Countries eager to boost their production sector are offering incentives that UK production companies are finding ever more enticing, writes Ann-Marie Corvin.

Romania seems an unlikely stand-in for Victorian England - as does Belfast for Manchester - but finding the right backdrop for a TV series often dictates that productions think laterally about their choice of location. Increasingly this means going abroad.

Darlow Smithson head of operations Ulla Streib cites three reasons why the docu-drama specialist may not shoot in the precise location a script requires: “Price, accessibility and unions.”

Darlow tends not to film in the US for reasons of price and unions, says Streib. “We can't afford the Hollywood rates”. Germany is another territory off limits to the indie because of its strict overtime and labour laws “which can limit flexibility on a tight shooting schedule,” says Streib.

“If you work in drama-docs where you don't have a full drama budget then it tends to work out cheaper to fly to South Africa or Poland - places with good tax breaks, co-production treaties and existing production infrastructure where you can hire cheaper kit and talent,” she adds.

For writer/producer Stephen Lightfoot Iraq was never really on the cards access-wise when it came to searching for a backdrop to film the recent BBC and HBO miniseries House of Saddam (pictured) but he had a host of other editorial requirements.

“With Saddam we needed somewhere with a river that also had palatial buildings, was politically stable and cheap.”

Egypt was ruled out as politically fraught; Jordan's river wasn't big enough. Dubai, Morocco and Tunisia became the final three Iraq stand-ins with Lightfoot concluding that Tunisia was the best match. “A burst of tourism during the 1980s meant that Tunisia has plenty of ornate overblown hotels, we found a river and there were no problems with what we were trying to film,” he adds.

The production drew on the resources of local fixer Sinbad Productions, which had previously assisted Red Planet productions in filming Nick Broomfield's Iraq drama, Mark of Cain, a year earlier.

The original plan had been to film all the interiors in the UK and fly out to Tunisia to shoot the exteriors. But, according to Lightfoot, when the line producer looked into costings, it was clear that it would be more cost-effective to take the whole production abroad.

“For sets of that size you are talking a lot of money in the UK and for palatial-looking properties people tend to want huge fees. It would have cost way more to film in the UK.”

It seems like a big loss for UK production services but eschewing the comforts of home for studios and locations abroad - particularly in eastern Europe - is now common practice as productions attempt to stretch squeezed drama budgets.

From Wind in the Willows to The Last Enemy, drama outfit Box TV has long been a fan of Romanian studios such as MediaPro and Castel. For period pieces, the cost of redressing a building - including temporarily removing eyesores like rubbish bins and CCTV cameras - can be massive as well as time-consuming, according to executive producer Adrian Bate.

For Box's latest period epic Affinity, set in 1870s London, while the production required a three-day shoot in the capital, including Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, Bate managed to find plenty more Victorian buildings in Romania that came “without all those blue plaques attached”.

He says: “We found a range of Victorian era buildings over there which were very accessible - 50 years of Communist rule meant they had been neglected but at least they weren't modernised.”

Besides the competitive rates offered by foreign studios, some governments offer sweeteners such as subsidies, co-production treaties and tax relief in the hope of stimulating the local production economy.

This makes countries such as Canada, which has a co-production treaty with the UK, a particularly attractive option according to Kirstie McLure, head of production at Pioneer.

Location hotspots

  • Morocco and tunisia
    While there are no formal financial incentive programmes for either territory, both governments provide schemes to assist productions. Both have become popular stand-ins for Iraq and allow the temporary import of military hardware.

  • South Africa
    South Africa has co-production treaties with the UK. Large budget TV productions are entitled to a 15% rebate providing at least 75% of the total amount of all production or co-production costs are spent on South African goods and services. Both Darlow Smithson and Box TV have shown interest in filming here.

  • Romania
    While no formal financial incentives exist, for the past five years studios such as MediaPro and Castel Studios have offered lucrative production packages to foreign TV drama productions. However, Box TV executive producer Adrian Bate says that costs are rising along with standards of living - “Good news for Romanians, but not for UK producers.”

More info at

Generous tax breaks

The production company has taken advantage of Canada's generous tax breaks on several of its productions including its recent docu-drama for Channel 4 The Unsinkable Titanic, shot in Montreal and Challenger: Countdown to Disaster, which was filmed in Toronto.

“We look at a set of criteria when choosing to film in a foreign location and tax breaks are definitely one of them,” says McLure. However, she warns: “You still have to raise lots of money to make these
productions and you need to get to grips with how to make these benefits work for you.”

