Officials in Georgia hope to turn the country into a global hub for film and television via the creation of a program that offers subsidies to foreign production companies. The initiative is designed to boost the local economy and give a nudge to the country’s own moviemaking industry.
Under the program, called Film in Georgia, the Georgian government will reimburse 20 percent of a foreign company’s production costs in Georgia, and add an additional 5 percent, if the finished film or program promotes Georgia.
“We all know the importance Georgian cinema had in forming the country’s image and culture,” said Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili when he unveiled the program last year. “This new initiative will contribute to the development of cinematography as an industry and as a business. And our country will become Eastern Europe’s most attractive filming location.”
Thus far, six international feature films have qualified for the program, and it has paid out about 673,000 lari (about $280,000). Among the beneficiaries are The Clown, produced by controversial human rights activist Thor Halvorssen and Terence Malick. Another recipient is the production company for an Indian historical action movie called Gautamiputra Satakarni.
Representatives of major American studios, including Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Disney, as well as several Bollywood studios, have visited Georgia to check out the possibilities.
In addition to defraying production costs, Film in Georgia offers various services to foreign production companies, including location scouting, scheduling, and help navigating the local bureaucracy to obtain permits, said Lika Mezvrishvili, head of the program’s international relations department.
The main benefit to Georgia is a boost in the local economy, especially in the hotel and hospitality sector, program officials say. “The film industry is an engine that creates a ripple effect on jobs, and innovation in other sectors of the economy,” Mezvrishvili told EurasiaNet.org.
It could also potentially attract film tourism, if a hit is made in the country and fans want to see the site where it was filmed. And it can provide a boost to Georgia’s own film industry, as Georgian filmmakers can learn from more experienced international counterparts.
“Besides the financial benefit, the most important benefit that Georgia will get is experience and knowledge transfer from international productions. … That [can] lead to growth in the industry and support Georgian filmmakers in developing their own projects,” Mezvrishvili told EurasiaNet.org.
Georgia already has a storied legacy of filmmaking: Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in 1987, and the country has recently produced a number of art-house critics’ favorites, including Giorgi Ovashvili’s Corn Island, Nana Ekvtimishvili’s In Bloom, and Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2013.
But bringing in bigger-budget foreign productions could help expand Georgia’s film industry beyond the auteur model. “Film production requires creative collaboration, and one of the most challenging parts of filmmaking as a career is learning how to work with others, so that the end creative result is greater the sum of the parts,” said Thomas Burns, a director of photography who has worked on films like Live Free or Die Hard and the CSI television franchise, and is now based in Tbilisi. “This level of collaboration and planning is a big part of moving to an industry model of production in Georgia,” Burns told EurasiaNet.org.
Georgia is not the only country offering a subsidy program. Officials say a combination of unique architecture and natural features can help set Georgia apart as a production location. A brochure promoting the program notes Georgia’s “Soviet flavor,” “futuristic buildings,” and “Asian atmosphere” as potential draws for filmmakers. “It’s not difficult to see how the Parliament building in Kutaisi could be an outpost of Starfleet command with only a little VFX (visual effects) help,” Burns said.
Some film & television insiders in Georgia question whether the government should be prioritizing giving money to foreigners when talented domestic filmmakers lack resources. Georgian filmmaker and actor Giorgi Maskharashvili, known for films like Tbilisi-Tbilisi and The Watchmaker, recently had to relocate to Los Angeles because too few opportunities and too little funding were available in Georgia.
“There’s very little money and too many willing Georgian filmmakers trying to get grants,” Maskharashvili told EurasiaNet.org.
The local industry, in spite of its critical international success, is not thriving financially. In 2015, the Georgian National Film Center doubled its annual spending on local films, from just over $1 million to $2.2 million, but ticket sales for local productions remain a fraction of those for international blockbusters.
Georgia could do more to support local popular films, not just festival fare, Maskharashvili said. “To really develop Georgian filmmaking, it would have been better to add a couple more million lari to the Film Center and support producing more popular films,” Maskharashvili said, “even if those projects seem trashy, or cheesy, or ridiculous.”
Inge Snip writes about (social) innovation, startups, and grassroots movements. She hails from the Netherlands, but has lived in Tbilisi on and off since 2007.