Cannes: Inside Eastern Europe's Busiest Filmmaking Countries

10:45 PM 5/8/2018

by Nick Holdsworth

Add diverse architectural styles, climates and landscapes; business-friendly environments; and modern infrastructure to the list of lures the Czech Republic, Georgia, Lithuania, Hungary and Estonia — fierce regional competitors — are now dangling in front of filmmakers.

From left: 'Red Sparrow,' which shot in Hungary; 'War & Peace,' which shot in Lithuania; and 'Ophelia,' which shot in the Czech Republic.
From left: 'Red Sparrow,' which shot in Hungary; 'War & Peace,' which shot in Lithuania; and 'Ophelia,' which shot in the Czech Republic.
'Sparrow': Courtesy of Lionsgate. 'Ophelia': Courtesy of Covert Media. 'War': A&E Television Networks/Photofest.

For the climactic scene in Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve needed a place that looked exactly as he imagined Los Angeles would look like 30 years in the future — so, naturally, he picked Budapest, where he shot the film’s final fight sequence in one of the largest water tanks in Europe.

Hungary has been the hub of Eastern European filmmaking for the past 10 years, after it started siphoning business from the film-friendly Czech Republic with generous tax incentives. The Czechs, though, are doing their best to stay in the game, spending millions renovating their already world-class studio facilities in Prague. To the north, Estonia and Lithuania are building their movie-making industries, and further east, Georgia is getting in on the act, emerging as yet another picturesque, budget-conscious alternative.

Here is THR’s tour of five of Eastern Europe’s busiest filmmaking countries:

  • Czech Republic

    Lizzy Caplan in the TV version of 'Das Boot.'
    Lizzy Caplan in the TV version of 'Das Boot.'
    Courtesy of Sky

    Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Czech Republic was packed with Hollywood movie stars. Tom Cruise shot a Mission: Impossible movie at the historic Barrandov Studios. Vin Diesel made xXx at an old airplane factory that had been transformed in 2001 into Prague Studios. Johnny Depp shot From Hell on a London set built just outside Prague. But in the mid-2000s, there was a steep appreciation of the Czech crown against the U.S. dollar, and Hungary began offering tax incentives to lure productions to Budapest. Film work in the Czech Republic began to dry up, despite some of the best-trained film craftsmen on the continent. It didn’t help that for years, Czech politicians refused to enact their own film tax credits. It wasn’t until recently that there was enough political backing to pass a 20 percent cash rebate into law.

    To further bring back production to the Czech Republic, Prague Studios recently underwent renovations. Two new purpose-built soundstages opened in April — it now has a total of six — to join a photo and content studio housed in the former renovated aircraft hangers. That gives the facility more than 107,000 square feet of shooting space, enabling it to offer full services for the kind of big international TV series that are once again turning to Prague.

    The $8 million investment brings Prague Studios to a “new level,” says CEO Tomas Krejci. “We’ve had some very prominent projects here, including Wanted, Red Tails, Alien vs. Predator and more recently Underworld, Britannia and The Adventurers. Now we are opening two beautiful new state-of-the-art soundstages. We spoke to many people — production designers, producers, gaffers — in order to be able to say that Prague Studios is ‘built by filmmakers for lmmakers.’”

    The benefits of shooting in the Czech Republic are not lost on international producers. Says Paul Hanson, founder and CEO of Covert Media, which recently wrapped Ophelia, starring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts and Tom Felton, at Barandov Studios: “We evaluated many locations across Europe for Ophelia and ultimately selected Prague based on the right combination of great practical locations — well-maintained castles, in our case — talented and available local crew, stage space for our constructed sets and the Czech production incentive.”

    Several high-end TV dramas shot in the Czech Republic recently, including Amazon Studios’ Carnival Row, which wrapped after 108 shooting days in mid-March, and an eight-part German adaptation of the 1981 U-boat movie Das Boot.

  • Georgia

    Recent projects shot in Georgia include French director Husson’s Cannes competition entry 'Girls of the Sun.'
    Recent projects shot in Georgia include French director Husson’s Cannes competition entry 'Girls of the Sun.'
    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Georgia is the new kid when it comes to attracting international film productions. But its filmmaking culture is nearly as old as Hollywood, with domestic cinematography dating to 1908 and a wealth of Soviet (and more recently) French and other international co-productions to its credit.

