Prague faces political ennui, lower costs from competitors

TIP SHEET
What: Karlovy Vary Int’l Film Festival
Where: Czech Republic
When: June 30- July 8
Guests: Luc Besson, Terry Gilliam, Kim Ki-duk

Bigger, better, cheaper. Central Europe is fast developing into a production service supermarket where producers can pick and choose between studio facilities, tax incentives and varying facility and labor costs.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague, which is the home to such studios as Barrandov, Prague Studios and Film Studio Gatteo, has become Hollywood’s Central European back lot, with the city playing host to such high-profile pics as Roman Polanski’s “Oliver Twist,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Omen,” “Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask” and the latest in the 007 franchise, “Casino Royale.”

But growing competition from Romania, where production costs are lower than in Prague, and the new tax incentive in Hungary have meant that Barrandov cannot rest on its laurels. Construction is under way on three sound stages, which can be turned into one super stage.

Romania has become a popular destination for Western European and U.S. producers — not only for features but also minis and commercials. “We’re about 30% cheaper than Prague,” says Bogdan Moncea, who reps Castel Film, the Romanian production service provider on Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” in 2002.

Pic put Romania on the map as it was the first major feature with an A-list cast to shoot there. Since then, Castel Film has grown into a studio with seven soundstages, one of which is one of the largest in Europe.

Castel also has done a lot of straight-to-video fare and some 40% of Castel’s biz is commercials, and for anyone involved in advertising trips to Bucharest have become part of the job description.

The other main player in Romania is MediaPro Pictures. Boasting 15 soundstages and four water tanks, the studio is part of the MediaPro Corp., one of the largest media and entertainment groups in Eastern Europe, encompassing broadcasting, distribution, publishing and new media.

MediaPro has worked with Lionsgate Entertainment on “Catacombs” and Lakeshore on Katja von Garnier’s “Blood & Chocolate.” “An American Haunting” also was shot at the studio as was Oscar-nominated “Merry Christmas.”

MediaPro is taking steps into film financing and co-production. Romanian/English-language laffer “California Dreaming” is MediaPro’s first self-financed pic, helmed by newcomer Cristian Nemescu. Principal photography is set to start in July.

Another chance to see Romania as Romania and not as the U.S. or some other location will be Francis Ford Coppola’s much-anticipated return to personal filmmaking, “Youth Without Youth,” which he shot in Romania last year. Based on a novella by Romanian scribe Mircea Eliade, the pic stars Tim Roth, Bruno Ganz and Alexandra Maria Lara.

In contrast, shooting Bulgaria as North America is what David Varod, the Bulgarian topper of Avi Lerner’s Nu Image/ Millennium, has been doing and intends to do even more once his purchase of the state-owned Boyana Film Studios goes through.

Varod has been trying to buy the studio for four years and inked a deal with the Bulgarian government in January. However, legal snags have delayed the transfer of assets, and Varod continues to face stiff opposition from the current management of the studio.

Varod also oversaw the production of Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” in Bulgaria, a pic set in 1940s Los Angeles. For Morgan Freeman starrer “The Code,” Varod had intended to build an entire Manhattan intersection as a permanent set on the lot. However, because the sale has not yet gone through, the pic has been delayed.

Instead Varod is about to go into pre-production on Barry Levinson’s “Brilliant,” starring Scarlett Johansson.

“I’m probably going to shoot the film at Boyana, which means I have to rent studio space for a studio, for which I’ve already paid money,” says Varod with more than a hint of frustration.

Helmer Volker Schloendorff, who intends to shoot “Pope Joan” at Boyana, adds: “I understand why the current management is reluctant to sell out to an American company, but at the end of the day they are filmmakers, and they have a window of 10 years (before Bulgaria can join the European Union) before prices will be just as high as in the rest of Europe, and the Bulgarians should use it.”

In order to keep up with their neighbors and boost the local production sector, Hungary now has a tax incentive of 20%. However, although the effort is working well, the country has seen fewer foreign productions coming to Budapest than expected, mainly due to a lack of soundstages, of which there are currently only two.

The Stern Film Studio in Pomaz should alleviate the problem to some extent. The facility, which includes two soundstages the sizes of 16,100 square feet and 21,500 square feet, opened for business only recently.

In addition, it looks as though veteran producer Andy Vajna’s Korda Studios is finally taking shape. After two years of negotiations, construction has at last started on what is promised to become one of Europe’s leading state-of-the-art studio facility.

Construction also has started on a studio comprising six soundstages in Belgrade, Serbia. In order to make sure the country will get its share of the action, the government is developing a tax plan that would offer a 20% rebate on Serbian spend.

“Hopefully the scheme will be done and dusted by the end of the year,” says Djordje Milicevic, director of the Serbian film center, adding: “We’ve got about 10 years until Serbia joins the European Union and prices go up. That’s a great opportunity for us, and we have to take it.”

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