On a recent visit to Serbia, actor John Malkovich announced plans to team up with fellow leading men D.W. Moffett and Matt Dillon to build a state-of-the-art film, music and media production facility in neighboring North Macedonia, a small, mountainous country of just two million inhabitants.
It might seem a risky gambit for a country with a modest domestic film industry that services few foreign shoots. But Malkovich – a self-described “son of the Balkans” whose father is of Croatian descent – insisted that the studios have the potential to transform film and television production in the region. Dubbed Stonebridge Studios, the project now awaits approval from the government of the ex-Yugoslavian republic, which according to the studio’s backers stands to gain €1.6 billion ($1.6 billion) in GDP as international productions flock to the country.
While the backing of an A-list celeb ensured the announcement would raise hopes – and eyebrows – across the region, industry players across Southeast Europe aren’t sitting idly by while Malkovich and his partners wait to break ground. Driven by low production costs, a cash rebate arms race and the limited capacity of Central European hotspots Hungary and Czech Republic, the region is already enjoying an unprecedented production boom, with Greece, Croatia, Serbia and neighboring countries luring big-budget studio projects to the dazzling coasts of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, the Black Sea region and the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Croatia was one of the first Balkan nations to woo Hollywood productions a decade ago, after HBO’s “Game of Thrones” chose the medieval city of Dubrovnik to film exteriors of King’s Landing. With stunning locations in its interior and along the Adriatic Coast, skilled crews and a competitive 25% cash rebate, Croatia has since lured productions including HBO’s “Succession,” Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wheel of Time” and Lionsgate’s “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.”
That shows no sign of slowing down. “The volume is growing,” said Nebojša Taraba, co-founder of Zagreb-based production outfit Drugi Plan, which serviced Eagle Eye and Beta Film’s period drama “Hotel Portofino.” At the same time, because of the growing sophistication of local crews, “more and more productions are coming for almost the entire shoot in Croatia,” he added.
Sun-splashed locations, ancient wonders and a sizzling 40% cash rebate have seen Greece emerge as one of the hottest locations in Southeast Europe. Fresh off hosting David Cronenberg’s Cannes competition title “Crimes of the Future” and Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” (below), the country recently welcomed Disney+’s Giannis Antetokounmpo biopic “Rise” and Rian Johnson’s hotly anticipated “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”
Johnson’s Netflix blockbuster (pictured, top), which features a star-studded ensemble cast including Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe and Kathryn Hahn, spent five weeks filming in the Mediterranean nation before moving to Serbia, a country that’s seen its own fortunes rise since the 2016 introduction of a 25% cash rebate that rises to 30% for productions with a budget over €5 million ($5 million).
Among the recent titles to lens in the country are Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play” for MRC and “True Haunting,” a horror film from Sony Screen Gems directed by Gary Fleder. Speaking to Variety at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Andjelka Vlaisavljevic, of production services company Work in Progress, which serviced both shoots, said Sony was so impressed by Serbia’s offerings that it returned months later with “Horrorscope,” another Screen Gems horror film which is currently in pre-production.
More than just a vote of confidence in the Serbian industry, that repeat business has allowed local crews to learn from “the best in the business,” said Vlaisavljevic, who’s worked on more than 50 international productions, including Paramount’s “Crawl” and Spyglass’ “Hellraiser” reboot. While in years past, foreign productions would have to bring their own heads of department and assistants, “now they’re working on the fourth season of [PBS’] ‘Miss Scarlet and the Duke,’ and everybody – even the directors and DoPs, production designer, costume designer – are from Serbia.”
Romania boasts one of the more established industries in the region, having hosted Miramax’s $80 million Civil War drama “Cold Mountain” nearly two decades ago. Productions to lens in the Eastern European country in the past year include Tim Burton’s “Wednesday,” the upcoming Addams Family television series for Netflix, and “Django,” a Sky Studios and Canal Plus reimagining of Sergio Corbucci’s classic 1966 Western that was arguably Europe’s biggest TV production in 2021.
But a host of lawsuits by producers looking to recoup money from the country’s beleaguered cash rebate system – which stands to be one of the region’s strongest when functioning, rising as high as 40% – have begun to drive foreign productions away. Bogdan Moncea, of Castel Film Studios, which hosted the Bucharest shoot of “Django” and also serviced Isaiah Saxon’s fantasy epic “The Legend of Ochi” for A24, said the studio currently has “no major projects” in the pipeline. “It’s getting critical. It’s at a very low point – probably a decade-long low,” he recently told Variety.
Across the border in Bulgaria, where the cash rebate system is still in its infancy, “things are trending upwards,” according to Yariv Lerner, CEO of Nu Boyana Film Studios, which is currently servicing the horror film “Creepers” and the supernatural thriller “Bagman” for Lionsgate. Production recently wrapped on what Lerner described as “a huge Disney project” at the Millennium Media-owned studio, which has also played host to Millennium’s blockbuster “Expendables” franchise (below).
“Bulgaria is long established as a filming destination within Europe. The infrastructure is in place. We have great studio space, equipment and professional crew. It’s easy to make your movie here,” Lerner said. Nu Boyana is now expanding into its southern neighbor, Greece, with plans underway to build a studio in Thessaloniki, where Millennium recently lensed “Expendables 4” and the Antonio Banderas and Kate Bosworth thriller “The Enforcer.”
Such cross-border collaborations are becoming commonplace in the region. While rivalries between countries jockeying for the same studio productions would seem only natural, local players say the spirit is more one of cooperation than competition.
With the Greek industry operating at capacity last summer, Serbian construction crews were hired on Netflix’s “Knives Out” sequel, according to Vlaisavljevic. When her own country was short on gaffers, she turned to the skilled crew base in Romania. For the upcoming Netflix spy thriller “Our Man From Jersey,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, which she described as her company’s biggest production to date, Vlaisavljevic is currently shooting in Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, utilizing the assets that each country has to offer.
While construction on the Malkovich-backed studios in Skopje could be years away, other players in the region are racing to break ground on new facilities or expand existing ones. In Serbia, local powerhouse Firefly Productions expects its splashy new film studios – including three state-of-the-art sound stages and a water tank – to be fully operational by early next year. Another facility rising five miles from central Belgrade already boasts two 25,000-square-foot sound stages, with developers looking to build three additional stages totaling 70,000 square feet by spring of 2023 – and to have as many as 11 sound stages fully operational further down the line. In Zagreb, meanwhile, discussions are ongoing to build a much-needed studio complex for the booming Croatian industry.
The region still has a long way to go to displace production juggernauts Hungary and Czech Republic, which boast a range of world-class studio facilities and crews accustomed to working on Hollywood blockbusters such as Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. $165 million sci-fi tentpole “Dune,” now shooting its sequel in Budapest. As European Union member states, they also offer a more seamless production experience unencumbered by the customs duties and visa hassles that affect many countries in the region.
“Those are the first destinations where all the big productions would go. We know that,” Vlaisavljevic admitted. Yet the production capacity in Southeast Europe continues to grow, with regional players able to mount increasingly ambitious projects. “When we started working 15 years ago, we would get small movies that would spend $1 million locally,” she said. But in the years since, budgets – and expectations – have steadily risen.
With global production looking to make up for lost time after two years of travel disruptions and lockdowns, studio space and skilled crew worldwide are at a premium. Competition is heating up; the knives are out. Now that Southeast Europe has made its name hosting big-budget studio productions, regional players are trying to ensure they don’t travel elsewhere searching for greener pastures. “What I’m especially proud of is the same companies keep coming back,” said Vlaisavljevic.