    About 15 Georgian features and eight documentaries are produced each year. In 2015, Tangerines, an Estonian-Georgian co-production directed by Zaza Urushadze, was short-listed for an Oscar in the foreign-language category; this year, his daughter Ana’s directorial debut, Scary Mother, was Georgia’s Oscar submission.

    Two years ago, the country introduced its “Film in Georgia” cash rebate incentive for international productions, offering a 20 percent rebate on qualified local spend and an additional 2 percent-5 percent for including Georgian elements in projects.

    Although Georgia is not as richly resourced with studio facilities as other locations in the wider region, its crew depth allows it to support big projects simultaneously. There are four soundstages available to productions, and most movie equipment rental companies can be found in the capital of Tbilisi. Grip equipment, generators, cameras, lights and cranes are all locally available, and when more sophisticated gear is required, it can be easily rented and shipped from countries within the region, including Ukraine and Turkey.

    “Georgia is a relatively small but very diverse country in terms of architectural styles, climate and landscapes,” notes Lika Mezvrishvili, head of the Film in Georgia program. “You can shoot snow-capped mountains and sunny beaches on the same day. Its unique and captivating fusion of medieval and modern architecture, with Asian, European and Soviet styles, makes it possible to double for Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. The country also has a modern infrastructure, and we offer a business-friendly, safe environment with lower prices compared with similar locations in Europe.”

    Perhaps best of all, filming in Georgia is simple, with most state and publicly owned locations being accessible without a permit, and police, local authorities and communities are cooperative.

    Recent productions that have shot there include My Happy Family by In Bloom directors Nana Ekvtimishvil and Simon Gross; Halo of Stars, starring Lily Collins and Holliday Grainger; and the Kurdish female fighters drama Girls of the Sun, a Cannes competition entry from French director Eva Husson.

  • Lithuania

    Lily James starred in the six-hour miniseries 'War & Peace.'
    Lily James starred in the six-hour miniseries 'War & Peace.'
    Courtesy of BBC

    Although tiny in terms of size and population (2.8 million, of which 500,000 live in the capital Vilnius), Lithuania punches above its weight as a filming location.

    Tax incentives worth 20 percent of in-country spending have helped attract big-ticket productions, including the BBC-A&E adaptation of War & Peace and, this year, the HBO/Sky co-production of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries about the 1986 nuclear-reactor meltdown in Ukraine. A range of European projects are also scheduled to shoot there, including the first Lithuanian-Irish co-production, The Castle; The Conductor, a Swedish TV series set in the 1990s; and Gate to Heaven, an Armenian-Lithuanian co-production.

    Although Lithuania cannot compete with bigger production centers in terms of facilities, three studios cater to different types of film and TV productions. KS Film Studio, just outside Vilnius, offers services including green-screen VFX, equipment and wardrobe in addition to two soundstages (set to be outfitted with a smart LED lighting system and other upgrades in 2019). There is also Vilnius Film Cluster, a soundstage and service complex in a reconstructed industrial site established by a group of production and service companies. It offers 1,100 square meters of floor space, storage and green-screen areas. Finally, there’s the 1,500-square-meter Vilnius Film Studio.

    “We are welcoming filmmakers from all over the world and working with companies like HBO, the BBC, Netflix, ABC and National Geographic,” says Vilnius Film Office head Jurate Pazikaite. “Vilnius is a city of life that stands at the juncture of three cultures — central, northern and Eastern Europe.”

  • Hungary

    'Blade Runner 2049' made use of Hungary’s Mafilm Studios, home to the second-largest water tank (4,700 cubic meters) in Europe.
    'Blade Runner 2049' made use of Hungary’s Mafilm Studios, home to the second-largest water tank (4,700 cubic meters) in Europe.
    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    One of the great benefits of shooting in Budapest (aside from the 30 percent tax incentive) is that it can easily double as a dozen other cities. Filmmakers have dressed it as Moscow (for the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller Red Sparrow), Berlin (Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which also shot Budapest as Paris) and even Buenos Aires (for Evita).

