When U.K.-based Camelot Films’ “Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher” was forced to relocate to Lithuania earlier this year, after the film’s Welsh financing fell through, executive producer Kestutis Drazdauskas knew the first challenge facing director Daniel Graham’s period drama would be re-creating 19th century England in 21st century Vilnius.
“It was an extensive set construction for us, because locations for us are minimal that could play as that period in England and Wales,” says Drazdauskas, who runs the production company Artbox and is chairman of the board of the Independent Producers Assn. of Lithuania. Time was of the essence for the 36-day shoot, but local crews were quick to respond, with set dressing and skillfully deployed props allowing the production to recreate the look and feel of Victorian England.
It’s a credit to what Drazdauskas describes as a “small but very efficient film industry” in Lithuania, which in recent years has used its attractive 30% tax credit and highly skilled crews to lure productions such as the BBC’s “War and Peace” and HBO’s Emmy-winning “Chernobyl.” A growing number of Netflix productions are also choosing the Baltic nation, including the supernatural drama “Stranger Things” and the U.K.-Sweden detective drama “Young Wallander,” pointing to an under-the-radar industry that’s clearly on the rise.
Foreign producers are drawn to a country whose evocative landscapes — ancient forests, rolling dunes, freshwater lakes and historic sites — can facilitate a wide range of stories. The capital, Vilnius, “is very rich in terms of different bits of architecture, different bits of history,” says location manager Jonas Špokas of Baltic Locations. The city has doubled as Stockholm for “Young Wallander” and St. Petersburg for Nent Group’s drama series “With One Eye Open.” “We’ve also done Germany and London and Paris,” Špokas says.
Despite the pandemic, last year was the most successful year for the Lithuanian film industry since the introduction of the tax credit in 2014. That partly reflects the carryover from a breakthrough 2019, notes Drazdauskas, when Lithuania hosted “Chernobyl,” Sky and HBO’s historical series “Catherine the Great” and the Netflix period drama “The Last Czars.” But whatever dip the industry has suffered as a result of the ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic, Drazdauskas says it’s “on a good trajectory” heading into 2022.
Much of the credit belongs to the country’s 30% tax incentive, which has a minimum spend of just €43,000 ($49,700) and is both efficient and easy to access, according to Gabija Siurbyte, of production company Dansu, which last year serviced the local shoot for Netflix’s Swedish crime series “Clark,” starring Bill Skarsgard. “It’s very easy to understand, and it’s easily done compared to other countries,” she says. “You don’t need to wait in line.”
If there’s any uncertainty in Vilnius these days, it’s around whether the industry could become a victim of its own success. “One of the obstacles to grab bigger productions here is the infrastructure,” says Drazdauskas. “We don’t have that many soundstages. Any major production that moves in leaves no room for others.” Ongoing talks between industry stakeholders and local government have made progress, he adds, as they look to boost capacity to service the growing number of productions coming to the Baltic nation.
As with elsewhere in Europe, surging demand for crews is driving prices up, although Lithuania is still competitive with other regional production hot spots. The industry is heavily invested in training more skilled workers. “The number of people in the industry is going up in all the departments,” says Siurbyte, something that’s having a knock-on effect for local storytellers looking to “put Lithuania on the map” as a production force. “Our creatives are growing and learning.”