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Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the three nations that stretch along the Baltic Sea coast, jammed in between Poland to the south and Finland across the water to the north, are barely the size of Missouri and, with a combined citizenry of 6.2 million, rank up there with Denmark in terms of population. But since reclaiming independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic states have punched above their weight on the international scene, not least when it comes to film production.
With a combination of tax and production incentives, high-tech infrastructure and stunning natural and urban backdrops, the region has established itself as a go-to location for international film and TV shoots, with recent examples including Tenet, Chernobyl and Stranger Things.
The Baltics have no plans to abandon the service industry — just last year, the Estonian government more than doubled Film Estonia’s cash-rebate budget to $5.8 million in a bid to bring back international productions post-COVID. But as directors, actors and below-the-liners across the region gain expertise, there is a new focus from filmmakers in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn on building their own industry and on supporting local talent. In some cases, this means taking a page from producers in neighboring Scandinavia and pooling state and broadcast resources across the region in pan-national co-productions. In others, it has meant tapping new sources, including private equity. All with the common focus of finding new ways to finance and produce Baltic stories telling of the countries and their people, of their past, present and their imagined futures.
Their success is demonstrated not only by Berlin’s European Film Market highlighting projects from the Baltic states as their 2023 “Countries in Focus,” but by the size and ambition of the homegrown films and series now coming out of the region. Here is a closer look.
Estonia might be the smallest of the Baltic countries, but its film industry is arguably the most ambitious. The country’s film institute went above and beyond to attract Christopher Nolan’s 2020 sci-fi epic Tenet to shoot in multiple locations across the country — at one point shutting down the main highway through the capital Tallinn for weeks just to accommodate the film’s massive set-piece car chase. “[It] showed we can act very fast and make the impossible possible,” says Estonian Film Institute CEO Edith Sepp.
The country’s next impossible act will be to build the region’s first major film studio and soundstage complex, Tallinn Film Wonderland, set to open next year, which will offer world-class production facilities and a backlot for large-scale film, TV and gaming projects.
But equally impressive has been the mounting of Last Sentinel, an upcoming sci-fi thriller from Estonian director Tanel Toom. Together with producer Ben Pullen and writer Malachi Smyth, Toom spent years developing and financing the action film, eventually attracting an impressive international cast, including Kate Bosworth (Barbarian, Superman Returns), Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Infinity Pool) and Lucien Laviscount (Supernatural, Emily in Paris) to come to Estonia for the shoot. The near-future thriller follows a squad of soldiers stranded on an abandoned military base waiting to be rescued as the enemy approaches. It was shot entirely on location and in the studio in and around Tallinn.
Last Sentinel was set up as an Estonia-Germany-U.K. co-production, with money coming from a complicated combination of European state film subsidies and public broadcaster cash, including from French-German network ARTE, and financing funds from equity and gap financiers from all the participating countries.
“It was rather difficult to meet each participant’s requirements — with all the execs, the film has 18 producers,” notes Ivo Felt of lead producer Allfilm. “Still, there was always a good will, and this made the film possible. Production-wise, shooting on the open Baltic Sea in autumn is not the easiest task. It was continuously cold and nasty. But it paid off.”
Last Sentinel made clever and efficient use of Estonia’s 30 percent cash rebate for local spend. “[In Estonia,] we are used to working with smaller crews, moving around quickly and not wasting time. The amount of shot footage in a day was enormous,” notes Felt. Altitude Film Sales, which is handling world sales for the film, closed presales deals for Last Sentinel with North American buyers Vertical Entertainment, Germany’s Weltkino and Phil Hunt’s Bohemia Media in the U.K.
In a first for an Estonian film, Last Sentinel also tapped private equity from Tallifornia Film Fund, the Baltics’ first private film fund. As Tallifornia Film Fund executive producer Rain Rannu explains, the decision to back a homegrown production was fueled by a desire to create a local industry that can be self-sustaining.
“We invested in Last Sentinel because it’s an English-language film with an A-list cast and universal appeal where Estonia is not merely a production service provider but the main creative force behind it,” says Rannu. “[The film has an] Estonian director, cinematographer, production designer, editor and many other creative roles. We’re always excited to see great filmmakers from small countries being able to tell stories that a lot of people around the world would enjoy.”
Last Sentinel will have its world premiere in Estonia, via Film Distribution, on March 17 and roll out in the U.S. on March 24.
Viesturs Kairiss has become the cinematic chronicler of Latvian history. His 2016 drama The Chronicles of Melanie, based on the true story of Melanija Vanaga, was a brutally realistic and terrifying account of the mass deportation of residents of Soviet-occupied Latvia in June 1941. His 2020 feature Sign Painter took a lighter touch, following the story of a young Latvian man who dreams of marrying the beautiful daughter of a local Jewish merchant but whose dreams are destroyed by the Soviet invasion and World War II. For his latest feature, January, Kairiss looks at more recent historic events: Latvia’s 1991 fight for independence.
“We made The Chronicles of Melanie with Viesturs, [and] in 2019 we approached him to take on this story of the events in the 1990s, which were a turning point for the Baltics and Eastern Europe after the USSR collapsed,” says Inese Boka-Grūbe, who produced January through Riga-based Mistrus Media. “Viesturs was 19 years old in 1991, so it was also very much a personal story.”
