15 Dec 2020

Filming in Serbia – a League of Artists, Businessmen, State Aid, Belgrade Architecture and James Bond

One Belgrade University professor used to say that cinematography is an arranged marriage which marries investors and intellectual creators/artists. We respectfully disagree with that statement – the “marriage” is missing a legal professional.

Media law is a broad area that could, in some segments, include almost every branch of law – intellectual property, state aid, competition, company & commercial law, criminal law, human rights law, etc.  With this bulletin focusing on filming in Serbia, we are going to cover two of the most relevant issues for the film industry.  The first one is creators’ copyrights and producers’ right to economic exploitation of a film as a part of copyright law.  The second, inevitable aspect that must be blended with the artistic so as to allow Serbian producers to bring a story to life on the big screen or to lure foreign producers to shoot in Serbia is that of state incentives.

Тhe Producer – Businessman Amongst the Intellectual Creators

Serbia’s Copyright and Related Rights Act (“CRA”) includes provisions on co-authors.  Co-authorship in terms of film production is a specific domain.  Namely, the scriptwriter, director, and chief cameraman are co-authors of a film.  Under certain conditions, music composers and the prime film animator could also be eligible to copyright as co-authors.  Where is the producer in this constellation?  

The producer is tasked with organizing filming and securing financing for the film.  Although a producer is not an intellectual creator, he bears a business risk.  In a way, the copyright must protect him, so that the co-authors do not hinder her/his use of the rights to a film at a later date.  The extreme way to protect the producer is through the “work made for hire agreement” model used in the USA. Under this model the studio that hires the actors and director owns the entirety of work.  In Serbia, this area is regulated differently and provides for a more equitable distribution of the the rights among both sides.  Under the CRA, a film production agreement is where one or several persons undertake to creatively collaborate with a film producer in the production of a film so they can assign their pecuniary rights to such work to a producer.  This whittling down of the number of co-authors to those on a  pre-determined list serves to safeguard the producer’s venture. If at some point a co-author refuses to cooperate in the production of the film or if due to force majeure is unable to continue cooperating, she/he cannot object to the use of her/his creative work for completion of the film.

On the other side, with the aim of protecting co-authors’ copyrights, the CRA stipulates that a film shall be deemed completed once the co-authors and a producer reach an agreement on its final version.  If a film producer intends to exploit the film in a manner other than that agreed, she/he will have to obtain the permission of the majority of the film’s co-authors, including the chief director.  If the film producer fails to complete the film within three years of the film production agreement date, the co-authors of a film shall have the right to void the contract, as well as the right to retain their contractual remuneration, unless otherwise is agreed.

The necessity of the establishment of the secured position of a producer was recognized by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (“BC”) as well.  When it comes to the adaptation of a literary work (hence, script or a book) into a film, BC stipulates that cinematographic work shall be protected as an original work.  The owner of the copyright in a cinematographic work shall enjoy the same rights as the author of an original work.  Ownership of copyright in a cinematographic work shall be a matter for legislation in the country where protection is claimed.  In this way, the exception is made from the rule that authors and inheritors are the only ones entitled to copyright protection.  BC allows national legislation to protect other persons as well.  As already mentioned, Serbia as a successor of the BC has protected producers’ pecuniary rights (which are also an inherent part of copyright).

State Financial Incentives for Filmmaking in Serbia

Let us turn our attention to Serbian legislation regarding filming possibilities in the country.  So, one of principal pieces of legislation is the Regulation on Incentives to Investors Who Produce Audiovisual Content in the Republic of Serbia (“Regulation”).  Top of the list for most people looking to start or invest in a filming project in Serbia, whether that project is a film or a TV franchise, is learning about what kind of incentives are available for filming in our enchanting country.

Investors may be eligible for specific incentives.  Under the Regulation, financial incentives are available to investors in the form of a grant and through the reimbursement of part of the eligible costs incurred in Serbia.  Financial incentives are available for up to 25% of eligible costs, which must be accounted for in an report covering audiovisual content production costs incurred in Serbia, endorsed by an independent licensed auditor.  Where funding for audiovisual content exceeds EUR 5,000,000, financial incentives are available for 30% of eligible costs.  Exclusive occurrence is allocating incentive funds for special purpose films wherein such event incentive funds are allocated in the amount of 20% eligible costs provided that the total amount of approved funds allocated during three consecutive fiscal years does not exceed de minimis state aid threshold under Serbian state aid rules.

According to the Regulation:

Investor access to financial incentives for audiovisual content production is subject to minimum levels of investment: (i) for feature film and TV film: EUR 300,000.00; (ii) for a TV series: EUR 300,000.00 (per episode); (iii) for an animated series: EUR 150.000,00 (per episode)*; (iv) for an animated film, audio and/or visual post-production of audiovisual content: EUR 150,000.00; (v) for a special purpose film: EUR 300,000.00; (vi) for a documentary film or a documentary TV program: EUR 50,000.00.

