'Chernobyl' to 'Fast & Furious': Savings, Scenery and Soundstages in Eastern Europe

9:20 PM 2/22/2020

by Stjepan Hundic

When it comes to the two Cs — cost and capacity — Eastern Europe offers a wealth of generous shooting incentives and state-of-the-art facilities.

Helen Mirren in HBO’s 'Catherine the Great' miniseries, which filmed in Lithuania.
Helen Mirren in HBO’s 'Catherine the Great' miniseries, which filmed in Lithuania.

The global explosion in production has been good to Central and Eastern Europe.

As TV channels and studios ramp up the volume of series they churn out to meet the hungry demands of new online services, and productions in booming international markets, particularly China and India, look abroad to find new locations to shoot their local-language blockbusters, the countries on Europe’s eastern edge are perfectly placed to take advantage.

The nations packed in from the Baltic in the north to the Adriatic in the south and from the Czech and Polish borders with Germany to the western edge of Russia offer a combination of low wage costs and locations that can stand in for Europe old (castles, medieval towns, grand country estates), new (high-tech city centers) and Soviet (brutalist concrete architecture). Add to that a highly trained local workforce, which draws on strong cinematic traditions and a newly vibrant local production scene, and it’s obvious why international productions including Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious 9, HBO’s Emmy-winning Chernobyl, Samuel L. Jackson and Maggie Q starrer The Asset and the bad-taste bonanza that will be David Sandberg’s action spoof Kung Fury 2 picked the region for their shoots.

Hungary and the Czech Republic are still the top spots for visiting productions, but smaller territories — Serbia, Georgia, Lithuania and Romania among them — are catching up, offering tasty tax incentives to lure away producers.

Here’s everything international producers and location scouts need to know about shooting in one of the world’s busiest locations sectors.

  • Georgia

    Michelle Rodriguez in the latest in the 'Fast & Furious' franchise, which filmed partly in Georgia.
    Michelle Rodriguez in the latest in the 'Fast & Furious' franchise, which filmed partly in Georgia.

    Georgia’s production services industry broke into the big time in 2019, hosting the country’s first-ever studio production when Fast & Furious 9 shot for 30 days from mid-August to mid-September in the capital, Tbilisi.

    The latest in Justin Lin’s gasoline-fueled franchise tapped the Film in Georgia scheme, which provides up to a 25 percent cash rebate on local spend, to the tune of $8.7 million. By far the biggest film production to ever shoot in the former Soviet republic, F9 was the test case to prove to Hollywood that Georgia could deliver at the tentpole level.

    Georgia is hoping to build on this progress in 2020, pushing the country’s unique fusion of medieval and modern architecture with European, Soviet and Asian styles as a prime location for productions from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Europe to China.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

    Incentives

    Georgia offers a 20 percent to 25 percent cash rebate on local qualifying spend, with an additional 2 percent to 5 percent top up if a projects meets a cultural test by including elements designed to promote Georgia. The rebate can be used for key nonresident salaries paid in the country, up to a maximum of 15 percent of the local spend. International and local productions have to register as legal entities in Georgia. At least 50 percent of a project’s total budget must be in place at the time of application. Qualifying rebates of up to $347,000 get automatic approval, higher rebates require special government approval. Production must begin within 24 months of receiving approval. The minimum spend for feature films, internet/TV films, drama series and miniseries is $174,000.

    Facilities

    GFS Studio in Tbilisi has three soundstages (two are 2,363 square feet with 24-foot ceilings and one is 3,300 square feet with a 26-foot ceiling).

    Recent Shoots

    F9, which spent more than 30 days and $8 million in Georgia, was the first studio project in the region. Other international shoots include British drama The Lady of Heaven, Cannes Directors’ Fortnight title And Then We Danced and Sharan Sharma’s Bollywood biopic Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, about India’s first female air force pilot.

    Local Facilitator

    David Vashadze, Film Commissioner (d.vashadze@gnfc.ge; +995 322999200)

  • Serbia

    Berlinale entry 'Minamata' was shot partially in Serbia.
    Berlinale entry 'Minamata' was shot partially in Serbia.

    Serbia has been a latecomer to the international production scene, but the Balkan country is quickly catching up. Two years ago, the Serbian government increased the country’s cash rebate for film production from 20 percent to 25 percent. Films that spend at least $5.4 million in the territory qualify for a 30 percent tax rebate. With no cap per project, the system is very competitive with the country’s more experienced neighbors — especially when Serbia’s lower wage bill is calculated in.

    "Serbia is extremely cost competitive, with project costs an estimated 20 percent lower than Hungary and 30 percent less than the Czech Republic," says Milica Bozanic of the Serbia Film Commission.

