REYKJAVIK — “Welcome to the Bloody Gate ...” The solemn announcement is made by Asthor Agustsson, a local tour guide who could easily pass for a Viking warrior.
The ten tourists with Agustsson appear awestruck, walking along a path that traverses two abrupt cliffs, covered in snow, with a large frozen lake in the distance. Located between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, Iceland natural park of Thingvellir is considered as a national treasure by its inhabitants not only for beauty, but as the site where the first Icelandic Parliament met in 930.
More recently, it was also the setting for scenes of the American TV blockbuster Game of Thrones. The fifth season of the HBO production began this week, broadcast in 170 countries. “In the previous season, Sansa and Lord Baelish, then Arya and "The Hound," go through the Bloody Gate to arrive in the Vale,” Agustsson explains to his group, made up mostly of fans. “Nobody sees the trick on screen, but the rest of the path was filmed in Northern Ireland.” To create the imaginary cities of King’s Landing, Yunkai, or the water gardens of Dorne, the producers also shot the scenes in Scotland, Croatia, Spain, Morocco and Malta.
Filmed across Europe, Game of Thrones is the perfect theater to view the war raging among numerous countries to try and attract top movies and TV show shootings, especially American ones. “The competition is fierce,” admits Olivier-René Veillon, Director General of the Film Commission for the region Ile-de-France.
“To win, we have to be the best on many levels,” adds Einar Hansen Tomasson, from Film in Iceland, the agency in charge of promoting Iceland to foreign studios. It's working here, as the island has welcomed cast and crew of movie blockbusters Interstellar (by Christopher Nolan), Noah (by Darren Aronofsky) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (by Ben Stiller).
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The Bloody Gate — Photo: HBO/Wikimedia Commons
United Kingdom is the favorite
The globalization of Hollywood sets is not a new phenomenon. “Since the 1970s, other countries started to enter the competition,” says Franck Priot, from Film France, the agency that represents France to international producers. Canada alone has welcomed some one-quarter of the American film and TV productions over the past ten years.
In Europe, the United Kingdom is currently the leader, with more than one billion euros spent every year, according to the British Film Institute. “In France, the system was built to support national production, in the UK it is mainly conceived to attract foreign shootings,” explains Priot, taking as an example the seventh Star Wars movie, shot in 2014 in the Pinewood studios, in Buckinghamshire.
London has been rolling out the red carpet for American producers: 25% of what they spend in Britain is paid back to them thanks to special tax breaks, which include the stars’ salaries.
France is coming late to the the competition, having establishing a special tax rate in 2009 that allows for a 20% write-off of what producers spend in France, up to 20 million euros. Beginning in 2016, it will rise to 30%, and up to 30 million euros, though the stars’ salaries are not included.
“We are finally going to start playing in the big leagues, even if we still have many things to improve,” says Priot. France has recently hosted the set of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 and The Cosmopolitans, a TV show produced by Amazon.
But the fiscal factor is not all that matters. “Studios and producers always go where there are fiscal advantages, providing that the artistic quality is not compromised,” explains Lawrence Turman, the American producer of The Thing, Running Scared or The River Wild. Apart from the screenplay and the cast, this quality depends largely on the choice of locations and scenery. And in this area, European countries have plenty to offer.
Back in his office in Reykjavik, Arni Bjorn Helgason unrolls a map of Iceland on the table. With a pen, he points out the places where the movie Interstellar was shot with the help of his production company, Sagafilm. “Instead of going to Argentina or Great Britain, Christopher Nolan shot the scenes of the ice planet here, in the south, and the ones of the water planet here, just a few kilometers away,” he proudly explains.
This illustrates the major advantage of the island: the variety of scenery, that can easily be mistaken for other parts of the world. The scenes supposed to be set in the Himalayas in Batman Begins, in Greenland in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or in Japan in Flags of our Fathers, by Clint Eastwood, have all been shot in Iceland.
France offers up its culture and history: the Louvre, Versailles, Notre-Dame; while Canada counts on its forests and towns that look a lot like those in the United States. In the Baltic region and central Europe, there are notable historical city centers where some streets or churches look a lot like … Paris. But cheaper. Several scenes from La Vie en Rose, a biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, were shot in Prague.
But the American studios also want to be sure that in the country of filming they will find qualified workers: technicians, location managers, cameramen, prop masters, extras — but also, and most importantly, specialists of the post-production. In this area, France is one step ahead with its 110,000 temporary show business workers in the Parisian region alone. But the employment laws are less flexible than London’s. This is a flaw when the shooting only needs to be for a few days.
Lower labor costs
Labor in central Europe costs 30% to 40% less than in other European countries, but don't always have the qualified staff, so the American producers have to weight the pros and cons depending on the need of the project.
For the bidding countries, the stakes are much bigger than just star-sightings and glitter. “The economic consequences can be huge,” says Hansen Tomasson. Big American productions can spend up to 450,000 euros ($500,000) a day. The Interstellar shooting brought more than five million euros to the economy of Iceland, a country with just 320,000 inhabitants. In Canada, the sector created 400,000 jobs over the past ten years.
And then, there is tourism. In Northern Ireland and in Iceland, Game of Thrones triggered an incredible boom in visitors dedicated to the popular show. According to the Northern Ireland Screen Agency, this activity has already brought 77 million euros ($82 million) to the country.
“Since 2013, we've organized tours in the winter to the places where the show was filmed,” says Sólveig Kolbrún Pálsdóttir, chief of projects for Iceland Travel. “Before, tourists used to come to Iceland in the summer: the show opened a whole new market.”