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ATHENS—The streets of Sepolia, in central Athens, have been a huge movie set since early May. The Greek neighborhood where the NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo was born and raised is the main location for Disney’s biopic on the Milwaukee Bucks team captain. While it might be logical for Greek Freak to be filmed here in Greece, this movie is certainly not alone. In 2021, more than 15 international productions will be filmed across the country—the highest number Greece has ever seen.
This summer alone, Daniel Craig, Kristen Stewart, John Krasinski, Léa Seydoux, Rian Johnson, Ed Norton, Janelle Monae, Dave Bautista, Katherine Hahn, Viggo Mortensen, and Antonio Banderas will be among the megastars gathered in Greece for a host of film shoots.
The much-anticipated Knives Out sequel will be filmed and set in Greece, while the Banderas’ project Barracuda will use the streets of Thessaloniki to stand in for Miami—complete with 1,000 local extras being drafted in as supposed citizens of South Florida.
For years, even the scenes set in Greece—in films like Jason Bourne or Mama Mia 2—were actually filmed elsewhere. The international breakout hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the sequel featured no scenes filmed in Greece, but that is set to change with the third installment.
Earlier this year, the Greek-Canadian actress Nia Vardalos announced on social media—in Greek—that her iconic character, Toula Portokalos, was coming back for a third time. And this time, “We will be going to Greece to film the movie!”
As a new Hollywood outpost, Greece is booming.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the movie industry was paused or completely shut down just like everything else all over the world. But Greece managed the first wave of the pandemic well, and film productions didn’t take long to restart their engines.
“There are many reasons for Greece’s current ‘success story’ and one of them is definitely how we managed the pandemic in the first place,” said Venia Vergou, the director of the Hellenic Film Commission of the Greek Film Centre. “In the spring of 2020, everyone was trying to guarantee the safety of their cast and crew in a foreign country. Under strict protocols, we opened again in May. When we were welcoming productions to film here, other countries were still closed.”
Elena Priovolou, director of the International Productions Services for the Greek production company Argonauts told The Daily Beast that filming was only shut down in Greece for two months last year. Argonauts will be co-producing David Cronenberg’s new movie Crimes of the Future, starring Mortensen, Seydoux and Stewart, who will be coming to Athens in early August.
“During the first wave, Greece wasn’t really hit by the pandemic as badly as other countries did and those good numbers did put us back on the map,” Priovolou said. “I remember those days, I was constantly on Zoom meetings, speaking with producers across the globe, who were interested to see how good things are in Greece. This was a very good first step to be heard again. Then came the cash rebate and everything seemed ideal.”
The Greek cash rebate program was launched in 2018, but it was revised last year to make it even more appealing to producers who want to invest in Greece. Today, it is one of the highest in the world.
For costs incurred in Greece, the rebate has been raised from 35 to 40 percent, in addition to a drop in specific minimum spending. Up to last April, the Greeks received 166 filming rebate applications and approved 125 of them, which is expected to cost the government over $50 million but will create 31,000 jobs at 150 locations across Greece.
The boom got underway last year, with films such as The Lost Daughter with Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson, and the first season of Apple’s TV+ Tehran being filmed in Athens. “The Lost Daughter, the directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, was initially scheduled to be filmed in the U.S., but instead they came to Greece and filmed on the island of Spetses. In the first year of the pandemic, not just we didn’t lose any production, but we managed to bring more. This production played a significant role, as the good news was spread by word of mouth,” said Vergou.
Greece is now trying to take advantage of the growing Hollywood buzz—in addition to the cash rebate—to become a permanent movie hub, persuading international productions to turn to Greece as somewhere that can provide them everything they need, and not just a view of the Acropolis or the windmills of Mykonos.
“The country is ready for this. We have an amazing crew, very good actors, great producers, people who can step up to the expectations. Plus, 300 days of sunshine, awesome locations and one of the ‘sexiest’ cash rebates in the world,” said Argyris Papadimitropoulos, the Greek director of Monday, an international production starring Sebastian Stan, Denise Gough and lots of Greek actors.
On a warm summer night in 2018, Stan and Gough were being chased by Greek police vehicles in the streets of Athens. “For this scene we closed the city center to film for six hours. This could have never happened before,” said Papadimitropoulos, explaining that Greek authorities have begun to cooperate to make things easier for producers and cinematographers.
For years Greece was not on the map for international production companies. In 2015, Tenerife was transformed into the Greek capital for the fifth chapter of the Jason Bourne franchise and then again in 2017 Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again chose Vis in Croatia for the shooting, instead of coming back to Greece and the beautiful island of Skopelos, which was a hefty blow to the local industry.
This has slowly turned. “We have many requests from producers looking for where to shoot,” said Priovolou. “I have sent them pictures of Greece that can look like Lebanon, Syria or even Spain, Gibraltar and Tenerife. We will be filming a movie in [the seaport town of] Nafplio soon, which we will be saying it’s southern Italy.”
Maria Lainas, one of the main casting directors of Greek Freak, told The Daily Beast that she has witnessed a remarkable turnaround. “Greece can definitely become a hub for international productions and that is something that’s already happening,” she said. “Some outside Greece are surprised to see that. There were people who thought of us as a third world country, but we’re proving them wrong. I will never forget when in 2003, right before the Olympics in Athens, I was talking with a production company and they were asking me if we have electricity. Imagine what those people have been dealing with before to ask me something like that.”
The new wave of Greek cinema and cinematographers have also played an important role in getting Greece noticed in Hollywood. Yorgos Lanthimos had a breakthrough with Dogtooth, which was one of the first major Greek-language international hits, before going on to direct The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Oscar-winner The Favourite.
“Things were already starting to move forward, with Greek cinema making a very good name for itself. It is important to watch movies that stand in an international audience. They created a good name for the country's cinema,” said Papadimitropoulos, who is already working on two new international projects, as interest continues to spiral. “This helps the country and the economy and everything. The benefits are for a lifetime.”
If high-profile projects like Knives Out 2, being funded by Netflix, and the latest season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan show run smoothly this summer, next year could be even bigger.
“We have won their trust,” said Vergou. “Now we are only going up. The sky is the limit.”