Financial incentives are available to produce: (i) feature film, TV film and feature documentary film lasting at least 70 minutes, and feature animated film intended for screening lasting at least 5 minutes*; (ii) TV series in which an episode is at least 40 minutes long; (iii) animated series consisting of at least 10 episodes which altogether last at least 50 minutes*; (iv) documentary TV program lasting at least 40 minutes.

Regulation provisions marked with “*” shall enter into force as of January 1, 2021.

Eligibility for incentives requires that audiovisual content should: (i) not be contrary to the morals, public policy or public interest of the Republic of Serbia, should not tarnish the reputation of the Republic of Serbia, and should not promote human rights violations and hate speech; (ii) be in the format of a feature film, TV film, TV series, feature animated film, audio and/or visual post-production of audiovisual content, a special purpose film, a feature-length documentary film or a documentary TV program; (iii) be content already in production or the production of which is ongoing in the budget year in which the financial incentives application is submitted.

Applications for 2020 are possible until the end of the year.  Same goes for 2021.  The applications should be submitted to the Film Center Serbia.

“007” and Bond Girl on the Streets of Balkan Berlin

Pierce Brosnan and Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko were the costars of an action-packed adventure on the streets of Belgrade in the movie “The November Man” in 2013.  The Motion Picture Association led with the flattering headline about Belgrade as the host in an article entitled “Filming the November Man in Beautiful Belgrade”.  When it comes to a mixture of law, art, and money during the creation of a movie, the author of the article mentioned one inviolable law of the film making process – Murphy’s law.  As explained, filmmakers often find themselves having to reorganize the whole process due to some stroke of bad luck.   The November Man was originally to have been shot on location in Berlin, but the cost of doing so proved prohibitive.  The director, Roger Donaldson, switched tack and moved the shoot to Belgrade, which added a special touch to the movie.  Production Designer, Kevin Kavanaugh said that Belgrade’s varied architecture as a blend of old and new colored the set giving the actors and the audience the details needed to provide a sense of authenticity.  In his opinion, Belgrade was an incredibly appealing place to shoot: “The city government of Belgrade, as well as Serbia’s, cooperated with the production, opening up key locations throughout as well as providing a top-notch crew from the well-established local film industry.”

When Kevin Costner Gazed the Explosion in the Hotel “Yugoslavia” Under the Idea of Luc Besson

In what was evidently a fruitful year for filming in Belgrade, in 2013, our capital hosted the set of the movie “3 days to kill”.  The film was directed by McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), director of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009).  Kevin Costner and Amber Heard played the leading roles, and one of the writers was Luc Besson.  Aware that, regardless of “name-dropping”, the movie marked as “guilty pleasure” did not receive good reviews, we need to highlight the outstanding role played by Serbia and Belgrade in delivering favorable conditions for shooting.  Like it or not, in the Serbian public consciousness at least, the movie will be remembered for Kevin Costner being flattened by a detonation at the Hotel Yugoslavia on Danube quay (let’s agree it’s not a spoiler if we reveal the opening scene of the movie).

A Breath of Fresh Air for Belgrade (and Serbia)

Once a national project, Avala Film, the oldest and largest former Yugoslavian film company founded in 1946 has now been privatized and renamed Avala Studios.  Avala Studios has made no secret of its plans to invest EUR 50 million in the construction of a large studio complex, including all other ancillary buildings and spaces – production buildings and offices.  This is a fantastic project which will undoubtedly attract many new opportunities for Serbia and its hospitable residents.  The Avala Studios project is set to be finalized in 2021 and the entire complex will be up and running as soon as 2022-23. 

In summer 2020, the project ran into some difficulties in relation to the location of the proposed new studio complex.  The project is to be set up in the Košutnjak area of Belgrade, also embracing Košutnjak park, which is one of the largest green areas in the city.  Nevertheless, it seems that, at least for now, this stumbling block has been surmounted after Avala Studios’ officials released a statement that the project will not encompass any part of the public space of Košutnjak park.

Even so, this colossal investment represents a passionate belief in what Serbia and Belgrade have to offer to this enormous industry.  After all, Serbia is known for its rich local film industry, quality staff, and astounding locations perfectly suited to anyone’s desideratum.

On a final note, we feel it is safe to say that we have provided sufficient argument that Serbia’s regulations, Government, and its citizens, architecture, and natural resources would provide film producers with requisite tools to cheat Murphy’s law in the film industry.        What does the future hold in store for the former “Yugoslavian Hollywood“?

Authors: Nadja Kosić, Jovana Trivunović, and Jelena Jovanović