"There are more than a dozen films a year done here," says Les Weldon, a US producer who has shot 15 films over more than 10 years in Bulgaria, most of them with Nu Image-owned Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia. "We've had Morgan Freeman, Antonio Banderas, John Cusack, Ben Kingsley, and a host of other world-class actors shooting in Bulgaria. We've also had our share of big-name directors, like Brian De Palma (The Black Dahlia) and Bruce Beresford (The Contract)."
Production levels look set to increase this year. Nu Boyana Studios is particularly busy, catering for Millennium Films' Ninja, which is filming, as well as Lionsgate's Conan and Nu Image's Finding Rin Tin Tin, both due to shoot later this year.
Gold Circle Films will also begin shooting The 4th Kind (working title), starring Milla Jovovich, at Nu Boyana Studios from the end of this month, and in Alaska. The film's producer Paul Brooks says he chose Bulgaria because he found it "cost effective to build there". He has also been impressed by the Bulgarian crew so far, and insists he will be shooting for "several weeks" in the country.
Bulgaria has a long tradition of film-making, but since the fall of Communism it has taken on a more US flavour. Avi Lerner's Nu Image bought Boyana studios in 2006, and since then Nu Boyana chief David Varod has been transforming the formerly state-owned facility, remedying years of neglect and adding more infrastructure. Work is underway on a permanent New York set which will feature 2.5 km of fully-dressed exteriors and interiors; 800sq m is complete. Varod also plans 10 new stages, giving Nu Boyana nearly 18,000sq m of sound stages.
Varod is not alone in his desire to improve Bulgarian facilities. UFO International Productions has opened a new facility in the town of Gorna Malina, near Sofia. The Bulgarian Film and Television Center (Bftc) has nearly 4,000sq m of sound stages, a 2,000sq m horizon pool, and a 45,000sq m backlot.
Both Nu Boyana and UFO's Bftc are focused on international productions. "We operate entirely as an American company in Eastern Europe, so we can offer US producers greater comfort," says Phillip Roth, managing partner of UFO and managing director of Sofia-based production service provider Bufo.
Some producers, however, have not even needed to use such studios. For Scott Mann's UK action thriller The Tournament, starring Ving Rhames and Robert Carlyle, the crew built tailored sets on an existing site. "The studio stuff we did at an old airfield in a hangar where we built three sets. We also used the airstrip, going in and out of the hangar over the course of the shoot," Mann says.
As a result, the film-maker says he achieved the cost savings he was looking for, but not where he expected. "For the action sequences, I thought we'd be able to buy cars cheaper there, but that was actually more expensive. It was cheaper to get 12 cars from the UK and transport them there. But when we needed an extra camera, it was such an insignificant cost, whereas in the UK it would have cost a fortune," he says.
However, the territory is still finding its feet and is not yet able to cater for big-budget US studio productions. Roth says Bulgaria best serves productions with budgets between $2m-$10m. Productions with more money to spend tend to look at the Czech Republic or Germany, he says.
The decline of the US dollar has also hurt producers shooting in Bulgaria. "It has meant that what used to be very, very inexpensive is now only moderately inexpensive," Weldon says.
Bulgarian crews are considered by international producers to be fairly solid, but although most heads of department in Bulgaria speak English, a language barrier does exist when it comes to communicating efficiently with the entire crew.
One of the advantages of shooting in Bulgaria, however, is that obtaining permits is normally straightforward, says Weldon. Producers should have a local locations manager to interact with the authorities, who tend to be supportive, "particularly with more difficult public locations. In several instances they actually helped us reduce costs," he says.
As yet, Bulgaria does not have any financial incentives, despite the best effort of local producers to convince Sofia to implement a tax rebate. "We're trying to put together a programme similar to Hungary's," Roth says. "If Bulgaria's going to stay competitive, it's got to be done."
As director of Sofia-based production-services company Buzz Films, he has served as line producer on 15 features. He most recently served as line producer on UK action film The Tournament.
Varod is the CEO and chairman of Nu Boyana, the Nu Image-owned facility on the outskirts of Sofia. It boasts 3,500sq m of stages, and Varod is adding another 10 studios and an extensive permanent New York set this year. Nu Boyana tends to focus on Nu Image/Millennium productions but has hired out to other projects, including EuropaCorp/Fox's Hitman.
Roth moved from Los Angeles to Sofia eight years ago to shoot sci-fi thriller Mindstorm, which he wrote and produced. Since then, his company Bufo has serviced a long list of theatrical and video titles and just finished production on Messenger 2, produced by Sam Raimi's Ghost House through a deal with Mandate and Lionsgate. Roth also runs UFO's new four-stage Bulgarian Film and Television Centre.
Karadjov has worked as production manager on the majority of major films to have shot in Bulgaria in the past five years, including The Code, War Inc, Day Of The Dead, Finding Rin Tin Tin and Hannibal.