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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulgaria Is Hot Location For Western Filmmakers

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Next time you are at the movies and believe you see an American desert or the French Alps, you may in fact be looking at a scene in Bulgaria.

The Balkan country, which did not produce a single film of its own last year, has been rapidly turning into a filmmaking location.

In recent years, many foreign films have been made, at least in part, in Bulgaria. Among them are Roger Corman's "The Return of Dracula," Emir Kusturica's "Underground," Milcho Manchevski's "Before the Rain," Menahem Golan's "Armstrong" and Tony Palmer's "England, my England."

European and Hollywood producers have taken a liking to the unique combination the small, poverty-stricken country offers - diverse and strikingly beautiful scenery, low production costs and the facilities of its giant film-production complex.

"We are making movies throughout the world. We are looking for new locations since it is so expensive to work in the United States, and the country we are looking for is Bulgaria," said Avi Lerner, chairman of the U.S. film company New Image.

Lerner's company is currently filming an action movie, "A Bridge of Dragons" starring Dolf Lundgren, using facilities and staff of Boyana Film, one of Bulgaria's finest communist legacies.

Situated in the most luxurious district of Sofia, at the foot of the Vitosha mountain, Boyana Film is the biggest film complex in the Balkans.

It was built in 1959, when Bulgaria, then Moscow's closest ally in the Soviet bloc, built everything on a scale intended to reflect the "grandness" of the Communist Party.

After the collapse of communism in November 1989, the local film industry also fell apart.

The film complex remained state-owned but was deprived of subsidies and had to seek finances elsewhere. But local entrepreneurs were thin on the ground and barely any movies were made at Boyana.

The complex was losing its glamour. Most of the studios were empty and gathering dust until foreign producers saw its potential. Boyana's new management, which took control a year ago, was quick to see the opportunity and launched a "Make Movies in Bulgaria" campaign.

Seven foreign films were made in Boyana studios in the first half of this year - three German, two Russian, one joint English-Greek and a U.S. action film, "Bloody Sport."

"We have launched a high-profile campaign to attract foreign producers to Bulgaria and to use Boyana services," Boyana Film executive director Evgeni Mihailov said.

He said that apart from being able to handle a full production cycle, the facility, covering more than 100 hectares, had capitalized on its specialist expertise.

Its metal-plastics laboratory made the armor and weapons featured in Bernardo Bertolucci's lavish epic "Little Buddha," as well as sets for "Underground" by Sarajevo-born Kusturica, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995.

But the main reason for shooting movies in Bulgaria is the low production costs.

"Shooting movies in Bulgaria is three times cheaper than Hollywood, despite the fact that in America the speed of the production is much quicker," Lerner said.

Should income from foreign productions fail to cover Boyana Film's bills, the complex has developed a sideline business which is almost guaranteed to be lucrative - manufacturing giant illuminated signs for the U.S. fast food chain McDonald's.