Scandinavian dramas, 30% cash rebate boost Estonia’s growing screen business

Estonia got a smashing break into the limelight in 2019 when it hosted Christopher Nolan’s time-wasting sci-fi drama Tenet. The largest production ever shot in the Baltics, Warner Bros.’ $200 million blockbuster put Estonia right on the international film and television production map.

Although the coronavirus pandemic hit not long after filming wrapped, the industry hasn’t missed a beat since, and both domestic and international production – which is being lured by a cash rebate of up to 30% – is continuing at a brisk pace. This year, says Edith Sepp, executive director of the Estonian Film Institute, there are no signs of slowing down.

“The cash rebate in Estonia is booming more than ever in the first half of this year,” she says. “Throughout 2021 we had seven projects utilizing the cash rebate program, but as of January of this year we had already scheduled eight projects for the rebate and the year had only just begun.”

The impact of the growing volume of high-end TV production in neighboring Scandinavia has led to an increase in co-production and service work for Estonian producers, says Riina Sildos of production company Amrion Oü. The company’s plans include the ambitious eight-part drama series “Estonia”, which will be produced by Beta Nordic Studio’s Finnish banner, Fisher King, in co-production with Sweden’s Kärnfilm and Panache Production Belgium, and distributed worldwide by Beta Film.

Allfilm’s Ivo Felt, who provided production services for Tenet, has overseen several Scandinavian television series over the past year. It also completes production on Altitude Film Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller, Sentinel, starring Kate Bosworth and Thomas Kretschmann (‘The Pianist’), which will be sold through Altitude Film Sales. “Since ‘Tenet’ we’ve never stopped,” says Felt, noting that the industry is almost at full capacity.

Physical infrastructure in Estonia is limited: the closest sound stages serving local industry are in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, although that is set to change with the construction of a state-of-the-art studio in Tallinn, due to be operational by 2023.

“We’ve been told ‘no’ a lot because we don’t have a studio,” says Felt. “This expands our choices to choose the films that we can serve.”

The public-private partnership is the latest example of support from a government that has been instrumental in bolstering domestic industry throughout the pandemic. “It really helped finish productions and get them released,” says Sildos, who co-wrote “Apathy” with “Estonia” by Venice director-winner Alexandros Avranas (“Miss Violence”) and “Erik Stoneheart,” a family , co-produced fantasy feature film directed by Ilmar Raag.

Sepp sees the growing domestic sector as crucial to the overall success of Estonian industry. “The cash rebate is thriving and bringing significant benefits to our economy as a whole, but our real focus is on our national films,” she says. “Our national culture is at stake – more than ever in a digital world swamped by competition for people’s attention.”

Exhibition and distribution plummeted during the pandemic as theaters closed or operated at reduced capacity. Hopes for a turnaround were fueled by the recent release of Elmo Nüganen’s historical crime novel Melchior der Apotheker. It not only topped the box office, but was also the first Estonian film to have more than 50,000 admissions since the pandemic began.

Despite all the hopeful signs for Estonia’s growing industry, the war in Ukraine has nevertheless cast a shadow over a country that borders Russia and only declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

“It is very difficult to predict what will be the next step from Russia. It may be here one day,” says Felt. In recent weeks, the industry has gathered its resources and “supported Ukraine as much as possible”.

In Cannes, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is presenting a selection of Ukrainian films as part of its Goes to Cannes Pix-in-Post showcase and is collaborating with the Marché du Film to present four near-complete Ukrainian films in the Ukrainian Features Preview Program. It has also helped assemble a coalition of supporters for the Ukraine Pavilion and funded travel and accommodation expenses for Ukrainian filmmakers. “Although there is still much to be done, it is encouraging to see the international film community coming together and pulling together,” says Tiina Lokk, Festival Director of Black Nights.

For a country that has long relied on close cultural and economic ties with its Baltic neighbors – a necessity to sustain an industry in a country of just 1.3 million people – the ongoing war has only made a united front all the more urgent. “The current war in Ukraine has brought the Baltic States together even more because we understand what this war is about – certainly better than almost any part of Europe,” says Sepp.

“This is our resistance, ours [way of] dealing with the terrible things that are happening in the world,” adds Felt. “This is our tool. This is our weapon.” Scandinavian dramas, 30% cash rebate boost Estonia’s growing screen business

Charles Jones

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