Spain, Rhode Island among hot new places to film


Rhode Island
Southern powerhouses Louisiana and New Mexico are still the dominant forces in the U.S. production incentive wars, but this tiny New England state has been putting a few dents in their armor with a 25% transferable tax credit for all in-state spending on film, TV, commercial and video game projects with minimum budgets of $300,000 that are shot primarily within its narrow borders.

"Our entire state is 48 miles long and 40 miles wide, which is to our great advantage," says Steven Feinberg, executive director of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office. "You can be in a cityscape one minute and in 10 minutes be on a rural farm, then 10 minutes from there be on an ocean drive where the Vanderbilt mansions are."

The state's combination of compactness and economy has helped attract such recent films as Fox's "27 Dresses," the 2007 releases "Dan in Real Life," "Underdog" and "Evening," as well as the Showtime series "Brotherhood," which will be returning to shoot a third season.

Rhode Island has also drawn the interest of Santa Monica-based Pacifica Ventures. The

production facilities operation and development firm recently unveiled plans to build a $75 million 60-acre studio in the state featuring eight soundstages, but its construction is dependent on the passage of pending legislation known as the Rhode Island Motion Picture Studio Tax Credit, which would grant the developers a 20% tax credit on construction costs. The film studio would be the state's first.

While Rhode Island's existing tax credit benefits have been threatened with annual capping amid state budget concerns, production continues to hum along. Richard Gere recently finished shooting director Lasse Hallstrom's indie feature "Hachiko: A Dog's Story" locally, and Scott Free Prods.' Edgar Allan Poe adaptation "Tell-Tale" began lensing there in March.

Economy-minded film and TV productions have been choosing to shoot in Eastern Europe ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, drawn by large Soviet-built

studios, well-educated workers and, most important, severely depressed economies that translated into cheap labor and facilities. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania have historically been the former Iron Curtain countries of choice, but as their economies have improved, prices have gone up, opening the door for Lithuania to grab a larger piece of the runaway production pie.

Until recently, the most notable Lithuanian productions have been historical miniseries or TV movies such as the adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (2007), "Washington the Warrior" (2006) and "Elizabeth I" (2005), starring Helen Mirren. But last year the country took its game up a notch when it landed a pair of Hollywood features slated for 2008 releases: Paramount Vantage's "Defiance," a $50 million World War II drama directed by Ed Zwick with Daniel Craig in the lead role, and the First Look thriller "Transsiberian," starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley.

Unfortunately, the country still only has few production facilities of note, including the relatively small Lithuanian Film Studios, which has a mere four soundstages, but Lithuania compensates with a wealth of inexpensive skilled labor and a topography that makes it perfect for period pieces.

Says Pieter Jan Brugge, who produced "Defiance" with Zwick: "When you can find every single location that you're looking for, and feel that you're out in the middle of nowhere in the forests that go on for miles and miles, and you know that you can achieve that within a half-hour or 45 minutes driving from the center of Vilnius, where you're housing your crew, you're in great shape."

Saskatchewan, Canada
This western Canadian province first instituted tax incentives in 1998, but it didn't start to take off as a production destination until the arrival of 2005's "Just Friends," starring Ryan Reynolds.

"The value that New Line was able to get on the screen made people start to recognize that this was a viable place to film," says Suzanne Bell, CEO and commissioner of SaskFilm, the province's funding agency and film commission. "Then (director) Terry Gilliam came here

to shoot (2005's) 'Tideland,' which provided some international awareness for film and television producers."

Part of the appeal is Canada Saskatchewan Production Studios, established in 2002, which features four soundstages, along with fully furnished production offices and a full complement of support services. But the main attraction is its generous tax credit package, which grants a rebate equal to 45% of the total wages of all eligible Saskatchewan labor, with an added 5% if the film is shot in smaller towns or rural areas 25 miles or more from the province's two major cities, Regina and Saskatoon. Another 5% can be earned by hiring locals in six of 10 key positions (including writer, director, cinematographer and production designer). The incentive's most unique aspect is its "deeming" provision, which allows outside crew members to be counted as local labor if they provide training to Saskatchewan residents, which makes it more affordable for productions to employ top talent while simultaneously building the skills and credits of locals.

Recent Saskatchewan productions include Overture's "Sleepwalking," starring Nick Stahl and Charlize Theron, and Anchor Bay's thriller "Walled In," starring Mischa Barton, and such homegrown Canadian television projects as the long-running half-hour comedy "Corner Gas" and the 2008 miniseries "The Englishman's Boy."

"Ten years ago, we'd have a show a year," says Rhonda Baker, a Saskatchewan-based line producer, whose credits include "Tideland" and the upcoming indies "Downloading Nancy" and "Surveillance." "Now there are probably three going at all times. It's enough for people here in the province that now they can make a living at it, instead of just doing it once in a while and then going back to a different job."

When making a reported $17 million romantic comedy titled "My Life in Ruins" about a tour guide (Nia Vardalos) working the ruins of ancient Athens, it would seem best to shoot the film in Greece. And while the film will do some location work in Athens, the filmmakers decided to base the production across the continent in the Valencia region of Spain, where they could take advantage of the government's 12%-18% rebate on local spend and shoot at Alicante's Ciudad de la Luz, a new $75 million state-of-the art studio complex boasting eight air-conditioned soundstages, a 57,000-square-foot "superstage," a 52-acre backlot, postproduction services and more than 100,000 square feet of workshops and warehouses.

Ciudad de la Luz did another turn as Athens, this time circa 50 B.C., in the latest installment of the French comedy film series "Asterix," titled "Asterix at the Olympic Games," from Pathe, which had a reported budget of nearly $100 million. But the studio complex's unveiling since its 2005 opening has not been entirely smooth, as the European Commission launched an investigation in February into potential illegal government aid for the complex.

Beyond the Valencia region, the capital city of Madrid has also seen success attracting outside productions, including such upcoming films as Fox's "Deception," starring Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman; Steven Soderbergh's "Guerrilla," starring Benicio Del Toro; and Focus Features' "The Limits of Control," starring Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray.

Production levels in Spain look to increase exponentially if plans for three new major film studio complexes in Madrid, San Sebastian and Asturias -- designed to compete with Ciudad de la Luz -- come to fruition. In the meantime, there is the new 18% tax break offered for projects made in the country.

"Theoretically, any company that invests in Spanish cinema today will get an 18% tax credit on their corporate returns, which is basically an 18% profit on their investment," says Intervision Partners CEO Max Montalvo, executive producer of "King Conqueror," starring Tim Roth, an historical epic currently being shot in Spain.