Nu Image's transformation of Boyana studios has placed Bulgaria on the film map. Now other producers want a piece of the action. Theodore Schwinke reports

Bulgaria is a country showing significant promise. Since the transformation of Boyana studios by Nu Image last year there has been a steady stream of low-budget and major US features entering its doors.

Nu Image bought Boyana studios in the capital Sofia for $7.5m cash in January 2006, out-bidding rivals including the UK's Ealing Studios.

The company plans to produce 20 titles a year, most of them smaller-budget Nu Image projects such as Tibor Takacs' MegaSnake, but has housed major productions such as Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and Joshua Seftel's War, Inc.

Nu Boyana built a $750,000 Los Angeles set for The Black Dahlia, which shot in Sofia for 10 weeks in 2005. 'Black Dahlia cost $65m in total. In the US it would have cost $200m,' Boyana chief David Varod suggests.

Since The Black Dahlia, the set has supported eight more films, including Bruce Beresford's thriller The Contract, starring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack, Steve Miner's remake of Day Of The Dead, Fox's Behind Enemy Lines: Axis Of Evil and, most recently, Nu Image/Millennium Films' $10m Hero Wanted (see sidebar, right).

For War, Inc, which filmed in Sofia from October to December last year, Nu Boyana built an urban Middle Eastern set behind its main stages. Opposite the main buildings is a set of ancient Rome, built for Hallmark's Spartacus in 2003 and which is being prepped for a major television series later this summer.

Since the buyout, Nu Image has invested a further $14m improving the studios, and Varod expects the company will invest another $27m for a facility that will have 20,000 square metres of sound stages, including a pool of 3,500-5,000 square metres, and 2.5km of New York streets.

Varod wants to complete the reconstruction of Boyana before aggressively marketing the facility to outside projects. His goal is to make Nu Boyana 'the biggest studio in Europe', but he acknowledges he faces significant challenges, including a complete overhaul of most of the existing facilities - the stages lack heating and air conditioning, the power stations need to be rebuilt - and training the local crew.

Nonetheless, the studio has still managed to attract non-Nu Image titles, including Xavier Gens' Hitman, a videogame adaptation produced by Luc Besson's Europa Corp and distributed by Fox. Gens wrapped photography on June 15 after a 10-week shoot on Nu Boyana stages, and was impressed by the facilities.

Another company to recognise Bulgaria's merits is Prague's Stillking Films, which now has an office in Sofia. 'It is the least expensive of all the Eastern European locations, but does not have the infrastructure or experience of a Prague or Budapest,' says Stillking's David Minkowski. 'It has a long way to go on that count, but on the other hand the crews are enthusiastic and more and more companies are moving there to support the industry. It will only get better.'

Financial incentives may also become a reality in the future. Nu Boyana is pushing the idea and has an ally in Sofia mayor Boyko Borrisov, who is the odds-on favourite to be elected president of Bulgaria in two years.