    That cost advantage likely played a role in convincing such high-profile productions as Luc Besson’s Anna, horror thriller Crawl and Johnny Depp-starrer
    Minamata, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale, to shoot in Belgrade. Bozanic says Serbia’s unique selling point is its film-friendly government, which allows easy and efficient cooperation "when it comes to working with government institutions, namely police and military [with regard to] access to locations, people and vehicles."

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

    Incentives

    Serbia offers a 25 percent cash rebate on qualified Serbian spend for feature films, TV series, animation films and visual effects, and a 30 percent rebate for feature films, with a minimum Serbian spend of $5.4 million. There is no cap per project, but the Serbian government’s allotted budget for the 2020 program is $6.8 million. The minimum local spend for feature films and TV films is $325,000, or $108,000 per episode for TV series. Minimum spend for animated films, post-production and TV commercials is $163,000, with $54,000 offered for documentaries.

    Facilities

    PFI Studios contains eight soundstages, ranging in size from 6,500 square feet to 20,000 square feet, with a 31-acre backlot. Vision Team, with three studios (6,500 square feet, 11,000 square feet and 14,000 square feet), comes fully equipped with production offices, makeup, wardrobe and editing suites. The old Avala Studios has five soundstages varying in size from 2,300 square feet to 15,500 square feet, including two inside water tanks, one indoor pool and a costume department with more than 30,000 costumes. Avala (in long-term rent) is currently building a new $54 million, 130,000-square-foot complex, which is expected to open in 2021 and be in full use by 2023.

    Recent Shoots

    Johnny Depp-starrer Minamata, Luc Besson actioner Anna and Alexandre Aja’s horror thriller Crawl.

    Local Facilitator

    Milica Bozanic, Executive Director, Serbia Film Commission (milica@filminserbia.com; +381 11 405 6691)

  • Bulgaria

    'Angel Has Fallen,' starring Gerard Butler, filmed in Bulgaria.
    'Angel Has Fallen,' starring Gerard Butler, filmed in Bulgaria.
    Lionsgate

    When it comes to the two big Cs of international production — cost and capacity — few territories can compete with Bulgaria. A low-wage workforce and a 10 percent flat tax for personal and corporate income (among the lowest in Europe) combine with ample studio space to make the region an appealing location for international productions big and small. Millennium produces the bulk of its high-end genre films on-site, including Rambo 5, Angel Has Fallen and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, with Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. On the weirder end of the spectrum is Kung Fury 2, David Sandberg’s hotly anticipated action comedy spoof that features the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Fassbender in a plot involving time travel, Hitler, dinosaurs and, yes, David Hasselhoff.

    The Bulgarian government is in the final stages of implementing a new tax incentive akin to the rebate systems in Hungry, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. “The working group will soon finish their job and then the new law has to be adopted by the National Assembly, after an open discussion with the professionals in the field,” Jana Karaivanova, CEO of the Bulgarian National Film Center, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The country needs it in order to keep up with the competition,” notes Nu Boyana Studios CEO Yariv Lerner. “Not having it has been a burden to date.”

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

    Incentives

    Bulgaria offers a very low flat tax rate (10 percent) for personal and corporate income and a guaranteed local 20 percent VAT refund within 30 days. The government plans to soon introduce a film incentive program with a 25 per cent cash rebate scheme.

    Facilities

    Millennium Media’s Nu Boyana studio includes 10 soundstages, ranging from 6,500 square feet to 21,500 square feet, along with a 43,000-square-foot stage with a 131,000-square-foot backlot.

    Recent Shoots

    Rambo 5, Angel Has Fallen, Jolt, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Kung Fury 2

    Local Facilitator

    Mila Petkova, Bulgarian National Film Center (mila@nfc.bg; +359 2 915 0811)

  • Lithuania

    Lithuania doubled for Soviet-era Russia in HBO’s 'Chernobyl.'
    Lithuania doubled for Soviet-era Russia in HBO’s 'Chernobyl.'

    With fewer than 3 million inhabitants, tiny Lithuania has found a niche in the production landscape by positioning itself as an ideal locale for high-end TV series, a business now booming thanks to new streaming platforms and increased commissioning from pay-TV competitors. Sky and HBO picked the Baltic nation for location shoots on its Emmy-winning miniseries Chernobyl, taking advantage of the brutalist architecture scattered across the country, a legacy of Lithuania’s Soviet-era past. They returned for Catherine the Great, a period series starring Oscar winner Helen Mirren as the eponymous Russian monarch, this time capitalizing on the country’s palaces and estates, in particular the Traku Voke Manor in Vilnius.

    Sweden’s Yellow Bird took advantage of Lithuania’s Nordic landscapes to shoot locations for Young Wallander, the prequel series to the popular crime dramas
    based on the Henning Mankell franchise. Also drawing them in has been a new tax incentive introduced last year, covering up to 30 percent of a production’s local spend, with a total annual cap of $54 million. Lithuania has even found a way to turn its size (180 miles from the Belarus border to the Baltic coast) into a positive. "Short distances are also among the many advantages Lithuania can offer," notes Deimantas Saladzius from the Department of Film Production at the Lithuanian Film Centre. "You have swaths of forest, stretches of deserts, 60 miles of sandy coastline [within easy reach]. In the capital city Vilnius, you can easily get from old town to Soviet housing blocks, from gothic churches to a 19th century prison, to medieval wooden houses."

