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When “Stranger Things” recently returned to Lithuania, where parts of season four of the Netflix supernatural drama were filmed in early 2020, the Baltic winter delivered on its usual promises of frigid temperatures and frosty weather. But it also offered a hopeful sign that 2021 might bring some relief, after the trials of a year turned topsy-turvy by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Last year we had no snow, so we had to make it all,” says Gary Tuck, of Baltic Film Services, which serviced the shoot. “This year we had lots of snow. So that was nice.”
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It has been difficult to find a silver lining to a pandemic which has upended production across the globe, and which forced a shutdown in Lithuania for several months last spring. Yet 2020 was nevertheless the most successful year for the local film industry since the introduction of a tax incentive in 2014.
According to the Lithuanian Film Center, producers reaped a record-breaking €11.3 million ($13.7 million) for production from the incentive scheme in 2020, while local spend from international productions reached nearly €27 million ($32.8 million), also a record. Meanwhile 58 new domestic and foreign productions and co-productions received funding, nearly double the amount from 2019, including the U.K.-Swedish drama “With One Eye Open” (pictured), from Twelve Town and Nice Drama for Nent Group’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay.
Production continues apace in 2021. “It’s clipping along,” says Tuck, whose Vilnius-based company serviced HBO’s Emmy-winning “Chernobyl,” Sky and HBO’s historical series “Catherine the Great” and the Netflix period drama “The Last Czars,” and recently began prepping the second part of the BBC documentary series “Rise of the Nazis.” Gabija Siurbyte, of production company Dansu, which last year serviced the local shoot for Netflix’s Swedish crime series “Clark,” says that interest in Lithuania has never been higher. “I’m turning down at least two projects per year,” she says.
The country’s 30% tax credit, with a minimum spend of just €43,000 ($52,200), is undoubtedly the driving force, while “price-wise,” says Tuck, “we’re very competitive compared to our main competitors,” such as Hungary, Czech Republic, and Romania. The country’s crew base is skilled and experienced at working on an international level.
Local attractions include the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town of the capital, Vilnius, while the city’s modern suburbs have been used during the production of series like “Chernobyl” and Netflix’s U.K.-Sweden detective drama “Young Wallander,” which is returning to Lithuania this year.
Though small by global standards, the industry is “focused and unanimous,” says Kestutis Drazdauskas, who runs the production company Artbox and is chairman of the board of the Independent Producers Assn. of Lithuania. Even among competitors, a collaborative spirit prevails. Drazdauskas points to the example of the Vilnius Film Cluster, an alliance of leading Lithuanian production and production services companies of which he is a co-founder, which pooled together resources from seven companies to open a 1,100-square-meter, state-of-the-art soundstage in 2014.
“That was a very good example of the industry coming together to implement certain projects that would not be feasible for any company on their own,” says Drazdauskas. “It’s uniting most of the film industry.”
That same spirit has bolstered talks between industry groups and the government to ensure that the fast-growing biz doesn’t become a victim of its own success. A feasibility study was recently commissioned to lay the groundwork for the construction of much-needed, additional soundstages, while industry bodies are exploring ways to bolster training programs in order to grow the crew base.
“There are ceilings because of the crew and infrastructure,” says Siurbyte, “but we are trying to push the ceiling up and up and put us even more on the map.”
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