Why you should care
Because visual media matters more than you realize.
Descending from the upper concourse of the ornate train station — exchanging glances with a young woman on the opposing escalator along the way — the skater pops in his earphones and turns on his Apple Watch. The music kicks in, and the show begins: Launching into a near-acrobatic routine of flip tricks and primo slides, he shuffles across the marble floor of the dimly lit neoclassical structure as passersby go about their business.
You’ve probably never been to Ukraine. But if you’re one of the 129,000 online viewers who caught that 2017 advertisement, filmed inside Kiev’s main train station, you’ve already been exposed to it. Since 2016, Ukraine has offered a tax rebate for foreign film and television producers who can cover up to 25 percent of their costs in the country. Along with an attractive blend of low labor costs, technical knowhow and unique local scenery, that’s helping Ukraine draw international producers like never before. Yet it faces stiff competition — from regional neighbors.
For decades, major global film and television producers have preferred the known landscapes of Western Europe to Eastern Europe, which has struggled to shed Cold War-era stereotypes of being gray and unwelcoming. But a race among Eastern European nations to attract foreign moviemakers with low costs and tax benefits is now forcing their Western counterparts to play catch-up.
Local film professionals have earned the trust of the most prominent film production companies.
Dovile Butnoriute, Lithuanian Film Centre
Romania is perhaps the most aggressive: Just last year, it approved a tax credit scheme worth up to 45 percent of an international production’s budget (while the initial rate is 35 percent, authorities would knock off another 10 percent if it promotes Romania and spends at least 20 percent of its budget within the country’s borders). The Hungarian National Film Fund — which in 2018 increased the tax rebate it offers to foreign filmmakers from 25 percent to 30 percent — has already tasted success. Collette, a 2018 period film starring Keira Knightley, is set in France, but much of the movie was shot around Budapest. The Jennifer Lawrence-starring Red Sparrow, also released in 2018, was largely shot in Hungary too.
Croatia, which launched a 20 percent rebate in 2012, has since raised that to 25 percent. You likely know that Game of Thrones was shot there. But did you know that last year’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was principally filmed on the Croatian island of Vis, not in Greece, as the movie would have you believe?
Meanwhile, Lithuania, which introduced a 20 percent tax incentive in 2014 and has subsequently raised that to 30 percent, has played the part of Ukraine in HBO’s acclaimed six-part series Chernobyl and Tokyo in Netflix’s post–World War II drama Tokyo Trial. The 2016 BBC series War & Peace was also shot in Lithuania. Combined foreign and domestic investment in the Baltic nation’s film industry has skyrocketed — from $14.7 million in 2015 to $50.3 million last year, according to the Lithuanian Film Centre. The 115 productions supported by the rebates so far include 31 foreign films and 37 co-productions. As a result, says Dovilė Butnoriūtė, head of the center’s Department of Film Promotion, Information, Heritage and International Relations, the Lithuanian industry has received a major reputation boost abroad.
“Local film professionals have earned the trust of the most prominent film production companies,” says Butnoriūtė.
The U.S. film industry is familiar with the scramble to win over film producers domestically, where states compete with tax benefits. Georgia, which returns up to 30 percent of a film’s spend, emerged as the most favored destination for top-grossing Hollywood films in 2017.
Western Europe isn’t sitting back. Amid worries over film productions shifting base, France increased its maximum tax rebate in 2016 from 20 percent to 30 percent. In 2017, Germany launched a second fund to subsidize film productions and Portugal introduced rebates of up to 25 percent. Those moves show that the flood of benefits offered by Eastern European nations is working, yet they also demonstrate the challenges from the West that countries like Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Lithuania and Croatia face in building on the gains they made.
But tax rebates aren’t the only weapons Eastern European nations have in their armory. In just the past two years, Kiev’s distinctive post-Soviet urban landscape — equal parts gritty and grandiose — has helped it feature in clips for clients as diverse as Italian clothing retailer Diesel and French rapper OrelSan, who filmed two music videos here. Both were viewed no less than 34.7 million times. Parts of Chernobyl were also filmed in Ukraine, the setting of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe. And Apple returned earlier this year to shoot an AirPod commercial featuring an actor bouncing through an elastic cityscape before ending up perched atop the Ukrainian capital. Since its release in late June, the commercial has racked up more than 29 million views.
The timing for the fresh influx of foreign business and image-making couldn’t be more important: Still mired in a battle against corruption, Ukraine is struggling to reform and show the world it’s just as capable as any counterpart in the West to stage major productions.
Eastern European nations have also developed their own local talent and technical know-how that adds to their attraction. Take Romania, whose New Wave genre has gripped cinema fans for the past 15 years or so. Ioana Mischie, a Bucharest-based creative director and cinematic storyteller, points to the International Center for Research and Education in Innovative Creative Technologies (CINETic), a collection of Romanian laboratories designed to promote digital innovation in the performing arts. “We can basically design really groundbreaking audiovisual works that were not possible in the past,” she says.
The question, however, is whether more foreign attention will help boost local film and visual media industries — rather than simply soliciting local services without leaving a lasting impact. According to Butnoriūtė, of the Lithuanian Film Centre, an uptick in international productions in the nation of 2.8 million means there are fewer people available to work on domestic projects. Finding enough cash to promote local productions is also a challenge in Romania, where Mischie says there’s a dire need to diversify funding streams away from the state. In Ukraine, meanwhile, state funding has crept up annually, but it still barely topped $20 million this year.
Nonetheless, local observers are optimistic about the attention they’re getting abroad and the potential for that to change the image of the region. The best way to tell whether it’s working? Keep your eyes on the screen.