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

    Incentives

    In 2019, Lithuania boosted its tax incentive to cover 30 percent of local spend. Foreign producers have to sign a co-production agreement for local services to qualify. There’s no cap on local expenditure per project, but to qualify, productions need to spend at least $47,000 in Lithuania and, for all but animation projects, have a three-day minimum shoot in the territory. Fifty-one percent of the crew hired by the local co-production partner must be either Lithuanians or citizens of European Economic Area (EEA) countries. Projects cannot be pornographic or "incite violence or hatred." All projects have to meet at least two of seven specific cultural criteria. These include being set in Lithuania or Europe; being based on a work of Lithuanian or European literature; being based on European or Lithuanian events, history, culture or mythology; being inspired by a well-known European or Lithuanian figure, either historical or mythological; focusing on issues of Lithuanian or European identity; or that the film builds on Lithuanian or European values of diversity of cultures and religions, human rights and civic awareness, democracy and solidarity, minority rights and tolerance or respect for cultural and family traditions; and the film reflects events of Lithuanian or European social life or politics.

    Facilities

    VFC audiovisual laboratory offers the largest soundstage (12,000 square feet) and the biggest greenscreen studio (3,800 square feet) in the Baltic states. KS film studio contains TV production studios and a 261,000-square-foot backlot.

    Recent Shoots

    HBO/Sky’s Emmy-winning miniseries Chernobyl and period drama Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren, Netflix’s Norwegian dystopian thriller Occupied.

    Local Facilitators

    Irma Simanskyte, Head of Film Production Department, Lithuanian Film Centre, (i.simanskyte@lkc.lt; +370 5 231 0762)

    Deimantas Saladzius, Film Tax Incentive Specialist, Lithuanian Film Centre, (d.salazdius@lkc.lt; +370 5 231 07 23)

  • Romania

    Jacques Audiard’s Western 'The Sisters Brothers' shot in Romania.
    Jacques Audiard’s Western 'The Sisters Brothers' shot in Romania.

    Romania can lay claim to being the home to one of the most distinctive and influential cinematic movements of the past two decades.

    The Romanian new wave, which arguably launched in Berlin when Cristi Puiu’s Cigarettes and Coffee took the festival’s Golden Bear for best short film, has since conquered the art house world, taking top honors in Cannes (Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Karlovy Vary (Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians in 2018) and twice in Berlin (for Cãlin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose in 2013 and Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not in 2018).

    But production in Bucharest these days goes far beyond art house. The country’s 35 percent cash rebate scheme, introduced in 2018, is among the most attractive in Europe. "The wide variety of locations, from the seaside to the mountains, gritty urban centers to Transylvanian castles and mansions, together with the new tax incentive, are the reasons foreign crews come and shoot here," says Romanian film director and producer Tudor Giurgiu.

    ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

    Incentives

    In 2018, Romania launched a 35 percent cash rebate scheme for local spend, which can be topped up by an additional 10 percent for projects that explicitly promote Romania. To qualify, 20 percent of a film’s total budget must be spent in Romania, with a $108,000 minimum spend. Grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The program has a $54 million annual budget. The National Film Center (CNC) also provides production grants for Romanian majority and minority productions, with projects evaluated on a point system, assessing the script and the filmographies of the director and producers.

    Grants range from $50,000 to $325,000 per project.

    Facilities

    Buftea Film Studios, 20 miles outside Bucharest, is the largest film studio in Eastern Europe, with a 100-acre backlot including access to a lake and forest park and 19 soundstages offering a total 231,000 square feet of shooting space. Four stages come with indoor water tanks, including a 130,000-cubic-foot tank, the largest in continental Europe. Castel film studios, 30 miles outside the capital, has 10 soundstages (from 6,500 square feet to 36,000 square feet) and 65 acres of backlot. Bucharest-based Avanpost is Eastern Europe’s largest postproduction hub.

    Recent Shoots

    Neil Burger’s sci-fi drama Voyagers with Colin Farrell and Lily-Rose Depp, crime thriller The Asset starring Samuel L. Jackson and Maggie Q, Corin Hardy’s horror hit The Nun and Jacques Audiard’s art house Western The Sisters Brothers starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix.

    Local Facilitators

    Alex Traila, Romanian Film Centre (international@cnc.gov.ro; +40 747 28 98 93)

    Iuliana Tarnovetchi, Alien Films Entertainment (office@alienfilmsentertainment.com; +40 21 327 63 04)

    This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 23 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.