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On location in Eastern Europe

The region's landscape and its cost savings entice filmmakers to scout there.

December 21, 2007|Liudas Dapkus | Associated Press

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Ducking beneath a shower of bullets, three unshaven men in filthy overcoats jump out of a concealed forest dugout, dragging a heavy machine gun and shouting commands to fellow rebels.

A brutal battle ensues between Nazi soldiers and resistance fighters under the leaden sky, and in the din -- replete with explosions -- the cattle in a neighboring village trample away in fright.

But it's all an illusion on the site of "Defiance," a World War II action flick recounting the story of a Jewish resistance movement in the Polish-Belorussian forests.

The $50-million production, set for a 2008 release, was a major victory for Lithuania, a country of 3.4 million, which beat out bigger Poland and Romania as potential shooting sites.

Eastern European movie sites are fighting for Hollywood cash with nearly as much ferocity as the fake battles in the movies.

As producers Ed Zwick and Pieter Jan Brugge explained, while searching for ideal sites, they looked for a setting that had thick forests and an urban landscape nearby.

"We actually explored the location on the Google Earth to see how the forest was accessible to the city center," said Zwick, producer and director of blockbusters such as "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond."

The two found no adequate settings around the Polish capital, Warsaw, and Romania's forests are high in the mountains and too far away from Bucharest. So they chose Vilnius, Lithuania's capital.

For the post-communist economies of Eastern Europe, international movie production is a bonanza.

Foreign movie productions brought some $76 million to the Czech Republic in 2006, according to Dusana Chrenekova, spokeswoman for Barrandov Studios.

Bogdan Moncea, marketing director of Castel Film in Romania, said foreign film studios over the last five years have injected more than $183 million into the country's economy. This year Castel Film produced "Adam Resurrected," a Holocaust-related movie directed by Paul Schrader and starring Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum, as well as "Mirrors," a thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland.

But times have changed. In the early 1990s, Eastern European cities could entice Hollywood producers with a simple combination of Old World charm and significant cost savings. Now they must dangle technology, experience and even tax reductions to lure the multimillion-dollar productions.

In Hungary, the government has approved a huge tax break for movie productions, and the Romanians may follow suit.

The incentives are paying off. Next year a slew of grade-A films shot in Eastern Europe -- including "Transsiberian" with Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley -- will be released.

Competition among premier East European locations is stiff, and each studio does what it can to entice foreign productions -- particularly now that the region has become considerably more expensive.

MediaPro, a Romanian studio that recently produced Joel Schumacher's horror flick "Town Creek," estimates that filming costs are 20% lower in Romania than in the Czech Republic.

But Chrenekova of Barrandov Studios, which last year opened what it claims is Europe's largest soundproof stage, measuring 44,800 square feet, cautions that you get what you pay for.

"As far as Romania and Bulgaria, which are the cheapest places for moviemaking, they don't have the proper infrastructure and lack the specialists we have," she said.

Ramunas Skikas, director of the Lithuanian film studios LKS, agrees that the final decision often boils down to funds.

"Most of us [East European countries] offer similar scenery and quality of services, but the one thing that makes up filmmakers' minds is the production cost," Skikas said, adding that costs in Lithuania were 20% lower than in competing East European countries.

The Lithuanian countryside was used for the sweeping battle scenes in the TV miniseries "War and Peace," based on Leo Tolstoy's legendary novel. The four-part series, produced by several European countries, was first shown in October in Belgium.

But as countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic catch up with Western Europe in terms of prices, government support can mean the difference -- which is why Hungary now offers filmmakers a 20% tax rebate.

Incentives like these show to what extent countries are willing to go to keep producers returning and why filmmaking is here to stay.

"In the digital age, production traveling is a given, and films will be made where they can best be served," said Iain Smith, producer of "Cold Mountain," a movie that was impugned by Hollywood filmmaker unions for being filmed entirely in Romania even though the subject matter was the U.S. Civil War.

"In this, Eastern Europe has taught the Western nations a huge lesson," he added.

At one point the producers of "Defiance" had considered filming in Canada, but the cost factor canceled that option.

"The reality of the labor market is such that it was less expensive [filming in Lithuania] than going to Canada," Brugge said.

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