With its low production costs, talented staff and stepped-up foreign interest, Bulgaria is becoming an increasingly popular location for film and television projects.
A series of American films, including The Black Dahlia, Hitman, and the soon-to-be released War Inc, were filmed in Bulgaria in recent years. Les Weldon, a producer for Los Angeles-based Nu Image Films, which has been operating in Bulgaria for 15 years, told OBG the company moved its production to Bulgaria after its previous base in South Africa became too expensive.
"Sofia is a good location for films set in Europe or East Coast US cities," said Weldon, "Some of the architecture has a European style and some locations, such as the courthouse, are excellent for shooting. In the past we have used Vitosha Mountain for a scene set in the Washington area."
Nu Image bought the previously state-owned Boyana Studios in 2006, creating Nu Boyana Studios. The company has invested more than 15m euros in improving and building sets and labs. The company is set to invest a further 30m euros, said David Varod, CEO of Nu Boyana.
Varod explained that film makers may choose to spend one week shooting establishing shots on location in the US or Europe, but could then economise by shooting the majority of the film in Bulgaria. "Filming in Bulgaria costs around 30% of that in the US. A day's filming on location in the US can cost $300,000 whereas a day in Bulgaria costs around $80,000. If done properly a straight to video or television film can be shot in 18 days for around $800,000."
Labour costs are key in keeping prices down. According to Varod, a technician in Bulgaria earns around 350 euros a week, compared to 2000 euros in Europe. Due to the increasing demand for labour, many are hired from non-film related university programmes and trained in house.
Alexander Grovez, CEO of the National Film Centre, which operates under the Ministry of Culture and provides funding for domestic film projects, told OBG that Bulgarian film students gained valuable experience by working with foreign companies, experience that was a benefit to the country's growing film industry.
As part of its mission to "stimulate the development of film culture", the centre funds around five feature films and 10 documentaries per year. However, these films run on a low budget - a Bulgarian feature film has a budget of around 500,000 euros.
Earlier this year, the government, with the encouragement of Culture Minister Stefan Danailov, himself an actor, allotted more than 7m leu ($2.8m) to boost the country's film industry.
Although the centre aims to promote Bulgarian films at home and abroad, the Bulgarian market for films remains small, with 5m tickets sold per year nationwide at an average price of €3 per ticket. The most successful Bulgarian films attract only around 21,000 viewers.
While the increased emphasis on the film industry from domestic and foreign players has been a benefit to the country, it has also led to rising production costs. Weldon said the quality of staff in Bulgaria was high, but pointed out that wages have risen by around 70% in recent years. Much of this increase is due to the rising demand for labour brought about by the entrance of European filmmakers into Bulgaria - Luc Besson, the writer of The Fifth Element, recently made a movie here.
Weldon also issued a note of caution regarding the recent drastic rise in location prices -
due to site owners charging inflated prices - and the general increase in the cost of living in Bulgaria. "My fear is that Bulgaria might price itself out of the market in the future," he said. "If labour and especially location costs continue to rise then producers may opt to film in cities such as Prague or Budapest, which have better locations."
Bulgaria also faces competition from Romania, Tunisia and Morocco, which, although they have higher prices, are home to established studios with highly skilled staff.
Nevertheless, Weldon said that for the moment, Bulgaria is "still the best deal in Europe".