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Geography can sometimes seem like destiny. Portugal, that smaller Iberian nation bordering Spain, could seem fated to forever live in the shadow of its mighty cinema neighbor. With less than a quarter of Spain’s population and fewer resources, Portugal has often been overlooked, both as a cinema nation and — despite the country’s stunning natural beauty, mild, sunny climate and top-notch infrastructure — as a location for international shoots.
Critics and awards committees also have tended to ignore Portuguese cinema, despite its long and rich tradition, stretching from Francisco Ribeiro’s musical classic O Pátio das Cantigas from 1942 and Manoel de Oliveira’s satiric gem Os Canibais (1988) to Miguel Gomes’ wildly ambitious 2015 Arabian Nights trilogy, arguably the most important cinematic treatment of the 2008-2009 economic crisis. It seems shocking to note, but Portugal has never been nominated for an Academy Award, and no Portuguese film has even made the Oscar shortlist.
The Academy might take a while to catch up, but the global production industry has finally discovered Portugal. Ira Sachs chose the verdant foothills of Sintra as the backdrop for his 2019 family drama Frankie, starring Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson and Jérémie Renier. Harvey Keitel and Brazilian star Sônia Braga (Bacurau) made the Portuguese pilgrimage for Marco Pontecorvo’s Fatima, the true story of three young shepherds who claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. Rural Sintra, as well as parts of urban Lisbon, stood in for New England in Richard Stanley’s cosmic horror tales Color Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage. Even Bollywood has landed, with Siddharth Anand choosing Portugal for his 2019 action epic War starring Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff and Vaani Kapoor.
“Portugal is a destination with a great cultural and natural diversity, and all this in a geographically very concentrated area,” says Rita Marques, Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, in full promotion mode. “This means that for any argument, we have the perfect scenario just around the corner.”
Portugal has backed up its talk with cash, launching a direct tax rebate system in 2018 that gives visiting productions rebates from 25 percent to 30 percent of the cost of production, based on eligible local spend. Capped at a maximum rebate of $4.8 million (4 million euros) per project with a total annual spend of $14 million (12 million euros), the scheme was a clear signal to the international industry that Portugal was open for business. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at the time, Marques’ predecessor, Ana Mendes Godinho, admitted that when it came to the film industry, Portugal “had been a little bit sleeping” but that its goal was to become “the best and the most competitive country in Europe for filming.”
It appears to be well on its way. Three years ago, Millennium Films set up a post-production hub in Braga, near Porto, where it has done VFX work for such features as Rambo: Last Blood, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and Angel Has Fallen. In 2020, British groups MovieBox and Landesdown Capital Partners agreed to invest $72 million (60 million euros) in a new, state-of-the-art production complex in Loulé on the southern Algarve coast.
“The 30 percent cash rebate was launched the same year as our studio and had a direct impact on our growth,” notes Celine Fernandes, international business director at Millennium’s studio division Nu Boyana. “Portugal suits any VFX or filming studio looking for a stable, peaceful country and an attractive place to work for its crew. Our relationship with the film commission has been positive and open since the beginning, making this a good location to settle as well.”
Last September, Netflix recognized Portugal’s rising international profile by commissioning its first local-language original: the historical spy thriller Glória. Set in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, it focuses on RARET, a rebroadcasting office of Radio Free Europe, the CIA-backed front organization that broadcast American propaganda to the Eastern Bloc. At the center is Joao Vidal, a RARET engineer recruited by the KGB to take on several high-risk espionage missions that could change the course of Portuguese and world history. Portuguese talents Miguel Nunes, Carolina Amaral and João Arrais star alongside U.S. actors Matt Rippy, Jimmy Taenaka and Stephanie Vogt.
Produced by SPI, a division of Portugal’s Grupo SP Televisao, and public broadcaster RTP, Glória shot on location in the Ribatejo region and in Lisbon in 2020 and is currently in post-production.
SPI executive director José Amaral calls the Netflix production “the beginning of a new cycle for the Portuguese audiovisual market, since it places our country on the road map of the great international productions that Netflix has been advocating.”
Nuno Artur Silva, Portugal’s secretary of state for cinema, audiovisual and media, says he hopes the project, which received government backing, “will give visibility to the creativity of Portuguese screenwriters, directors and producers, and give the country’s cinema and audiovisual a new dynamism.”
That new dynamic is already playing out on the ground. Netflix filmed part of the fifth season of its Spanish mega-hit Money Heist in Portugal in 2020, and HBO Europe won over critics with its first Portuguese-language drama, the crime series Auga Seca, which just wrapped its second season. One of the hottest new projects at the Cannes Film Market this year, Protagonist Pictures’ romantic comedy Fado!, starring Emily Watson, is set to shoot in Lisbon this year.
Asked what the main appeal of Portugal is for international producers, Silva can’t hold back. “An appealing climate, accessibility to any type of scenario within a few hours, skilled services and affordable cost of living and health care system — these are a few of the 11 reasons that list Portugal as a desirable country to film in,” he says, noting that “historical, geographic, social and even economic” factors — a nod to the country’s relatively low wage costs — made Portugal an ideal location for visiting shoots.
The Portuguese industry has even come through COVID-19 relatively unscathed, thanks to government support from the Portuguese Film and Audiovisual Institute to local producers forced to shut down or cancel productions during the country’s coronavirus lockdown in 2020.
