South Africa - Bulgaria Report: favorite sets of Hollywood production

Both Bulgaria and South Africa are luring a rising number of Hollywood producers and directors keen to shoot in the counties. While Bulgaria is hosting a number of blockbusters such as The Expendables 2 and 3 or 300 The Rise of an Empire, the BRICS country may just have its first home-grown box-office success in three decades this year with a film based on icon Nelson Mandela.

While the big-budget movies find low-cost havens in both Bulgaria and South Africa, a common link is film maker Avi Lener, who has been shooting movies in both countries. Importantly, Boyana Film Studios has become the go-to destination in Eastern Europe for Los Angeles-based filmmakers after Avi Lerner 's Nu Image acquired the complex in 2006.

The prolific film producer and financier has a reputation for stretching the value of each production dollar by scouring the world for the cheapest labor and tax breaks. After shooting films in Israel, South Africa and Canada, and building a 70,000-square-foot studio complex in Louisiana to take advantage of the state's generous film tax incentives, Lerner's latest large-budget action flicks have found a home in the ancient country on the Black Sea.

"It's the least expensive country in Eastern Europe to shoot in," Lerner said of the decision to film in the Balkan country. Boyana hosted blockbusters such as The Black Dalia (2006), Conan (2010), The Expendables 2 (2011), Olympus has fallen (2012) and 300 - The Rise of an Empire (2012). The recently finished shooting of action star-packed The Expendables 3 kept the whole country in excitement during the summer months, with stars as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson popping up in various locations across the country.

Nu Image has poured tens of millions of dollars into upgrades to the formerly state-owned studio, which was built in 1962 and produced as many as 25 feature films per year during the communist era but fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The studio now employs about 1,000 workers and has 13 sound stages, with the largest more than 6,500 square feet, as well as a replica of several downtown Manhattan streets and a faux ancient Rome, complete with a coliseum.

Now Boyana could indeed become the Balkans' answer to Burbank, Calif., Hollywood's back lot. The work was much prized by Hollywood's old cannon Sylvester Stallone. The next upcoming blockbuster will be allegedly the female version of The Extendables, starring female Hollywood amazons as Meryl Streep and Cameron Diaz.

Bulgaria is well-positioned to attract a respectable share of the world's USD 22 billion market for film production. Filmmakers can easily save 50% on Hollywood's production costs, and Bulgaria is even cheaper than Prague or Budapest, both of which have well-established film industries. Bulgaria's stiffest competition comes from Romania.

Despite having no tax incentives so far and facing competition from Hungary and the Czech Republic, both of which offer tax credits and skilled technical workers at relatively low cost, David Varod, chief executive of Nu Boyana Film Studios, insists that shooting in Bulgaria is still 40% cheaper than in other Eastern European countries and up to 80% cheaper than filming in the U.S. The minimum wage in Bulgaria, which relies on nonunion crews, is less than half of what it is in the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Aware of the movie industry's potential contribution to economic growth, the South African government decided to offer rebates which, coupled with a weaker rand (USD 1 = 9.9583 South African rand), make it cheaper for foreigners to shoot in South Africa than more established peer locations like Australia.

The last globally successful South African film was The Gods Must Be Crazy, a comedy about a bushman from the Kalahari with no knowledge of the outside world, which wowed audiences in 1980.

Four years after the release of US film director Clint Eastwood's acclaimed Invictus in 2009, which chronicled how Mandela inspired the national rugby team to World Cup victory, the biographical Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom will hit movie screens in November. The film chronicles Mandela's decades-long fight against oppressive white minority rule, for which he was jailed for 27 years, and was shot at the Cape Town Film Studios, the first custom-built Hollywood-style film complex of its kind in Africa.

Set in South Africa's tourism capital, the studio offers easy access to a wide array of locations including sandy beaches, modern cities, forest and plains, vineyards, savannah, waterfalls, safari and desert.

Since opening in 2010, it has been the location for high profile movies and TV series which have made hefty profits, including 20th Century Fox's Chronicle which is set in Seattle in the U.S. but was shot primarily in Cape Town. The film cost slightly more than $10 million to make but grossed nearly $130 million in cinema ticket sales.

Figures from South Africa's trade and industry department show that in its first 2-1/2 years of existence, productions that used the studio employed 29,000 thousand people and directly invested 1.4 billion rand (USD 141 million).

Other products of the studio include the $208 million grossing U.S. thriller Safe House in 2012, which starred Hollywood A-listers Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, and new TV drama series "Black Sails" which debuts next year.

This steady output has helped spur South Africa's film industry by 84% over the last six years, placing it 50 out of the 99 major sectors of Africa's biggest economy.

Outside the government backed deals, the trade and industry department is also luring more private sector investors with a 20 percent rebate on production costs for foreign film makers working with a budget of 12 million rand and more.

That, coupled with an 18 percent depreciation in the rand this year, has given South Africa the edge as a bargain priced location for film makers keen to keep costs contained.

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