    But it’s not just the malleable locations that make Hungary such an attractive place — it also has excellent, state-of-the-art facilities, including Origo Studios, the largest in Hungary (with 195,000 square feet), and Korda Studios, built just outside of town, as well as the modernized 101-year-old state Mafilm Studios, which boasts the second-largest water tank in Europe. The recently completed pool has a capacity of nearly 4,700 cubic meters and can be filled and heated in a matter of days, making it perfect for the watery climax of Blade Runner 2049 as well as for upcoming productions like Paramount’s Will Smith vehicle Gemini Man and Skydance’s reboot of The Terminator (reuniting Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton). But even movies and TV productions that don’t need to get wet have been flocking to Hungary, like Showtime’s Homeland, the Swedish TV series Hidden and Paramount TV’s Berlin Station.

    Says Hungarian film commissioner Andrew Vajna: “Budapest offers unique locations and a well-equipped infrastructure for any type of production. Hungarian crews are very skilled and experienced; we estimate there are more than 20,000 people working in the Hungarian film industry.”

  • Estonia

    Most foreign shoots in Estonia, like the Depression-era tale 'The Eternal Road' from Finland, come from neighboring countries.
    Most foreign shoots in Estonia, like the Depression-era tale 'The Eternal Road' from Finland, come from neighboring countries.
    Courtesy of Nordisk Film

    Estonia doesn’t have a lot of production facilities (although a 1,200-square-meter studio is in the works in the capital city of Tallinn), nor does it have as many medieval castles as other places in central Europe (the country is a third of the size of New York state, with a population of just 1.3 million). But it does have one giant selling point. “There is little bureaucracy,” explains Hannes Aava, a spokesman for the Black Nights Film Festival, a 16-day cinema event held in Tallinn. “You can start a company in five minutes and file taxes in three minutes.”

    If you file at all: For Estonian residents — which pretty much anybody can become after a couple of hours of paperwork — there is no corporate tax.

    Another bonus to shooting in this tiny Baltic country: There’s a slew of financial incentives aimed at attracting filmmakers, starting with a 30 percent in-country tax break but also some highly specific specialty funds, like Estonia 100, which gives grants to local filmmakers shooting movies that celebrate the 100th anniversary of Estonia’s independence (Estonians are really into their birthday: there are five Estonian independence movies in production as well as two documentaries, a full-length animated film and a 10-part miniseries). Most of the foreign productions shooting in Estonia tend to be from the neighboring countries, like Hamilton, a Swedish TV spy thriller, and the Finnish feature The Eternal Road, about a man leaving America amid the Great Depression. But German and British films and TV shows have shot there as well, and Estonia film advocates are doing their best to lure U.S. productions.

    “Estonia is flexible, professional, technologically advanced and easily accessible,” Edith Sepp, head of the Estonian Film Institute, tells THR. “Foreign producers will have the personal touch with funders and decision-makers. Breathtaking landscapes, medieval cityscapes, world-class talent and cultural passion make it easy to shoot any kind of film in Estonia.”

    Having a strong international film festival also helps. The Black Nights festival, taking place mid-winter for 22 years now, brings in film talent from all over the world for networking and film training events. “The Black Night Film Festival has become a gate for audiovisual content in basically all phases of production,” says festival director Tina Lock, “starting from conceiving the story and helping in various stages and aspects of production, from design, acting, scoring and helping the projects find the right platforms, festivals and sales agents.” She says the festival takes a holistic approach to filmmaking, with programs like Creative Gate, introduced last year, that taps talents, such as actors and composers, and introduces them to producers to spark potential collaborations.

    Another innovative program, Scriptpool Tallinn, also introduced in 2017, is a development contest that’s already attracted screenplays from internationally accomplished filmmakers such as India-born, U.S.-based director Shonali Boase (Margarita With a Straw) and Russian helmer Alexander Kott (Insight).

    And then there’s a new studio being planned. Dubbed Tallinn Film Wonderland, it is envisioned as a complex of high-tech soundstage facilities on land donated by the city. The project has been hampered by stop-and-start finance negotiations, but organizers are hopeful that ground will be broken in 2019.

    “We have gathered six local major production houses and film producers together in a cluster under one private entity to get the soundstage finally done,” says Ivo Felt, who produced Tangerines, the Estonian-Georgian co-production.

    “We badly need it for our own films and also for production services. After launching the 30 percent cash rebate, we have become pretty attractive here.”

    A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 9 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.