In fact, January is semiautobiographical, as Kairiss uses the Latvian historical record as a turbulent backdrop for his dark and dreamy tale of an aspiring filmmaker falling in love and searching for his own identity. He directed from a script co-written with Estonian screenwriters Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, both of whom collaborated on Juho Kuosmanen’s 2021 Cannes Grand Prix winner Compartment No. 6.
January debuted at Tribeca last year where it won the best international narrative feature honor; it went on to win best film at the Rome Film Festival as well as best actor honors for star Karlis Arnolds Avots.
Producing a period drama on a typically tight Latvian budget proved a challenge, so Mistrus brought in producers from Poland — Małgorzata Staron of Staron Film and Kestutis Drazdauskas of Lithuanian company Artbox — and tapped the country’s tax incentive to help boost the budget to a more workable $1.4 million.
“The co-production between Latvia, Poland and Lithuania was organic because we had shared historical circumstances with the Soviet occupation,” says Boka-Grūbe. “This made the story more universal and appealing to investors and distributors.”
The Yellow Affair, which is handling world sales for January, scored a major territory deal with Minerva in Italy for the film, which Mistrus released locally and which also sold to Latvian streamer Latvijas Mobilais.
The evocation of the very recent past — Kairiss uses archive and Super-8 film footage from 1991, and cinematographer Wojciech Staron brings to life a general feeling of oppression by applying shallow focus and crowding the Academy-ratio frame to box in January’s protagonists — felt extremely real to the local cast and crew.
“The reconstruction of that era and that time brought back a lot of strong emotions among the crew and actors,” says Boka-Grūbe. “Part of the film is about the non-violent resistance of the Baltic people to the Soviet occupiers in 1991.”
Though shot before the events of Feb. 24, 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gives January a chilling current resonance. “The war in Ukraine [had] made our story [sadly] even more important and current,” says Boka-Grūbe.
When making the TV series Troll Farm, Vilnius-based production house Dansu Films didn’t break the rules of high-end TV production in Lithuania — it made them. The dramedy, a five-part, one-hour series, was the first project of its kind in the country.
“Almost four years ago I told [screenwriters] Domantė Urmonaitė and Martynas Mendelis that I wanted to produce the first-ever Lithuanian high-end drama series with a strong female lead,” says Dansu Films producer Gabija Siurbytė. “And we did it: Troll Farm, the story of a corporate diva in red high heels in the muddy farms of Lithuania.”
Siurbytė plays Ana, that corporate diva. Troll Farm follows her story as an ambitious corporate climber who gets wrongfully dismissed from her job. In an effort to clear her name, Ana, from that muddy Lithuanian farmhouse, begins embracing the nastier side of social media. Enjoying the darker side of revenge, she eventually starts to resemble the monster she thinks she’s fighting.
Lithuania has plenty of experience with trolls. The internet- and tech-savvy nation has been on the front lines fighting Russian fake news and disinformation that has swamped online forums and chat rooms since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Thousands of ordinary Lithuanian citizens regularly contribute to the anti-troll community The Yorkshire Puppies, which scans social media to find and call out the lies coming out of the Kremlin. The work of these citizen activists, who call themselves elves (those who fight trolls) has even been cited by Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense as an alternative to military action for those who want to fight to defend Ukraine.
While Troll Farm has nothing to do with that conflict, the series draws from a deep knowledge of the use and misuse of the online information economy.
Troll Farm first attracted attention in 2021, when it became the inaugural winner of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival’s TV Beats Forum co-financing market. The series was then showcased at Content London and France’s Série Series, two of the top events for presenting in-development international TV productions.
Finding local talent and crew was not an issue thanks to the experience gained from visiting shoots of series such as HBO’s Chernobyl and the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, both of which used Lithuanian locations to play 1980s Russia.
“Lithuania has a well-developed tax incentive and internationally experienced film professionals,” notes Jana Mikulevič, head of the department of film promotion, information and heritage at the Lithuanian Film Centre. “[What] Lithuania lacks in filming studio facilities, it makes up for in the wide range of locations — a lot of shots can be done on-site.”
Adds Siurbytė: “Lithuanian crews [are used to working] on big Netflix and HBO productions and came to our project with rich experience. Everybody went an extra mile for this project.”
But, initially, financing Troll Farm was a challenge.
“Being the first such high-end drama TV series in Lithuania, there were no case studies to learn from,” says Siurbytė. “We didn’t even have translations of the legal terms for contracts with broadcasters.”
Troll Farm eventually picked up support from the Lithuanian Film Centre, the Lithuanian National broadcaster LRT and local streamer Telia Play and tapped local incentives and tax rebates to pull together its $1.3 million budget. The series shot in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and in the tiny village of Varkalabiškės (population 44) last summer. Troll Farm debuted in Lithuania on Jan. 15 on LRT and Telia Play, the first time a local show has streamed and been broadcast simultaneously on television. The series is being offered to global broadcasters and streamers at the European Film Market’s Berlinale Series Market.
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