Hungary's film industry is booming with more and more international production companies flocking to the nation to shoot Hollywood movies.
Leading film mag Variety recently reported on how film industry bigwigs headed to Hungary to celebrate the centenary of Mafilm Studios, the state-owned production company just a short distance from Budapest, and how Hungary is fast-becoming the destination of choice for big studios.
The highly respected magazine states that Hungarian films have been winning major awards around the globe, including an Oscar for “Son of Saul” and a Golden Bear for “On Body and Soul", and are continuing to play host to not only local talent but also international award-winning greats.
It is now a fact that Hungary is one of the world’s top production destinations for Hollywood movies, and the second-largest in Europe.
“We are back on the map,” said Andy Vajna, the Hungarian film commissioner, the brains behind international smash hits like "Terminator".
Hungary has also recently played host to many Hollywood fim productions including "Blade Runner 2049", "Atomic Blonde", "Spy" and "Brimstone".
Hollywood film productions being shot in Budapest, and throughout Hungary, have not only boosted Hungary's film industry but also the economy.
When Vajna moved back to Hungary, he took over the country’s moribund film industry and made his birthplace a destination for international film crews.
MARS, a National Geographic production, a six-part miniseries about plans to colonize the red planet, finished shooting in Hungary last year and was broadcast in the United States last November.
As we reported last year, in addition to commercials and small-budget independent films, three big shoots passed through the city around the same time as MARS: The Coldest City, a spy thriller starring Charlize Theron, NBC’s new Emerald City TV series and the science fiction Bladerunner sequel.
Origo Studios, built in 2010, where interior scenes of the MARS colony was shot, is a sprawling complex of looming concrete structures the size of large airplane hangars. Inside, the state-of-the-art building is draped with black sound-deadening material, rendering the interior silent and pitch-dark, isolating the actors, sets and sounds in the studio from the world outside.
The modern structures, together with Hungary’s generous tax incentives, Budapest’s Beaux arts-style architecture, and a low-cost, highly trained, English-speaking workforce, make for “a wonderful city to work in,” said Howie Young, co-producer of the MARS project for NatGeo. And for outdoor shoots, Budapest can stand in for almost anywhere in Europe, Young said.
“There are probably eight to 10 movies shooting in the city at any given time, and another 10 interested. There’s not enough hotels, studios and location to go around,” Young said. “The productions are competing with each other for space and locations,” Young added. “Two of them are shooting at the same studio, and I need to call one of them to barter for stage space."
Much of the action in Hungary’s movie industry can be traced to Vajna’s efforts to promote Hungary in the industry.
Vajna, who produced the Rambo and Terminator movie series and some 50 other Hollywood films, acknowledges that Hungarian film producers and critics thought he would ruin their industry, which has a proud history dating to the 1920s.
Vajna retired from Hollywood in 2010 and returned home to a Hungarian film industry that was in crisis. The Hungarian Motion Picture Public Foundation, which helped fund Hungarian films, was insolvent, with 55 million USD in debt.
Vajna, with support from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, brokered the transfer of state-owned film studios and other property to a new film fund headed by Vajna.
The deal used government funds to pay off the old foundation's debts, and started a new funding and production scheme for the industry.
“When I came, there was a lot of resistance over whether my presence would destroy the independent film industry,” Vajna said. “This Hollywood guy who’s produced all those hugely commercial films — there was a revolt.”
In 2012, legendary Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, then-president of the now-defunct Hungarian Filmmakers Association, condemned the deal because it replaced multiple sources of funding and subsidies with one, according to the entertainment trade publication Variety.
Vajna answered the critics with a plan, and measurable outcomes.
“I set myself two goals,” Vajna said. “Revitalize the Hungarian film industry and revitalize the film service industry for foreign films.”
The new National Film Fund was to fund 10 locally produced films every year. Vajna hired people to review potential scripts and improve films before cameras started rolling. The results so far: 67 full-length Hungarian feature films and co-productions, 140 festival wins and a Golden Globe Award in 2015 and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, both for Son of Saul.
The new film foundation also worked with Hungarian universities to train young workers for the industry. It helped stimulate the construction of three studio compounds, including the Origo Film Group and Korda Studios (credits include The Martian), in which Vajna owns a share. And the Hungarian parliament boosted its rebate program for production expenses from 20 to 25 percent of everything spent in Hungary, among the most generous anywhere.
“The goal was to clean up the Hungarian side (of the film industry), create a completely see-through system where people knew where the money was going,” Vajna said.
The results are hard to dismiss.
“Foreign film expenditures in Hungary grew from 5 million five years ago to 280 million USD now,” Vajna said.