But even as it ramps up its government support programs and financing schemes, Portugal is acutely aware of the need to protect the pristine countryside that is one of its key selling points to international producers. The nation is already one of the greenest in Europe, relying on renewables for 60 percent of its electricity production (with a goal to hit 80 percent by 2030). The Portugal Film Commission this year launched “Greenshooting Portugal” with guidelines for visiting television and film crews on how to make productions more sustainable, covering everything from using public transport for shuttling around cast and crew to more energy efficient options for post-production.
Progressive ideas run through all of the country’s film schemes. Portugal’s tax rebate program allows for a higher rebate — up to 30 percent — if producers shoot in economically disadvantaged rural areas or employ actors or technicians with disabilities. On the local level, one of the country’s most ambitious new television projects — Told by Women — will see 10 female Portuguese directors, including Diana Antunes, Fabiana Tavares, Laura Seixas and Rita Barbosa, adapt 10 classics of Portuguese literature for the small screen. The co-production by Ukbar Filmes, RTP1 and Krakow Film Klaster, which began shooting in April across the country, is meant to address the significant gender gap within the local industry.
Diversity is also at the center of Wolf and Dog, the first narrative feature from documentary director Cláudia Varejão (Ama-San), which looks at the “huge LGBTQIA+ community” among the traditional fishing villages on the isolated Atlantic island of Sao Miguel off the Portuguese coast. The feature, a co-production between Portugal’s Terratreme and La Belle Affaire in France, is set for a summer shoot.
With its forward-looking government, generous support programs and creative local workforce, it seems the Portuguese film industry is ready to take its place in the sun. Maybe, suggests Marques, for this long sliver of a nation on the far west of Europe, geography is destiny, after all.
“Portugal is the first place where the Atlantic meets Europe. Therefore, the closest location to the USA,” she quips. “There is no way for a Hollywood producer to resist our charms and our proposals to film in Portugal. Come and test us.”
Five Recent Productions Shot in Portugal
Siddharth Anand scaled Portugal’s highest peak, the 6,500-foot Serra da Estrela, and sent stars Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff skidding across Luiz I Bridge in Porto for the showdown scenes in his 2019 action thriller War, one of three Bollywood productions to shoot in Portugal since the country introduced its tax-rebate scheme.
Critics were not kind to Ira Sachs’ 2019 drama, about a rich family on holiday in the Portuguese paradise of Sintra, but no one faulted his choice of locations, with many reviewers rating the scenery over the screenplay.
Marco Pontecorvo returned to the original Portuguese locations — the city of Fatima and the Carmelite convent in Coimbra — for his dramatization, starring Harvey Keitel, Sônia Braga and Stephanie Gil, of three young shepherds who inspired believers and angered church and government officials in 1917 when they claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Color Out of Space
Rural Portugal stands in for rural New England in this sci-fi mystery starring Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson. Sintra’s natural beauty acts as an effective counterpoint to the freakout horrors of director Richard Stanley’s visuals, adapted from a story by the endearingly weird H.P. Lovecraft.
Everyone Loves Jeanne
Céline Devaux, the French director of award-winning animated shorts Sunday Lunch (2015) and Gros Chagrin (2017), headed to Portugal for her leap to feature-length, live-action drama in this co-production between France’s Les Films du Worso and Portuguese production house O Som e a Furia.
International production shingles are setting up shop in Portugal
From Millennium Films’ Nu Boyana Studios to Brit producer MovieBox, word is getting out about all the country has to offer
Five hundred miles of coastline and 300 days of sun a year” were the two key data points that convinced Céline Fernandes, international business director at Millennium Films’ Nu Boyana Studios, to set up a production hub in Portugal.
Since its launch in 2018, Nu Boyana Portugal, located in Braga, near Porto, has ramped up quickly and now boasts about 30 local crew, with the ability to scale up when needed. The Braga studio handled VFX work for most of Millennium’s recent productions, including CG integration, set extensions and general compositing on The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek; Ric Roman Waugh’s actioner Angel Has Fallen with Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman; and upcoming genre titles The Protégé (Jackson, Michael Keaton, Maggie Q) and Jolt (Kate Beckinsale, Stanley Tucci).
“We do VFX and animation from A to Z with a strong angle on character development,” says Fernandes of Nu Boyana’s Portugal setup, noting that the location “in the first country you can reach from the U.S.” makes it a “versatile complement” with the company’s main studio backlot in Sofia, Bulgaria. “We’ve got West to East at a glance.”
Nu Boyana won’t be the last international production company to put down roots in Portugal.
British outfit MovieBox is set to break ground in the coming months in Loulé on the southern Algarve Coast on the site of a former brewery. Backed by Landesdown Capital Partners, MovieBox has pledged to invest $72 million (60 million euros) to erect a state-of-the-art production complex and VFX studio. The 160,000-square-foot site will feature three indoor soundstages, two outside water stages, a greenscreen and a TV studio within a tech hub.
On June 15, Portuguese production services firm Spy Manor Productions announced a strategic collaboration with MovieBox Group aimed at bringing international co-productions to the Algarve. Their first project, done in collaboration with Portugal’s Monte Productions, will be the drama The Infernal Machine, written and directed by Andrew Hunt (Miles Between Us). Spy Manor, MovieBox and Monte will also team up on Kit Monkman’s experimental drama The Dark Room, and on psychological sci-fi thriller The Evil in Me, written and directed by Carl Strathie (Dark Encounter). MovieBox and Spy Manor have also announced plans for a film fund to help bankroll co-productions to shoot in the region.
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