Estonia received a splashy introduction to the limelight in 2019, when it played host to Christopher Nolan’s time-bending sci-fi drama “Tenet.” The biggest production to shoot in the Baltic nation to date, Warner Bros.’ $200 million blockbuster landed Estonia squarely on the map for international film and television productions.
Though the coronavirus pandemic arrived not long after principal photography wrapped, the industry hasn’t skipped a beat since, with both domestic and international production — drawn by a cash rebate of up to 30% —continuing apace. This year, says Estonian Film Institute CEO Edith Sepp, there are no signs of slowing down.
“The Estonian cash rebate has been booming more than ever in the first half of this year,” she says. “In the whole of 2021, we had seven projects using the cash rebate scheme, but by January this year, we already had eight projects lined up for the rebate and the year had barely started.”
Spillover from the growing volume of high-end TV production in neighboring Scandinavia has led to a surge in co-production and servicing work for Estonian producers, says Riina Sildos, of the production outfit Amrion Oü. The company’s slate includes the ambitious eight-part drama series “Estonia,” produced by Beta Nordic Studio’s Finnish banner Fisher King, in co-production with Swedish Kärnfilm and Panache Production Belgium, which is being sold globally by Beta Film.
Ivo Felt of Allfilm, which provided production services on “Tenet,” serviced several Scandinavian TV series in the past year. It also wrapping production on Altitude Film Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller “Sentinel,” which stars Kate Bosworth and Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”), and is being sold by Altitude Film Sales. “Since ‘Tenet,’ we never stopped,” says Felt, noting that the industry is operating near capacity.
Physical infrastructure in Estonia is limited: the nearest soundstages servicing the local industry are in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, though that’s set to change with the construction of a state-of-the-art studio in Tallinn that’s expected to be up and running by 2023.
“We’ve been told ‘no’ many times before because of not having a studio,” Felt says. “This is something that makes our choice wider to pick the films that we can service.”
The public-private partnership is the latest example of support from a government that has been instrumental in shoring up the domestic industry throughout the pandemic. “It really helped to finish productions and release them,” says Sildos, who along with “Estonia” is co-producing “Apathy,” by Venice director winner Alexandros Avranas (“Miss Violence”), and “Erik Stoneheart,” a family fantasy feature directed by Ilmar Raag.
Sepp sees the growing domestic sector as crucial to the health of the Estonian industry’s overall success. “The cash rebate is thriving and delivering substantial benefits to our economy as a whole, but our true focus is on our national films,” she says. “Our national culture is at stake — more so than ever in a digital world, awash with competition for people’s attention.”
Exhibition and distribution cratered during the pandemic, as theaters shut or operated at reduced capacity. Hopes for a turnaround were spurred by the recent release of the historical crime thriller “Melchior the Apothecary,” by Elmo Nüganen. It not only topped the box office, but was also the first Estonian film with more than 50,000 admissions since the start of the pandemic.
Despite all the hopeful signs for the growing Estonian industry, the war in Ukraine has nevertheless cast a shadow over a country that shares a border with Russia and only declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“It’s very hard to predict what will be the next move from Russia. One day it can be here,” says Felt. In recent weeks, the industry has been marshaling its resources and “supporting Ukraine as much as we can.”
In Cannes, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival will present a selection of Ukrainian films as part of its Goes to Cannes pix-in-post showcase and is collaborating with the Marché du Film to showcase four Ukrainian films close to completion in the Ukrainian Features Preview program. It’s also helped bring together a coalition of supporters for the Ukrainian pavilion and to fund travel and accommodation costs for Ukrainian filmmakers. “Though there is still much more to do, it’s heartening to see the international film community coming together and all pulling in the same direction,” says Tiina Lokk, festival director of Black Nights.
For a country that has long relied on close cultural and economic ties with its Baltic neighbors — a necessity to sustain an industry in a nation of just 1.3 million the ongoing war has only made a unified front more urgent. “The present war in Ukraine has brought the Baltic region together even more, since we understand what this war is all about — for sure better than almost any part of Europe,” says Sepp.
“This is our resistance, our [way of] coping with the awful things that are happening in the world,” adds Felt. “This is our tool. This is our weapon.”