Central European countries -- with their low costs, beautiful locations, and reliable workforce -- have attracted many Hollywood moviemakers over the past decade. But the film industry appears to be looking even farther east to countries like Romania, where the same benefits can be had for even less.
Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The much-expected premiere of "Cold Mountain" -- an epic love story, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, set during the U.S. Civil War -- is scheduled for 25 December. An Oscar buzz already surrounds the film, which is based on the 1998 best-selling novel by Charles Frazier.
Nothing unusual so far, but for some Eastern European viewers, the film's setting -- Cold Mountain, North Carolina -- may look awfully familiar.
Familiar because the $80 million film, tipped as a likely 2004 blockbuster, was shot on location in Romania, much of it around the ski resort of Poiana Brasov in the Transylvanian Alps.
For more than a decade, major Hollywood studios as well as Western European filmmakers have shot and produced big-budget films in Central Europe due to lower costs and high-quality facilities. However, as locations like Prague and Budapest grow more popular and more expensive, moviemakers are once again looking east, where unspoiled natural locations and a well-trained workforce come considerably cheaper.
Known to the Western film industry more as the birthplace of the vampire Count Dracula, Romania is rapidly gaining a new reputation as a desirable location for foreign filmmakers. Bogdan Moncea, marketing manager at Bucharest's Castel Film Studios, where "Cold Mountain" was produced, tells RFE/RL that although Romania is still struggling with the remnants of its Communist past, the country has much to offer the Western film industry.
"There are a lot of interesting shooting locations in Romania: interesting landscapes, ancient fortresses, [and] castles. But unfortunately, not all these locations have an adequate infrastructure, or are developed enough -- both qualitatively and quantitatively -- to cater to the needs of a film crew, which sometimes may need as many as 300 hotel rooms of a satisfactory level," Moncea said.
In 1992, Castel was the first private Romanian studio company to offer Western filmmakers cheap facilities and a qualified workforce. Castel has been churning out low-budget American horror movies for years.
But in 1999, Castel attracted its first big-budget project, the swashbuckling fantasy "Highlander IV: Endgame." It also was behind a number of critically acclaimed films like the Holocaust-inspired "Train of Life," which won several international film awards.
Moncea says the quality of Romania's film studios have improved steadily over the past decade, in both technological capacity and staff. The steady inflow of work from both the U.S. and Western Europe has been a boon for Romania's battered economy, contributing to employment and even infrastructure improvement like road repair.
But Moncea says Romania still faces stiff competition elsewhere in the region.
"There are strong competitors in Central and Eastern Europe. The most important players are currently Prague and Budapest," Mancea said. "Also, over the past several years, Bulgaria has experienced a strong revival of this industry and, further north, Lithuania is coming in strongly from behind. And of course there is Poland, who has been among the traditional and important players [in the industry.]"
Prague has been the foreign location of choice for Hollywood heavyweights over the past decade. Mega-hits such as "Mission Impossible," "XXX," or more recently, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," are just a few of the films shot and produced in Prague. According to the Czech Association of Audio-Visual Producers, foreign filmmakers invested more than $250 million in film production work in the Czech Republic last year alone.
Justin Bellinger, who heads the British production company Artistry Media Limited, has been involved in film production in the Czech Republic for several years. He tells RFE/RL that it still is considerably cheaper to make films in Prague than in the West.
"The Czech Republic has a long and very good tradition in filmmaking, which means we have key core skills available in Prague, in particular, which match those of the U.S. and U.K. production entities," Bellinger said. "It is also up there with the top of the people in Germany and the rest of Western Europe, so what you have is an ability to tie in to a very good support infrastructure of people and services at a cost which can be up to 40 percent cheaper than in the U.S. and the U.K., for instance."
Bellinger says that producers who work in the Czech Republic, in the face of competition from other countries farther east, have been trying to persuade the government to offer tax incentives in order to continue attracting filmmakers to Prague. Countries like Romania have already succeeded in luring several big-budget productions away from Prague.
"What we're starting to see is that countries, particularly like Romania, are starting to offer not only cheaper studio space and cheaper personnel because their cost infrastructure is less, but also, on the flipside, the more popular Prague becomes, the more expensive people also become, their time is now at a premium," Bellinger said. "So, what we're starting to see is a slip away from the Czech Republic, because other countries are now able to offer a cheaper structure with quality staff."
The first sign of the shift was when "Cold Mountain" producers gave the Czech Republic and other competitors the cold shoulder in favor of Romania.
Romania's other major film studio, Mediapro, has also attracted large European projects like Franco Zefirelli's "Callas Forever" -- a film about opera diva Maria Callas completed last year, and Costa Gavras' "Amen," a controversial account of the Roman Catholic Church's failure to act in the face of the Holocaust.
But Western filmmakers say that despite its indisputable advantages, Romania still suffers from poor organization and bureaucratic headaches. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Bucharest establish a special government office to deal specifically with the moviemaking industry.
Anca Romanescu, a publicist at Mediapro Studios, tells RFE/RL.
"Such a central office could deal with the fine tuning of the [production] process, and that would make things much easier. When somebody is directly responsible for completing an assignment, the chances for that thing to be completed as quickly and as well as possible are much higher," Romanescu said.
Other Eastern European countries like Hungary and Lithuania are also beginning to offer more varied services to Western filmmakers.
Among the Baltic countries, Lithuania has established itself as a niche market for the production of Western low-budget television films.
Robertas Urbonas is director-general of the Lithuanian Film Studios. He tells RFE/RL that despite working only on small-scale projects, Lithuania has earned itself a steady flow of film production work.
"The real start [was] from 1995, when Warner Brothers [studios] did 52 episodes of "The New Adventures of Robin Hood," and [Lithuania] started to be the place where some not very big television projects can be serviced," Urbonas said. "Right now we're doing about 10 to 12 pictures a year, and we're still trying to grow. Of course I can say that we do not have the big-budget films starting at $10 or $20 million; it's maybe a little bit too early [for that]."
Urbonas says that while Lithuania's film industry currently pulls in no more than $5 to $7 million a year, those revenues are enough to finance more than 90 percent of the country's film industry.
Many Western film producers are worried that next year's scheduled expansion of the European Union will bring higher production costs and force them once again to look further afield. But the trend might prove a benefit for studios in Romania and Bulgaria, which are not due to join the EU any earlier than 2007.