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On Location: Bulgarian studio gets new image under Avi Lerner

Bulgargia 
On the outskirts of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a 75-acre former communist-era studio will soon draw a contingent of Hollywood heavies including Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The testosterone-heavy ensemble will gather at Nu Boyana Film Studios on Sept. 19 to begin filming the second installment of “The Expendables,” the hit movie about an elite group of mercenaries that garnered $275 million at the box office last year.

The $100-million movie is the latest large-budget feature to film at Nu Boyana Film Studios, which has become the go-to destination in Eastern Europe for Los Angeles-based filmmaker Avi Lerner since his company Nu Image acquired the sprawling complex in 2006.

The prolific film producer and financier has a reputation for stretching the value of each production dollar by scouring the world for the cheapest labor and tax breaks. After shooting films in Israel, South Africa and Canada, and building a 70,000-square-foot studio complex in Louisiana to take advantage of the state’s generous film tax incentives, Lerner’s latest large-budget action flicks have found a home in the ancient country on the Black Sea.

“It’s the least expensive country in Eastern Europe to shoot in,” Lerner said of the decision to film in the Balkan country.

Nu Image has poured tens of millions of dollars into upgrades to the formerly state-owned studio, which was built in 1962 and produced as many as 25 feature films per year during the communist era but fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The studio now employs about 1,000 workers and has 13 sound stages, with the largest more than 6,500 square feet, as well as a replica of several downtown Manhattan streets and a faux ancient Rome, complete with a coliseum.

Nu Image/Millennium has used Nu Boyana as its back lot on dozens of smaller-budget films and increasingly larger studio features, including “The Black Dahlia,” the 2006 L.A. noir crime story produced by Universal Pictures and Millennium; and “Conan the Barbarian,” Millennium’s action franchise reboot that was released last month. Lerner’s next large-budget action film, “Hercules,” is already scheduled to start shooting atNu Boyana Film Studios in March.

Whereas the first “Expendables” was filmed mainly in Brazil and Louisiana, the bulk of the 14-week production for the sequel will take place in Bulgaria, in addition to locations in Paris, Moscow and China.

The second “Expendables,” which will also include Chuck Norris, John Travolta and Jean-Claude Van Damme in its cast of aging American action stars, will be set primarily in a fictional Eastern European country. The production will use Nu Boyana’s elaborate Manhattan sets, which span several blocks and include subway entrances, to depict a Soviet compound used to train soldiers on how to fight in America.

Nu Image is not the only local company expanding into Eastern Europe; Hollywood-based Raleigh Studios recently opened a sprawling 180,000-square-foot studio complex in Budapest, Hungary.

Despite having no tax incentives and facing competition from Hungary and the Czech Republic, both of which offer tax credits and skilled technical workers at relatively low cost, David Varod, chief executive of Nu Boyana Film Studios, insists that shooting in Bulgaria is still 40% cheaper than in other Eastern European countries and up to 80% cheaper than filming in the U.S. The minimum wage in Bulgaria, which relies on nonunion crews, is less than half of what it is in the Czech Republic and Hungary.

“Labor cost is the main difference,” Varod said. “It’s not always easy to convince producers to shoot in Bulgaria, but it comes down to the bottom line and it’s cheaper.”

Bulgaria could become even more attractive to filmmakers if the country adopts a film tax credit, which is expected to take effect next year, according to the Bulgarian National Film Center. “Incentives are on the way,” Varod said.

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--Dima Alzayat

Photo: A scene from the movie "War, Inc." during production at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Bulgaria. Credit: Nu Image/Nu Boyana Film Studios

 
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