Eastern Europeans bulk up stages

'Cold,' 'Spy' pics show that Czech capitol not only option

BUDAPEST — Prague’s status as the Hollywood back lot of the former East Bloc is being challenged by nearly every country in Eastern Europe.

Long passed over by foreign helmers in favor of the savvy and film-friendly Czech Republic, the underdog film territories of Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia are getting their acts together, building studios, passing film laws and luring international productions to their borders.

The success of once-neglected Eastern Euro states in gaining Hollywood business is enough to cause hypertension among Prague’s overworked line-production industry. The Nicole Kidman vehicle “Cold Mountain” was shot in Romania, proving to the world that the mountains of Transylvania can be a backdrop for features other than Dracula pics.

In recent years, Hungary has hosted Brad Pitt’s “Spy Game” and Eddie Murphy’s “I Spy,” and Budapest shook the international film world late last year by passing a Hollywood-friendly film law that makes Irish, French and Canadian pic legislation look obstructionist.

In an overt bid to draw producers to the Carpathian basin, Hungarian law gives foreign producers rebates of 10% of their in-country budget for simply hiring a Hungarian line production company.

Foreign producers in co-production agreements with Hungarian companies can reap further benefits by offering lucrative tax shelters to Hungarian investors.

And co-production partners also stand to win grants from both the Hungarian film commission and later the European pic commish when Hungary officially joins the European Union after May 1.

“This film law is unique,” says Laszlo Sipos, a longtime Hungarian line producer. “And I think it will bring business here. The Czechs have had all that business, and they don’t even have a film law.”

But now their neighbors are fighting back by building high-tech studios of their own.

Latvia’s National Film Center has just completed a major state-funded studio complex in Riga that NFC director Andris Rozenbergs hopes will both help local directors and service international film crews.

Private investors also are tapping into the region’s potential for providing infrastructure. U.K. investors, headed by the London-based company Mellwade Films, is constructing a studio facility in the Romanian capital, with a 20,000-square-foot soundstage, animation facilities and an adjoining hotel.

Andrew O’Driscoll, publicist for Mellwade Films says Romania is an attractive venue because of its “good-quality film crews, terrific scenery and flexibility in terms of location shooting.”

Ironically, Romania, not slated for EU membership, is using its economic woes as a marketing pitch to lure business. Roxana Gramada, marketing manager for Mediapro Pictures, which operates the MediaPro Studio complex, says it is as much 20% less expensive to make a movie in Romania than in the Czech Republic, the most popular destination for foreign filmmakers over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Hungarian-Canadian producer Robert Szabados is now developing a $2.5 million studio complex on the outskirts of Budapest called Stern Film Studio. When the first phase of construction is finished in September, it will boast two large stages and a set construction facility.

Not to be left out, Bulgaria and Croatia also are advertising studio space.

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