Stray dogs drinking from puddles are the only sign of life on a rainy day at Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rotting cabbages and potatoes, left from an Italian TV shoot, lie scattered on a street built to look like Boston's North End. A Roman coliseum awaits a new sword-and-sandal epic.
No, there's not a palm tree in sight, but this Communist-era studio could become the Balkans' answer to Burbank. Los Angeles film producer Nu Image Inc., which has made 47 movies in Bulgaria since 1999, wants to buy Boyana and use it to vault beyond its action-flick niche and into films with Oscar potential. "I'm going to turn Boyana into one of the most important studios in Europe," says David Varod, a set-designer-turned-producer who is Nu Image's man in Bulgaria.
Varod's vow is not just show-biz bluster. Currently, Nu Image Bulgaria operates from a building that once housed an indoor swimming pool in Sofia, where it has built a thriving business churning out lowbrow titles such as Today You Die and Raging Sharks. But last year, Nu Image achieved what Varod hopes will be a breakthrough when it shot director Brian De Palma's latest thriller, The Black Dahlia, on an ersatz L.A. street. Boyana, set on 74 acres just outside Sofia, would give Nu Image a prime launching pad for its ambitions to produce more such prestige work.
Eastern Europe is already a filmmaking hot spot. Studios such as Prague's Barrandov, the setting for some of Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS ) current hit The Chronicles of Narnia, have a reputation for skilled technical work at relatively low cost. But Bulgaria is even cheaper. Varod estimates that costs are 50% to 60% below those of Hollywood. Besides, "Boyana is up there with the iconic film studios. It's a great brand," says Patrick Newman, a consultant who represents London's Ealing Studios, which covets Boyana, too. Some Boyana equipment is out of date, but its facilities include gems such as a soundproof orchestra recording studio that would be prohibitively expensive to build from scratch. It also has an arsenal of medieval weapons.
Buying Boyana would seem like a simple decision. But Nu Image's purchase of the studio has turned into a cautionary tale of how complicated business can still be for Westerners who covet prime assets in Eastern Europe. On paper, Nu Image already won a competitive bid for Boyana in August with a bargain-basement price of $7.4 million. But Bulgarian filmmakers -- known for wrenching dramas that collect film festival awards but not much money -- are balking at the idea that Boyana may go to the maker of Crocodile 2: Death Swamp. That has given rise to a nasty battle. U.S. diplomats are pressuring the Bulgarians to honor its deal with Nu Image, arguing that the controversy is a test case of whether Bulgaria, which is due to join the European Union as early as next year, shows adequate respect for business agreements. British diplomats, meanwhile, are plugging for Ealing.
ART VS. COMMERCE
In fact, somebody should option the whole story. The cast includes Bulgarian Culture Minister Stefan Danailov, an actor who in his youth was known as the Bulgarian version of 1960s French heartthrob Alain Delon. Aside from dozens of local films, Danailov appeared in a 2002 U.S.-made thriller called Crisis in the Kremlin, where he uttered such lines as: "We want you to kill Gorbachev." Now, Danailov, 63, is playing the heavy in the Boyana drama, blocking the privatization deal approved by a previous government. Danailov declined a request for an interview, but said in a statement that the deal contains "unacceptable peculiarities." Formally, the decision is back in the hands of Bulgaria's Privatization Agency, which could either approve the deal or reopen the bidding process.
At its core, the Boyana saga is a classic battle of art vs. commerce. Nu Image's Varod, looking Hollywood-casual in faded jeans, his gray hair tied in a ponytail, and an earring in his left ear, makes no grand claims about Nu Image's oeuvre. "Action movies are part of the culture," says the Israeli-born Varod, who saw combat in both the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars but says he personally opposes violence. Whatever their artistic merit, Nu Image movies have created some 600 jobs in Sofia, including regular freelancers and employees of a Sofia-based Worldwide FX, which does computerized effects for Nu Image, the Sci-Fi Channel, and others.
As the local talent pool grows, other film-related companies are moving in. "Bulgaria is hot right now," says Scott Coulter, manager of Worldwide FX. Nearby, a Bulgarian at a workstation digitally retouches the forehead of an actor in Lonely Hearts, a new John Travolta film.
Nu Image's status is rising as well. As a framed photo on the wall of Varod with actress Scarlett Johansson attests, the company is starting to work with more A-list talent. In addition to The Black Dahlia, which stars Johansson and Hilary Swank, Nu Image Bulgaria last year shot The Contract, featuring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack. Upcoming films include a Johansson project in which she plays an Englishwoman who befriends Napoleon in exile.
Varod promises to support Bulgarian cinema, too. But so many privatization deals have gone sour, with investors stripping assets rather than creating jobs, that Bulgarians don't believe him. Critics charge, for example, that foreign moviemakers simply want to make a killing by subdividing Boyana's real estate. In fact, Boyana is not far from ski slopes in an area already dotted with gaudy mansions where tough-looking security guards prowl the driveways. Varod has agreed not to sell Boyana's land for 20 years, but this hasn't satisfied critics. "The only thing they haven't said yet -- and maybe it's still coming -- is that my mother's a hooker," Varod says.
Evgeny S. Michailov, Boyana's chairman and a respected Bulgarian director, hasn't questioned the honor of Varod's mother, but he is an implacable critic. For the past decade, Michailov, 51, has tried to revive Boyana, which once employed 2,000 people but now has only 136 full-time workers. Under Michailov, more than 100 films have been shot at Boyana, including East-West, a 2000 Oscar nominee starring Catherine Deneuve, as well as many Nu Image productions. After years of losses, Boyana will make a profit for 2005 of about $400,000 on revenues of $7.4 million. "Nu Image is a very good customer," says Michailov. "But nobody wants Nu Image to be the image of Bulgarian film."
What should be the image of Bulgarian film? Michailov leads a visitor through Boyana's main studio building, built in the '50s. Applause sounds from behind one door -- the audience at a Bulgarian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. That's probably not what Michailov has in mind. Then he opens a door to find Krassimir Kroumov, a well-known director, at a console mixing a soundtrack for his latest opus. On the screen, an old man holds out a picture of a pretty girl and presses his face against a rock, weeping. Two people in a car look on impassively. Kroumov, who speaks only a little English, tries to explain the plot but gives up. "It's complicated," he says. As Nu Image has discovered, so is Bulgaria.
By Jack Ewing