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For the global film industry, Tenet put Estonia on the map.
Christopher Nolan’s 2020 sci-fi epic shot several key scenes in the tiny eastern European nation, including the opening raid on the “Kyiv Opera House” (actually city hall in the Estonia capital Tallinn) and the show-stopping high-speed car chase on Tallinn’s Laagna Tee highway. The Warner Bros. production — which took advantage of Estonia’s generous 30 percent cash rebate for local spend — was proof positive that Estonia could both attract and service the biggest movies out there.
Building on this momentum, the country has begun planning on a major film studio campus and soundstage complex, Tallinn Film Wonderland, construction of which will begin next year. The first phase, set for completion by 2024, will see the building of three soundstages of 14,000 square feet, 8,900 square feet and 5,400 square feet, with a height of up to 46 feet, and the renovation of three other buildings representing a further 32,000 square feet of rental space, as well as a backlot, open air cinema and concert venue and warehouses and workshops. Further, bigger studios, of around 27,000 square feet are planned for the second phase, between 2027 and 2030, with the addition of multimedia studios for gaming and online production.
“The venture is one of the capital’s biggest priorities,” says Tallinn’s Deputy Mayor Joosep Vimm. “It will create a modern, world-class working environment for filmmakers and raise the level of Estonia’s film industry. It will also bring top foreign talent and the profits that come with their profiles.”
But Estonia is not just Tallinn. Outside the capital, in the most north-eastern region of Idu-Viru, the country has ambitious plans to create a hub for international production, taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty — the rugged Baltic coastline, pristine inland forests and long sandy beaches, and its deep and varied history, on display in everything from medieval monasteries and churches to industrial plants and brutalist architecture from the Soviet era.
“I shot my latest, Free Money, in Ida-Viru and found everything from surreal western-like dust hills and industrial post-apocalyptic cities — to more conventional forests, seaside and urban location suitable for a wide range of genres,” says Rain Rannu, a director and partner in the Tallifornia Film Fund, Estonia’s first private film fund. “We’re expecting that the addition of a soundstage and other modern production facilities in the next few years will make it even more attractive for productions of all sizes.”
In the meantime, the region has sweetened the pot with the Viru Film Fund Incentives, Estonia’s first regional fund, which was launched in 2013 by four rural municipalities in Ida-Viru County and functions as a cash rebate for productions that shoot in the eastern region. The rebate, of up to 40 percent of local spend, up to a $210,000 (€200,000) maximum, requires the participation of an Estonian partner but the fund aims for maximum flexibility, with no minimum spending requirements and no artistic criteria imposed on applicants. The application period lasts from Feb. 10 until Oct. 31 and projects are handled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Planning is underway for a 21,500 square foot soundstage in the region which will also act as a production center with shooting services and support. The complex is expected to be finished by 2025.
This comes on top of Film Estonia’s 30 percent cash rebate — available for narrative features, feature documentaries, animated film and series, high-end TV drama and post-production spend in the region — and the country’s co-production schemes, which offer up to $736,000 (€700,000) in subsidies for a majority co-producer and up to $210,000 (€200,000) for a minority co-pro.
The Cultural Endowment of Estonia offers a final top-up: providing up to $126,000 (€120,000) in funding for majority co-productions and up to $63,000 (€60,000) for minority co-productions that qualify.
The incentives have drawn in shoots from the near-abroad, with productions like Marius Holst’s Nordic action drama King of Devil’s Island starring Stellan Skarsgård, the Estonian-Finnish thriller Omerta 6/12 or period epic The Eternal Road, an Estonian-Finnish-Swedish co-pro all picking locations in Idu-Viru.
“I was amazed by the incredible and accessible locations of the country,” says Miguel Llanso, the Spanish director of Fantasia Film Festival winner Crumbs (2015) who shot his last two features: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway and Infinite Summer in Estonia and now lives in Tallinn. “Estonia is a small country, but its film industry is highly professional, skilled, and experienced. Everything is at hand and everybody knows everybody, which makes the film productions fast and effective.”
