Euro studios eye strike strategy

Italy, U.K. take hit with 'Angels & Demons'

Across Europe, tension is beginning to build as the continent’s largest studios contemplate a season without big-budget American productions to help fill soundstages.

So far, the postponement of “Da Vinci Code” prequel “Angels & Demons,” which would likely have shot in several countries, has caused the most angst.

Strike rumbles are being felt as far as the Czech Republic, where locals think increased reliance on independent pics could end up helping facils like Barrandov.

Cinecitta deputy director Maurizio Sperandini is still waiting to hear what’s going to happen with “Angels & Demons,” part of which was planned in Rome locations and on his lot for six weeks between February and March. It was expected that “Angels & Demons” would also lense at Blighty’s Pinewood, where “Da Vinci” was shot.

Brits are taking comfort in the news that the latest installment of the Bond franchise would start lensing at Pinewood by the end of the year. A rep at Eon Prods. confirmed that principal photography was set to begin without delay.

As the number of projects affected by the strike continues to increase, many in the U.K. film biz feel it inevitable there will be a ripple effect on production in Blighty. The question is when will they feel it and how bad it will be.

Pinewood topper Ivan Dunleavy was tight-lipped over any potential blowback to the U.K. studio from the strike. His media blackout on all matters except for the studio’s ambitious planned expansion Project Pinewood is indicative of how sensitive an issue the strike is becoming for U.K. film execs.

In the publication of their interim results for the first six months of 2007, Pinewood execs already appeared to be gearing up for potential strike action by diversifying their production activity into TV.

“Our aim is to increase our share of the TV market,” Dunleavy said at the time.

The report said: “Further timing delays by major productions are now expected to impact revenues realized in the current financial year, again to the benefit of the first half of 2008. Every effort is being made to replace these deferred productions, however if these fail to materialize the outturn for 2007 film revenues will not match the levels achieved in 2006.”

Uncertainty over the length of the strike is causing some concern for film industry watchers in London’s financial community.

“The writers strike has added another variable outside Pinewood’s control to go with uncertainties over the tax relief system and the exchange rate. This is not a good thing,” says Iain Staples, an analyst with City-based equity research firm Clear Capital.

In Italy, the Hollywood strike is forcing Rome’s Cinecitta Studios to shift its attention toward European productions.

But Rome’s old Hollywood-on-the-Tiber is also looking to lure American producers exasperated with the prospect of months of unrest, some of whom are starting to think about making movies overseas.

Sperandini is not optimistic about prospects for his negotiations with the Weinstein Co. regarding “Nine,” the Federico Fellini-inspired Rob Marshall picture for which Cinecitta would certainly be suitable, since of course it’s where Fellini shot “8 ½.”

But the Cinecitta chief is in talks with “The Lives of Others” producers Wiedemann & Berg about still-under-wraps Teutonic projects that may soon be coming to the Cinecitta lot.

And luckily the strike hasn’t impacted Spike Lee’s latest pic “Miracle at St. Anna,” a WWII drama about four black American soldiers trapped in a Tuscan village while fighting the Nazis. That pic will come to Cinecitta later in November, after shooting in Tuscan locations.

Budgeted at about $45 million, “Miracle” is a largely Euro-financed pic being produced by Italo producers Robert Cicutto and Luigi Musini’s On My Own.

Those projects would also benefit from Italy’s tax breaks, expected to become operative in 2008, which will offer foreign productions a juicy 20% tax credit.

Germany’s Studio Babelsberg has enjoyed a record number of productions this year, due in large part to the government’s $80 million-a-year Federal Film Fund, but execs are expecting a slight decline in the number of Hollywood projects in 2008.

Three of the four major international productions that have shot at Babelsberg in recent months, Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” and Tom Tykwer’s “The International,” are all set either in Berlin or somewhere in Germany, a fortunate coincidence that the studio cannot count on every year.

“At the moment we aren’t experiencing the effects of the strike,” says Charly Woebcken, CEO and president of Studio Babelsberg. “We hope that the discord can be solved with the least amount of damage to Hollywood.”

Babelsberg has not announced what projects it has lined up for 2008, and while studio execs were hesitant to comment directly on the strike, it is likely the studio will consider more European and German productions next year.

While some European studios plan to ramp up local productions to fill any scheduling slots opened by the U.S. strikes, Czech films probably won’t be rushing to Prague’s Barrandov, says Pavel Strnad of the Audiovisual Producers Assn.

Czech pics, which perennially get hung up with changing state coin sources and rules, often can’t afford Barrandov. Instead, they prefer smaller, cheaper studios and location shoots.

Barrandov exec Dusana Chrenekova observes there’s often a delayed impact, as the studio saw after the 2003 strikes, despite a full slate during the strikes. “We are worried about the situation next year.”

U.S. productions in Prague have been stepping up the pace to complete work before the looming strike threat date of June 30, says David Minkowski of the city’s biggest production services shingle, Stillking.

“There’s a big push to get things now with scripts that were already complete before the writers strike,” he reports.

The upswing will have everyone at Barrandov “pretty busy for the next few months. “After next June it’s totally unclear what’s happening. Good for us in the short term but in the long term, a lot of unknowns.”

Meanwhile, per “Hostel II” co-producer Intl. Production Co., the unrest in Hollywood is creating opportunities for non-union scripts and pics.

As IPC’s Philip Waley puts it, “We’re already talking about people in terms of non-SAG scripts.”

Adventure/actioner “Solomon Kane,” a French/U.K./Czech co-production slated to start lensing in January in Prague with IPC, is a case in point. Another is the script for a wartime soccer pic, “Baker’s Dozen,” which has been nurtured by Whaley and company for some time but is getting serious attention in L.A. “Now the U.S. studios are interested because it’s a non-SAG movie that’s ready to go.”

All of which, says Waley, represents a welcome change to the decline in pics shooting in Prague that’s been blamed on the Czech Republic’s lack of incentives and tax break offers.

(Ali Jaafar, Ed Meza, Archie Thomas, Will Tizard and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.)

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