PRAGUE — How many words does it take to make a Czech film service producer start twitching? Four: “Cold Mountain” and “film incentives.”
Romania and Hungary are leading the drive to entice Hollywood coin farther east. Far-flung studios from Bulgaria to Lithuania are aggressively pursuing cost-cutting Westerners with these tempting words: cheaper than Prague.
How much cheaper? Try 40% in Lithuania, which has just privatized the Lithuanian Film Studio. Studio chief Ramunas Skikas is already in negotiations to bring in “Dungeons & Dragons 2” (the original was filmed in Prague), preparing 800 costumes for Showtime’s “Reefer Madness” and overseeing a scouting for a major Hollywood film.
Management is so enthusiastic over the country’s prospects that two more soundstages are planned to open this year and next.
On the other end of the continent, Boyana Film Studio in Bulgaria provided services for 27 films in 2003 and expects to top that in 2004. TV and direct-to-video are their prime clients — production house NuImage has offices in the capital Sofia — with HBO due to shoot its first film at Boyana this year.
Although the studio is constructing a fourth soundstage, a delay in the planned privatization of Boyana, announced five years ago, is encouraging private producers to invest in their own stages.
Hungary, coming off a less-than-stellar 2003, is now the envy of its neighbors with the introduction of tax rebates of 20% of local spend on foreign films.
The Hungarian Film Commission, which has a permanent office in L.A., is going all out to promote the new law, including a presentation during this week’s Location Expo in Santa Monica.
Projects are cautiously waiting in the wings, because, as producer Kevan Van Thompson of Czech-Anglo Prods. points out, “The Hungarian law has not been tried or tested yet.”
In addition, it’s unclear if tax incentives will be enough to lure films. “Hungary needs a lot of spend on infrastructure,” Van Thompson says. “The film studios are pretty poor.”
“If I can afford Budapest, I can afford Prague,” says Robert Bernacchi, executive producer on “Underworld,” which filmed in Hungary in 2002. He’s co-producing “Cave” for Screen Gems, which will begin shooting in Romania in April. “Even with the tax incentives, Romania is cheaper than Hungary,” Bernacchi says.
With three film studios and a fourth one about to open, Romania is leading the pack of Prague wannabes.
“Prague has the advantage for the $50 million-plus budget; it’s a much safer venue,” says Bernacchi. “It will get hurt in the $30 million-and-under category. Romania represents competition there.” “Cave,” which falls in the mid-$20 million budget is a case in point.
Van Thompson sums up the region: “A lot of Western producers want to go to places where they’re getting more bang for their buck. Go to Lithuania or Romania if you really want to cut costs. Bulgaria has good studios and crews, but they’re weak on English. Hungary is good on special effects.”
The sleeper in the region is Slovakia. “They have a really nice studio,” he says.
The bottom line? “If you want value for money Prague is still way above all the others,” says Van Thompson.