February 29, 2024

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‘Dune’ Proves Hungarian Biz ‘Hard Act to Beat’ as Production Booms

Few could have predicted the global disruptions of the past two years, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to claim lives and upend livelihoods and the war in Ukraine – now in its second month – sparking a crisis whose human, political and economic tolls have yet to be fully reckoned with. For most of the world’s screen industries, forced to adapt on the fly to unforeseen and often unprecedented events, simply staying afloat has somehow come to feel like a triumph.

Yet despite the challenges and lingering uncertainty, the Hungarian industry is riding high. The impressive Oscar haul of Legendary and Warner Bros.’ “Dune,” which filmed in Hungary and won six Academy Awards at Sunday night’s ceremony, is just the latest validation of a booming biz that is only moving from strength to strength.

Last year total production spend in Hungary reached $650 million – a new record, and nearly 30% higher than in the last pre-pandemic year of 2019. “It’s electrifying to witness the post-COVID boom in our screen industry,” says film commissioner Csaba Káel.

Instrumental to that success has been the buy-in from both the government and the private sector, with a streamlined permit process, state-of-the-art sound stages and facilities, and highly skilled English-speaking crews contributing to make Hungary the second-largest production hub in Europe, after the U.K. In addition, Hungary offers a 30% cash rebate (that can reach 37.5% through the addition of qualifying non-Hungarian costs), as well as production costs that are 30%-35% lower than those in the U.S. or U.K., and 25% lower than in Western Europe.

Nigel Marchant, managing director at Carnival Films, the NBCUniversal-owned production outfit behind “Downton Abbey,” points to those factors as the “building blocks for getting the most for our money” when it came to filming “The Last Kingdom,” the Netflix historical drama, which spent five seasons in Hungary.

“The government have been incredibly smart at capitalizing the growth in that sector, and being incredibly smart and light-footed in the tax rebate to…keep being at the forefront of giving as much money back and being as attractive to a producer as they possibly could,” adds Marchant, who just wrapped production on the “Last Kingdom” feature-length spinoff “Seven Kings Must Die.”

Despite rising energy costs and lingering supply-chain disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the industry hasn’t missed a beat. Budapest is thrumming with activity. “In the next four to six weeks, I think our capacity will either be completely full, or mostly full, through Q4 this year – maybe going into Q1 2023,” says Adam Goodman of Mid Atlantic Films, which serviced principal photography on “Dune” (pictured) in 2019. “There are enough projects circling to imagine that the town will remain busy as it has done year on year.”

Nearly two years after COVID-19 began disrupting film and television production across the globe, the Hungarian industry seems to have finally worked through a backlog of projects delayed by the pandemic. But as demand continues to surge, it’s now reckoning with a fundamental shift – accelerated by the pandemic, but by no means caused by it – in how films and series are produced and consumed, a ripple effect being felt in screen industries across the globe.

“More than ever, there is a need for content. That hasn’t changed; if anything, it’s grown,” says Goodman, who recently wrapped principal photography on “Seven Kings Must Die.” Mid Atlantic is currently prepping the second season of Showtime’s “Halo,” while also budgeting and scouting for several miniseries from Hollywood studios and streamers that are in development.

“High-end TV is in huge demand,” adds Ildikó Kemény, managing director of Pioneer Stillking Films, whose slate includes NBCUniversal’s “FBI International,” Lionsgate’s “John Wick” prequel “The Continental,” and Netflix’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” a limited series based on Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel starring Mark Ruffalo, Hugh Laurie and newcomer Aria Mia Loberti.

Kemény says she fields daily inquiries from foreign producers “shopping around” for studio space and Hungarian crew. “Producers, financiers, streaming giants check in with us: Could we look at their project? Could we cost compare? Could we book them into one of these studios?” she says.

If anything, the question is whether Hungary will be a victim of its own success. Capacity is increasingly a challenge in what’s already shaping up to be a busy year, with no signs of slowing down. “[There] is a clear understanding by the U.S. studios and our international partners that they need to make commitments to stages and infrastructure, sometimes ahead of a budget or ahead of a final script,” Goodman says. “If you want to know you’ve got a place to make your movie [in Budapest] in 2023, you’re going to have to make that decision in Q2 2022 – certainly no later than Q3.” “It is a fine balance,” adds Kemény. “It’s very important that we don’t take on more than we can deliver.”

Demand continues to surge, even as the war in Ukraine – which shares a border with Hungary – has cast a pall over Europe and the rest of the world. Thus far there has been no knock-on effect on projects currently in production, nor signs that international partners are ready to rethink their plans for shooting in Hungary.

The war nevertheless casts a shadow. “It’s the humanitarian atrocity that we are witnessing and we are experiencing – that’s the direct result of the war, as far as being in close proximity to Ukraine,” says Goodman. Pioneer Stillking has marshaled its resources to deliver food and medical supplies to the Ukrainian border each week, as Hungary faces an influx of refugees. “In our small ways, we are trying to do everything we can to help,” says Kemény. “I wish we could do more.”

Meanwhile, the industry soldiers on, just as it has throughout the coronavirus pandemic. In an effort to accommodate the surging interest, four new sound stages are set to open in 2023 at the state-owned Mafilm Studios complex, boosting studio space five-fold. Plans are also underway to extend the backlot and build new stages at Origo Studios, which hosted “Dune,” where recent additions include a water tank purpose-built for the 2019 shoot of the Russian blockbuster “Chernobyl: Abyss,” a green-screen stage, and a host of air-conditioned warehouses and workshops.

It’s indicative of how Hungarian film professionals are adapting to whatever the industry demands. “We had to learn how to host these productions. We had to go through this learning curve of what big productions really need,” says Origo’s Mihály Tóth. “Every time there’s…something we have to supply, we learn it, we do it, and next time when they come back, we already know how to provide it.”

“When you have crew bases, stages, infrastructure in terms of construction capacity, prop-making capacity, costume-making capacity – when all those things come into alignment, combined with the incentive that we have, we’re a hard act to beat,” adds Goodman.