Through a deal with Northern Ireland Screen, Laurie Borg, a producer on Kudos' forthcoming BBC Iraq drama Occupation (see box), had the task of ensuring Northern Ireland could pass for Manchester and was well aware of the strings attached to the benefits the production received.

“When you are dealing with Screen Agencies you have to tick various boxes - [Northern Ireland Screen] wanted three times the investment - so for every£1 they give you, you have to spend£3 on services or people from Northern Ireland to make that benefit work,” says Borg.
Because using local talent is often a condition of receiving finance, deciding on what grades to select locally and which crew to bring with you is crucial.

“We usually send our DoP in first and then, via a local production service company, decide on what elements are required,” says McLure.
She adds that some grades need to be selected carefully, especially when shooting in HD. “With make-up and set design the camera is going to pick up every flaw. You need to ensure that their work stands up to HD's scrutiny.”

Lion TV executive producer Richard Bradley has shot in destinations as far flung as China, Morocco, Syria and Peru. He recommends key staff to bring along from the UK including the producer, director, DoP, production manager and sound recordist.

Another quirk of the docu-drama is that while many local craftspeople have worked on Hollywood movies or large-scale TV dramas they don't quite understand the production conventions of this uniquely British genre.

Pioneer's McLure says: “It can involve some education among the local production pool. At first, North Americans can't quite comprehend the budgets that we are working to - or the schedule. They are just not used to shooting so many scenes in one day.”

Most production managers agree that local knowledge is essential. Fixers such as Sinbad in Tunisia or Dune Films in Morocco are relied upon for sourcing everything from locations, talent and translators to guiding a production through transportation logistics and cutting through official red tape.

Bradley warns the latter is key when filming abroad. “Most countries are suspicious of what you are trying to achieve and so you'll need to seek out someone with good government contacts,” he says.

One alternative to using a fixer is to outsource all the logistics to a local production company, as Lion TV did with Phoenix pictures while filming in China. Says Bradley: “This relationship opened up an entire world for us at a modest cost. We were able to access crafts people and stuntmen beyond our limits. We also found standing sets that we never knew existed.

“Just outside Shanghai, for example, Hengdian World Studios has built an 80% replica of the Forbidden City for filming purposes because the real one is always full of tourists. It's access to this kind of information that's priceless.”

Location casebook:
BBC1's Occupation: Morocco/Northern Ireland

Kudos's forthcoming BBC Northern Ireland drama, shot in Morocco and Northern Ireland, traces the lives of three British soldiers from the invasion of Basra in March 2003 to the present. While the two main locations in Peter Bowker's script are Manchester and Basra, a production grant from Northern Ireland Screen and Iraq's inaccessibility meant that producer Laurie Borg and executive producer Derek Wax had to improvise.

For the production to receive its funding it had to spend three times the investment it received from Northern Ireland Screen on Northern Irish talent and services. So Belfast doubled up as Manchester which Wax says worked out well since both cities have an old Victorian port and similar architecture.

Borg recalls he approached individual craftspeople in Northern Ireland because there wasn't a production services company big enough to cope with the scale of Occupation's production requirements.

“We were lucky,” he says. “I found, perhaps, one creative head in each area (of production) who had the credentials we were looking for - had there been a major Hollywood movie filming at the same time then we would have been screwed.”

The Paint Hall, a Belfast studio facility based at a former shipyard paint hall, was used to create most of the show's interiors - from British military accommodation in Basra to apartments, corridors and pizzerias.

Six weeks of the eight-week shoot were based in Northern Ireland while the crew spent the remaining two shooting exteriors in Morocco, which stood in for Iraq. Impressed with the standard of local talent in Northern Ireland, the head of design and head of hair and make-up also attended the Moroccan leg of the shoot.

According to Wax, Morocco was selected because the climate was right and the country's existing film making infrastructure was impressive - its recent production credits including the BBC series The Passion, Ridley Scott's last four features and the recent Hollywood Iraq drama, The Valley of Ellah. For the Moroccan part of the production, local fixing company Dune Films was employed to ease the logistics and cut through red tape when it came to hiring tanks from the army and being granted gun permits from King Mohammed VI.

The director Nick Murphy, who comes from a documentary background, encouraged DoP David Odd to shoot rapidly rather than take time to light scenes, shooting at B speed on Super 16.

“The method of shooting really added to the overall look of the film and it was essential that we shot rapidly as we were only there for two weeks and we only had the sunlight until 6pm each day,” adds Derek Wax.