The island nation is wooing international film makers as a sunny and cheaper alternative to Los Angeles
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is shooting for the stars in its latest bid to attract investment, offering “aggressive” incentives to promote a fledgling film industry the locals dub “Olivewood”.
In an effort to woo international movie makers, the government is offering cash rebates of up to 35pc to production companies, with further tax discounts on the table for infrastructure and equipment investment.
And while some European countries offer even greater savings, the Cypriots have another not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal: sunshine.
Lefteris Eleftheriou, chairman of the Cyprus Film Commission, says: “In effect, Cyprus is one big studio with 320 days of sunshine and vastly different natural backdrops to choose from, all within a one or two hours’ drive.
“Also, because our island is on the same latitude as LA, the angle and the quality of light is the same, so you can shoot something in Cyprus at 10am and then shoot another scene at 10am in LA and the shadows cast on the windows and the streets will be the same. Not many countries have this.”
Cyprus’s film ambitions were first revealed in 2018 when invitations were sent to more than 40 directors across the globe, one of whom was Dimitri Logothetis, the man behind Kickboxer: Vengeance, a remake of the martial arts classic that heralded the return of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“I didn’t want to go to Cyprus,” he admits. “I had just returned to LA from a three-week vacation in Greece, but my friend and fellow producer kept bugging me about it so we went to hear about this cash rebate programme. While the minister of finance was taking questions, I looked at him and said, ‘Well, I have this film and it’s ready to go. Who do I need to talk to?’ Everyone fell quiet. They weren’t expecting any of the producers they’d brought in to be ready to produce.”
The production Logothetis had ready to go was Jiu Jitsu, a $25m action movie starring Nicolas Cage as a martial arts expert battling an alien. It is now the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely in Cyprus for more than four decades and it was released by Paramount Home Entertainment in North America last month.
“I couldn’t have filmed Jiu Jitsu in America,” Logothetis says. “Everything is a lot more expensive and to film in Cyprus was at least 50pc or 60pc less than it would cost to shoot in the States.”
For Logothetis the biggest draw was the cash rebate offered by the Cypriot government.
“As cash rebates go, 35pc across the board, including ‘above the line’ costs, is a very aggressive rebate. Cyprus needs to keep that edge, and it makes economic sense to do so because for every dollar or euro a country spends on a film, they get seven in return. That’s why Ireland is doing so tremendously well,” he says. “Films boost the economy and production teams inject a lot of cash into economies because we have to pay for hotels, food, car, fuel, buildings and construction amongst a host of other things.”
Although shot in Cyprus, Jiu Jitsu is set in Myanmar, and with Cage involved in the project, the film garnered much local media interest during the six weeks of filming in summer 2019. However, Cage is not the first star to film on the island.
The first Hollywood shoot in Cyprus, The Beloved starring Raquel Welch, was filmed in the village of Karmi in 1970. It was not a great critical success, though one reviewer did praise the film for the “splendid quality of light for which the island is noted”.
Three years later, Peter Sellers filmed the pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun.
For Logothetis, the experience has been positive enough for him to return to the island, scouting locations for his next project. Though he admits to liking Cyprus, he is also a realist; like many independent movie makers before him, shooting outside the US is often a financial necessity. The same model was adopted by the “spaghetti” western directors of the 1960s who chiefly filmed in Spain.
In its heyday, Spain became the backdrop of a huge number of classics such as Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Many of those sets have been abandoned or turned into theme parks, but Spain remains in the game and is a strong competitor in the European hustle for movie dollars.
For Greg Johnson, a producer and lecturer in film studies at Yale University, this is one of the biggest challenges facing Cyprus in getting Olivewood off the ground.
“The Cyprus programme is in some ways competitive with other tax regimes. Spain’s advantage is a highly developed film infrastructure and crews. There are also other tried and true competitors for big budget films such as Romania and Ireland, both of which have considerable EU and Hollywood track records as well as state-of-the-art facilities.”
The lack of facilities is an acknowledged weakness in the island’s grand plan, but Logothetis says the landscape will look very different in a few years.
“I needed to bring the team over from Thailand that I used in Kickboxer 1 and 2 to build a number of sets,” says Logothetis. “While we employed 200-plus Cypriots, we still had to bring in 50 or 60 other crew members from other countries, and the fact is, you need a crew. Spain has a crew and an infrastructure and stages, and they had it way back in the 60s. So did Italy. They don’t have that in Cyprus, but what does exist here is an extreme will to make it happen.”
Local producer Marios Piperides agrees: “We are missing the infrastructure of places like Malta, but they have been doing this since the 60s. It is going to take some time, but there is progress, year on year, and the more films happening here, the more we can start to support.”
Piperides, who is filming a €2.5m French/German/Cypriot co-production on the island called Tel Aviv/Beirut, describes the government’s raft of incentives as “an open door for bigger films to come”. Another production, SOS: Survive or Sacrifice, fronted by William Baldwin, also shot on the island last year.
“Previously you could not survive working as a freelancer or crew member here with only one or two films per year, it was impossible,” says Piperides. “But now, if there is steady work with five, six or seven films a year being made, local and international productions, then you can put more people into the system that can support the industry.”
Ministers are actively pursuing private investment to hurry the industry’s evolution.
George Campanellas of Invest Cyprus says talks are ongoing with a number of film studios, despite the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic. “They are a clear sign of international interest in Cyprus. This is a great time for film investors to get on board.”
While a lack of studio infrastructure might strike most people in the movie business as a handicap, Logothetis remains unfazed.
“For independent film makers it’s getting tougher and tougher to make the movies they want to make. I don’t want to make a movie for two or three million dollars; I did that 25 years ago. I’m just not interested in that. I’m at the top of the threshold and my movies deliver.
“Now I’ve made a great action film and built the infrastructure needed for that film within budget, and I’ve already had conversations with Paramount to make Jiu Jitsu 2. If Olivewood wasn’t a viable alternative to Hollywood, I’d have gone home.”
SOURCE : Telegraph News