signatory to the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production, Croatia also has bilateral co-production agreements with Canada, France, Germany and Italy and is a member of the European co-production fund Eurimage and the EU Creative Europe and Media programs, making it an ideal co-production partner.

    To qualify as a proper Croatian co-production, a project needs to secure at least half of its financing beforehand, and at least 60 percent of funding must be spent in Croatia on Croatian services, cast or crew. The Croatian partner must provide at least 10 percent of the overall budget.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION:

    Incentives: 

    25 percent cash rebate for feature films, docs, TV drama and animation; additional 5 percent available if shot in underprivileged regions. Minimum $296,000 local spend for feature films, $110,000 per episode of a TV series.

    Facilities:

    Zagreb’s Jadran Film studios boasts five soundstages over 41,000 square feet, plus a 270-degree greenscreen studio.

    Recent Shoots:

    Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Game of Thrones; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

    Local Facilitator: 

    Tanja Ladovic, coordinator Filming in Croatia Croatian Audiovisual Centre (+385 1-6041-082; filmingincroatia@havc.hr; www.filmingincroatia.hr) 

     

  • Poland

    Oscar nominee 'Never Look Away' filmed in Poland.
    Oscar nominee 'Never Look Away' filmed in Poland.
    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    With the largest homegrown film industry in Eastern Europe, Poland has long been happy to go it alone. Drawing on a tradition that includes cinema legends like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski — not to mention the likes of Agnieszka Holland and Pawel Pawlikowski — the region has balanced art house excellence (Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Holland’s Mr. Jones) with popular box office success in the form of Wojciech Smarzowski’s Clergy or Patryk Vega’s Women of Mafia. But this year saw Poland finally enter the international production business, with a new 30 percent cash rebate for visiting producers. Even without that incentive, the country was able to attract the likes of Claire Denis — who shot much of her sci-fi drama High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, in the Podlaskie region — and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose Oscar-nominated Never Look Away did location shooting in the lower Silesia region.

    "Today, Poland offers brilliant talents, especially in cinematography, film music, art direction and animation; hardworking and English-speaking crews, and producers with abilities and appetite for international ventures," says Radoslaw Smigulski, general director of the Polish Film Institute. 

    And Poland provides a wealth of top-end production facilities. The main production hub is Warsaw, where ATM Grupa has six modern soundstages and Transcolor just built a facility with some 30,000 square feet of studio space. But Alvernia Studios’ new backlot outside Krakow — more than 35,000 square feet spread across two cutting-edge soundstages, including one equipped with a 180-degree spherical, shadowless, 3D bluescreen — is an impressive alternative.

    Producers looking to take advantage of the country’s talents should find a local partner — applications for the cash rebate have to be submitted in Polish and only local companies can apply. To qualify, a least 75 percent of a film’s total financing must be in place. Foreign films hiring Polish service companies have to spend at least $540,000 in the region, while Polish co-productions have a minimum $1 million spend. TV series spending $400,000 per episode or more are also eligible, as are documentaries with budgets of at least $100,000. The rebate is capped at $4 million per project and $5.25 million per applicant per year.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION: 

    Incentives:

    30 percent cash rebate on eligible Polish spending; available for features, animation, documentaries and series. Maximum $4 million rebate per project and $5.25 million per applicant per year. A Polish partner or company registered in Poland is required to apply for support.

    Facilities:

    Alvernia Studios: two soundstages under domes near Krakow (18,600 square feet,16,500 sq. ft.), one equipped with 180-degree spherical, shadowless, 3D bluescreen ATM Grupa: six modern soundstages in Warsaw and one in Wroclaw Opus Film: four soundstages in Lodz Transcolor: two new soundstages (17,000 sq. ft., 12,000 sq. ft.) near Warsaw

    Recent Shoots:

    High Life Denial; 1983; Mr. Jones

    Local Facilitator: 

    Anna E. Dziedzic film commissioner Film Commission Poland (+48 663 499 799; dziedzic@ filmcommissionpoland.pl; +48 22 42 10 594; office@ filmcommissionpoland.pl; www.filmcommissionpoland.pl)

  • Estonia

    The period drama 'Maria’s Paradise' was shot in Estonia.
    The period drama 'Maria’s Paradise' was shot in Estonia.
    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Tiny Estonia (population 1.3 million) punches above its weight in the international production game, thanks to a laser focus on production services and incentives, as well the practical convenience that comes from being in a small, easily accessible country.

    "All our locations — from islands and bogs and endless beaches to forests and historical manors to post-Soviet architecture with large, run-down factories, empty prisons and derelict buildings — can be reached within a maximum of three hours due to Estonia’s small size," says Nele Paves, film commissioner at the Estonian Film Institute. Estonia launched its first tax incentive in 2016, a 30 percent cash rebate on local spend for visiting international productions. The scheme is particularly attractive for low-budget features, with a $225,000 local spend (on a minimum $1.13 million budget) required to qualify. High-end TV dramas need a minimum local spend of $80,000 per series on a minimum overall budget per episode of $225,000.

    In addition to the cash rebate, Estonia also offers production subsidies for Estonia co-productions: up to $135,000 per film for majority Estonia productions and up to $68,000 for minority co-productions. Producers also can top up their budget by tapping into two regional film funds: the Tartu Film Fund, which has an additional 10 percent to 20 percent cash rebate scheme; and the Viru Film Fund, which offers up to 40 percent cash back on local spend, though it is capped at a total rebate of $225,000 annually.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION: 

    Incentives:

    Up to 30 percent cash rebate for feature films, feature documentaries, animation films, TV series and postproduction. Regional film funds offer cash rebate of up to 40 percent of local spend with a $225,000 annual cap. Co-production scheme offers a maximum $788,000 subsidy per project for majority Estonia co-productions, maximum $225,000 for minority co-productions.

    Facilities:

    No local soundstages

    Recent Shoots:

    Firebird; Helene; Maria’s Paradise All the Sins

    Local Facilitator: 

    Nele Paves, film commissioner Estonian Film Institute (+372 627-60-60; nele@filmi.e; www.filmestonia.eu) 

    This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 15 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.