About half the size of Maine, Estonia’s compact size is a huge logistical advantage for productions big and small. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tallinn to Narva in Idu-Viru on the Russian border.
“As a country, we are diverse but very small, which makes logistics take less time and cost less money,” notes Nele Paves, film commissioner at the Estonian Film Institute. “It is absolutely perfect for location-based shooting should your project need architecture from different eras or the nature of many different seasons.”
Being so close to Russia, however, has spooked some international productions, especially since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, leading many outside the region to worry that the war could spill over into the neighboring Baltic regions.
“I think Hollywood has been extra cautious after the war started next door to us,” Paves says. “Nothing concrete was canceled per se, but that was the feeling in the air.”
Those fears were always more imagined than real. Estonia is a member of both the European Union and NATO. Any aggression from Moscow would be seen as an attack on the entire western world.
“The region is stable and safe. In fact, the danger sensed in the West has been rather a geopolitical idea than a real threat, part of Russian information war,” notes Estonian culture minister Piret Hartman, who happens to come from the Idu-Viru region.
Russia’s true impact on Idu-Viru is historic. Mass immigration has left the area with the largest Russian-speaking community in Estonia and elements of Russian culture linger in the Soviet-era architecture.
But even linking Estonia with the former East Bloc would be a mistake. Since regaining independence in 1991, the region has rapidly modernized its infrastructure and institutions. By several measures — including digitalization of public services, Internet speeds, and the integration of digital technology into daily life — Estonia is among the most digitally-advanced nations in Europe, on par with its neighbors in Scandinavia and well ahead of France and Germany, not to mention Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic.
“The Eastern Bloc reputation still hangs above us, and in reality is nowhere to be seen when you actually arrive here,” says Paves.
One of the most common misconceptions, of Estonia and especially Ida-Viru county, notes Viru Film Fund Coordinator Pia Tamm, is that “you can´t manage [here] without English. Ida-Viru County has a large Russian-speaking population, but the younger generation speaks English well.”
In feel and attitude, says Llanso, Estonia is closer to “Finland or Canada” than its eastern bloc neighbors. “You can almost leave the door of your house open and nobody will steal anything from you,” he notes.
Estonia has been keen to strengthen its cultural hold on the region with some soft-power tactics, including KinoFF, a side festival of Tallinn’s internationally-renowned Black Nights Film Festival, which this year screened some two dozen films for young and adult viewers in the three main cities of Ida-Viru: Narva, Jõhvi and Kohtla-Järve. The event also included a Web3 conference which attracted several dozen industry experts, from as far away as the U.S. and South Korea, to discuss the use of Web3 technology, including the blockchain, crypto, and NFTs, in the traditional media business.
“The aim of the festival is to engage the local Russian community,” says Black Nights Film Festival cirector Tiina Lokk. “It is of great importance to carry out systematic and purposeful development work in the region which would otherwise be largely in the sphere of influence of Russia’s information space.”
Another offshoot of the Black Nights festival, its Discovery Campus educational initiative, which aims to provide professional training, and newcomers and industry veterans alike, is also focusing on the Ida-Viru region with the goal of training a new generation of crew members.
The region, says Discovery Campus managing director Triin Tramberg, is “welcoming to local and international film crews but lacking [home-grown] professionals. The Discovery Campus helps with local labor shortage and helps to save budget costs and create more environmental productions.”
Demand is already high. More than 50 international productions have shot in Estonia and around 20 more are prepping for shoots next year.
“We have been working throughout COVID-19 and also now sadly through the War in Ukraine,” notes Paves. “We have foreign film crews here every day of the year.”
The next Tenet is just a matter of time.
Key resources and local contacts for shooting in Estonia
Viru Film Fund: Pia Tamm, Viru Film Fund Coordinator. Email: email@example.com
Tartu Film Fund: Kaarel Kuurmaa. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Film Fund of Estonian Islands: Email: email@example.com
Estonian Film Institute: Nele Paves, Film Commissioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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