Region aims for big-budget film productions

Like intercontinental wars of the past, Western Europe is battling with its Eastern cousins — but this time it’s not for land but for the lion’s share of big-budget film productions.

James Bond defected to the East last year when most of “Casino Royale” was shot at Prague’s Barrandov Studios and on locations in the Czech Republic, where Hollywood producers have long been saving below-the-line dollars converted to Czech crowns.

But lower costs weren’t enough to woo “The Da Vinci Code” and “His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass” behind the former Iron Curtain. While overtures were made, Sony and New Line stood firm and based those tentpoles on the lot at London’s Pinewood.

After becoming the new filmmaking frontier a decade or so ago, Eastern Europe is still booming. These days the region has the infrastructure and skilled crews to attract big-budget Hollywood productions like Bond and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” currently filming at Barrandov, where three new stages were recently unveiled.

Western Europe, however, has risen to the Eastern challenge.

In March, Pinewood Studios outside London cut the ribbon on its new and improved “007 stage,” rebuilt after the previous one burned down. Flames blazed shortly following the wrap of “Casino Royale,” which had used that stage for its sinking Venice palazzo set piece, the only part of the Bond pic that Barrandov was not equipped to accommodate.

Now Barrandov and Pinewood are vying to become the main hub for “Bond 22,” which is expected to start principal photography next year.

Though both these studios have been doing good biz lately — Pinewood’s 2006 results showed boffo revenue while Prague is hosting Luc Besson’s “Babylon A.D.” with Vin Diesel — the fight to lure outside productions to European locations and studios is getting fiercer.

Besides basic costs, facility quality and crew expertise, the weapons being wielded are tax rebates, regional funds and easy access to previously off-limit spots like inside Colosseum, Versailles and the Tate Modern.

In the East, it’s not just Prague that’s exploding. “Prague can handle almost anything; but Hungary and Romania are also starting to attract bigger movies,” says Bucharest-based U.S. producer Robert Bernacchi.

Even Bulgaria, led by Boyana Film, is becoming a player, having hosted shoots of “The Black Dahlia” and “The Contract.”

Bernacchi is manning the logistics of Joel Schumacher’s horror pic “Town Creek,” shooting at Bucharest’s MediaPro Studios. On the same lot, Walden Media and Fox’s $50 million fantasy “The Dark Is Rising” is also in production, using inhouse gaffers.

Francis Ford Coppola used an entirely Romanian crew, including the d.p., for “Youth Without Youth,” his micro-budget return to student-style filmmaking, shot entirely in the region.

Neighboring Budapest will soon play host to Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” for which Universal will tap into Hungary’s 20% tax rebate.

Clearly feeling the heat, Germany in January launched a 20% tax rebate that Warner Bros. will take advantage of for the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer,” to be shot in 2008 at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios.

In March, Spain promised tax breaks, but the draft law is stalled; however, the government of Valenica launched a cash incentive program in January, offering up to $7 million per film. Productions must shoot three weeks in Valencia, including two at Alicante’s new Ciudad de la Luz studios.

Blighty has a 20% tax credit available to films spending 25% of their budgets in the U.K. But per London Film Commission topper Adrian Wootton, monetary considerations can’t be the clincher when it comes to choosing London.

“We are not projecting being the cheapest place in the world,” he says. “Our offer is based on the fact that we believe we’ve got the most high-quality facilities in Europe. And we’ve got the most highly skilled workforce.”

“We are not cheaper,” says Olivier-Renee Veillon, topper of Gaul’s Isle de France film commish, echoing Wootton.

After opening up Versailles for “Marie Antoinette” and the Louvre for “Da Vinci,” Veillon says Paris has now attracted two top Asian helmers: Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose “The Red Balloon,” starring Juliette Binoche, was largely shot in the Musee d’Orsay, and Tsai Ming-liang, who is in pre-production on “Faces,” to be shot entirely inside the Louvre.

In the Eternal City, where HBO’s “Rome” recently wrapped its second series on the Cinecitta lot after deciding to halt the skein mainly because of high costs, the city’s film commish last year let Doug Liman’s Fox-produced sci-fi thriller “Jumper” shoot for three days inside the Colosseum.

But saving a buck is crucial, and while Prague may not be as cushy as London, the cost benefits are pretty attractive.

“Clearly on some shows you have to bring a number of people from London or elsewhere,” says Prague-based David Minkowski, co-producer on both “Casino Royale” and the second “Narnia” installment. “But the reason we’re so busy is you’re still saving a lot of money.”

And in Bulgaria, where Nu Image has been churning out actioners like Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer “The Shepherd” from its Boyana Studios, it’s strictly about the moolah.

“You go to Bulgaria to do a show for 30%-40% less below the line than you would anywhere else,” says producer Phillip Roth, who is building a huge stage complex and a back lot outside Sofia.

So far in 2007, Roth’s UFO studios have had cameras rolling on four Hollywood telepics, the latest of which is “Lake Placid 2″ for Fox.

And in late March, South Korea launched a generous incentive plan, aimed at landing international shoots, opening up a new front in the battle for productions.

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