Extreme makeover: Bulgaria

Nu Image revamps Boyana studios, but can U.S. indie bring Hollywood east?

SOFIA — Seventeen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria remains on the periphery of capitalist culture. In the country’s capital of Sofia, Coca-Cola and other Western corporate logos adorn crumbling Soviet housing blocks, making the advance of Western commerce seem more cosmetic than real. But this doesn’t stop Nu Image exec David Varod from believing that in less than a decade Sofia will be the Hollywood of the East.

Israel-born Varod has been producing Nu Image/Millenium pics in Bulgaria for seven years now, mainly straight-to-video fair of the Jean Claude Van Damme variety. Recently, though, he has upped the stakes with the Morgan Freeman/John Cusack starrer “The Contract” and Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” starring Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johannsson.

However, what gives Varod the confidence to think big is not the arrival of Hollywood A-listers in Sofia, but the fact that after a 4 1/2-year-long battle, he’s finally convinced the Bulgarian government to sell the Boyana film studios to Nu Image/Millenium.

The current management of Boyana tried to stop the sale by insinuating that Nu Image was speculating to sell off the land once they got hold of the property. There had also been resistance to handing over a symbol of Bulgarian film culture to a U.S. investor, but in the end Varod got his deal, which further strengthens his position in the region.

“I’d say about 70% of the Bulgarian film industry is Nu Image,” says Varod, who’s currently operating out of a disused swimming pool that he’s transformed into a studio. “I’ve got more than 600 youngsters working for me now and I believe I actually created a new industry in Bulgaria,” he says proudly adding that he has no intention of selling off the land. 

“I’ve built myself a house here, Bulgaria is my new home.”

Varod intends to run Boyana as a service provider, separate from Nu Image Bulgaria. 

“Nu Image/Millenium is probably going to be Boyana’s main client, but I don’t want to lose the service provider side and that’s what I promised the Bulgarian government I’d do,” says Varod.

Apart from paying the purchase price of $7.5 million, Nu Image also promised to invest $24 million into the beautiful but dilapidated studio, which is situated above Sofia’s most exclusive area in the mountains surrounding the city.

“I think we’re going to be one of the most attractive studios in Eastern Europe, because of the wide umbrella I’m planning to create,” says Varod, who intends to build six soundstages, set up a CGI facility with a staff of 400, a Kodak lab, Telecine and post-productions services.

“We’re going to offer a big package and producers like that because they can get a big discount, which is fine with me. Bulgarian prices are 30% lower than Prague, anyway, and through our package deal we can offer producers a 20% discount, so we’ll be 50% cheaper.”

The walls of Varod’s office are decorated with computer images of the permanent sets he intends to build at Boyana. 

Apart from a California-style neighborhood, there will be a flashy Manhattan-style intersection that couldn’t be further removed from the bumpy roads and Soviet-gray buildings that characterize the Sofia city center.

“Boyana is going to look like America on every piece of that land, every toilet is going to be an American toilet and every office is going to be designed like an American office,” Varod says, and with the with the smile of a conqueror he adds: “I’m going to build America in Boyana, because that’s the nature of most of foreign productions that will be coming in.”

Apart from creating a mini America, Varod also intends to support the Bulgarian film industry.  Not so much the old guard of directors who made it so difficult for him to purchase Boyana, but the new generation of Bulgarian filmmakers.

“I will help more young people to become directors. Until now they had no possibility to break through to make movies because the cake was divided among a handful of directors,” he says. 

Varod intends to provide discounts to Bulgarian producers and finance at least two Bulgarian movies a year. “But I said to the government: if you work with me, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be 10 or 12 movies a year!”

In addition, he also offers to provide practical training for students of the Sofia film academy. “These kids will be making films for the new Bulgaria, because the movies we see now are from the old Bulgaria.”

Varod makes it absolutely clear that the new Bulgaria that he wants to support will be commercially driven.  “People always say to me: you’re not doing culture movies, you’re only doing action, and I say, ‘Guys, what is culture if no one wants to see it?’ If a film only satisfies the director and not the audience, something is wrong.”

Rather than worrying about how “the old Bulgaria” feels about his attitude towards culture, Varod indulges in one of his favorite fantasies:  He wants to put up a big white sign on the Boyana mountain that reads  “Hollywood East.”