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Georgia steps up efforts to woo foreign filmmakers

Tbilisi — Buzzing with anticipation after hosting its first Hollywood film production, ex-Soviet Georgia is stepping up efforts to attract foreign filmmakers and their multi-million-dollar budgets.

Following recent visits by stars Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer to shoot scenes for a film on last year’s Georgia-Russia war, officials in Tbilisi are hoping to lure more foreign productions with a wide-ranging government programme.

Georgia, dogged by instability since gaining its independence with the 1991 collapse of Soviet Union, hardly seems a likely destination for Hollywood-style glamour.

But officials are hoping a combination of breathtaking scenery, government incentives and low costs will push Georgia into the limelight.

"Georgia has outstanding advantages as a location for foreign filmmakers," said Nino Gamrekeli, a producer with Georgian Film Studios, the country’s largest production facility.

"We have almost all climatic zones located very close to each other… We have skilled film crews. And the Georgian government is adopting an extremely film-friendly policy."

Officials are promoting Georgia’s diverse landscape, where directors can shoot scenes on sweeping Black Sea beaches, snow-capped mountains and in the elegant capital Tbilisi, all within a few hours drive.

To boost Georgia’s attractiveness, the government is planning to offer an uncapped 25 percent cash rebate, reimbursing foreign film productions for up to a quarter of their costs, starting from next year.

A similar scheme has given a major boost to South Africa’s film industry in recent years, with major films such as Tsotsi, Blood Diamond and recent hit District 9 benefiting.

The Georgian government is vowing full cooperation and limited bureaucracy for foreign productions and is planning to appoint film liaison officers in the army, police and customs service to assist filmmakers.

"These initiatives have the support of all government agencies and will take effect in 2010," said Konstantine Chlaidze, the director of Georgia’s National Film Centre.

"We are also planning to set up a special fund… that will allocate money to co-finance productions."

Gamrekeli said Georgia is looking to compete with other Eastern European nations that have attracted international filmmakers — and the windfall revenues they can bring — in recent years, such as the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

"Costs are even lower in Georgia than in those countries. And another advantage for Georgia is our expertise — historically Georgian film professionals have a very good reputation," she said.

Georgia was famed for its film productions in the Soviet era, with many of the Soviet Union’s best-loved films and productions hailing from the country.

Georgian directors frequently won international awards during the Soviet era.

Mikhail Kalatozov’s visually stunning The Cranes are Flying took the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. The 1984 film Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze, a thinly veiled critique of Stalinism, won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Officials admit Georgia’s filmmaking infrastructure — from equipment to professional training — may lag behind modern techniques, but say efforts are being made to catch up.

"We are working hard to modernise film infrastructure and to train crews in modern techniques," Chlaidze said.

David Imedashvili, co-producer of the film that brought Garcia and Kilmer to Georgia in October, said the production had not run into any difficulties despite a scale much larger than most local films.

"The filming process is going smoothly and the crew has encountered no significant problems with filming in Georgia," he said.

"The authorities have been quite supportive and there were no bureaucratic delays. I know of no other country where no formal permit is needed to film in the streets and where red tape is almost non-existent."

The as-yet-untitled film, directed by Finnish-American action movie director Renny Harlin, will follow an American journalist and a cameraman who get caught up in fighting during last year’s five-day war between Russia and Georgia over the rebel South Ossetia region.

With Georgia’s first major foreign production focusing on the war, supporters admit the country’s biggest hurdle may be convincing foreign filmmakers that it is a safe place to work.

"Of course foreign investors fear instability in the countries they are doing business in. But I don’t think this is a current problem for Georgia," Gamrekeli said. "Last year’s war with Russia was a disaster, but there are no serious grounds to think such things will happen in Georgia again."

Michael Mainville/AFP/Expatica