Greece pins its recovery hopes on a new kind of foreign investor: Hollywood film crews

Puppeteer Filippos Fertis was patiently waiting his turn to be called up one morning last month at Monastiraki square in Athens, under the shadow of the Acropolis.

The square, host to the city’s flea market, was unusually busy for that time of day. Big burly men adjusted large metal barricades cutting off access to cobblestone streets, while several youths yelled out instructions on megaphones.

Fertis was one of hundreds of film extras on the set of the American political thriller TV series Jack Ryan, being filmed by Paramount and Amazon Studios that day at the Greek site. With demand for puppet theater at schools and municipalities diminished as a result of the pandemic, work as a film extra was coming in handy. It was the 17th time Fertis had snagged an extra role in the past two years; just about half of those roles were for foreign films. This work may not be solving anyone’s financial problems, but it is providing some relief, says Fertis.

“And there are a lot of people that need that relief,” he adds.

Like tens of thousands of Greeks, Fertis is leaning on the economy’s newly emerged growth sector—the movie business—to get by.

Big-budget blockbusters

Greece has become something of a hotspot for foreign films lately, drawing large Hollywood productions, big-name actors, and some equally big budgets.

Film crews are regularly seen shooting movies, documentaries, or advertisements around the Greek capital—a sight that was rare just a few years ago. Although still in its infancy, the industry is growing up fast.

In 2018, Greek authorities introduced incentives aimed at drawing foreign film productions to its shores with an eye on the $12 billion global film market. The measures were part of a broader growth push for the Greek economy that was still stumbling under the weight of capital controls and a fiscal clampdown demanded by international creditors.

Since then, they sweetened the measures, and now offer a 40% cash rebate on production expenses, versus a 30% rebate offered in nearby Turkey and Spain. Other changes include a promised reduction in Greece’s famed red-tape procedures and speedier payment of benefits to film companies.

Antonio Banderas walks past a cab, flanked by a crew member, during the filming of action thriller “The Enforcer,” on the streets of Thessaloníki.

The success of the measures has caught many in Greece by surprise.

Industry data shows that 171 film productions have been filmed with the help of the rebate, of which 79 were from abroad, chalking up to business worth €255 million. The industry has created work for 42,000 people, at a time when the job market has yet to recover from the country’s 10-year economic crisis and unemployment is at around 14%. Greek actors, directors, and movie crews, however, remain the big winners as the majority of film productions benefiting from the incentives are local outfits.

Industry officials point to growing budgets as an indication of how the film industry is maturing in the country.

Budgets for film productions are regularly at the €20 million mark, as opposed to previous movies involving amounts of less than €3 million, industry officials say.

‘Crazy’ demand

The summer was a busy period as filming caught up with delays caused by lockdowns.

Mystery thriller Go, from Netflix, starring Daniel Craig and Edward Norton, was shot just south of Athens, while in the country’s northern city of Thessaloníki action movie The Enforcer (with Antonio Banderas) was filmed for Millennium Media.

In the past few days, there is new buzz in the industry after news that the latest installment of the Expendables franchise, from Lionsgate and Millennium Media and featuring Andy Garcia, Megan Fox, and Sylvester Stallone, will be shot in Thessaloníki in early November.

Panos Kouanis, head of the National Center of Audiovisual Media and Communication (EKOME), says that the increase in demand has just been “crazy.”

The rebate is the carrot, he tells Fortune, but this alone is not enough. More is needed to help draw the big-budget productions, such as providing a credible partner for production companies to deal with and offering film-friendly locations, he adds.

Ranking at the top of the country’s advantages are the many hours of sunlight on offer that allow for more shooting to be done in a day, pushing down production costs.

Too generous?

But not everyone is happy with the success. Critics say the government has given away too much in its attempt to draw large productions, adding that other crucial sectors also need the generous assistance.

Lefteris Kretsos, who initially introduced the incentives in 2018 as deputy digital policy minister under the previous Syriza government, describes the recent changes as “being problematic and driven by short-termism.”

Fewer checks on subsidies risk funds going to dodgy film companies—a move that would harm strong public support for the projects, he says, adding that some of the expenses that qualify for state aid are excessive.

“The changes have been designed with a marketing purpose in mind rather than supporting the film industry in Greece. There are economic elements to all this, but it is also a cultural issue, and we must keep standards high,” he tells Fortune.

The success though has caught the country flat-footed. Greek film officials privately admit that a lack of studios and postproduction facilities in the country has resulted in a loss of business for the local film industry.

A shortage of staff members qualified to work on sets is also weighing on the industry. In a bid to meet demand, former waiters, accountants, and shop clerks are being hastily trained to learn new skills needed for film crews.

Fresh training courses are in the works, though for now officials are just too busy getting the cameras rolling.

“There are teething problems, but we are catching up,” a film official notes. “The movie industry in Greece is showing a lot of promise, and people are realizing this.”

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