Although it does not have a major studio the size of a Pinewood or a Babelsberg, Belgium has excellent VFX facilities, plenty of alternative shooting spaces, a strong animation sector, seasoned crew and a wide variety of locations. And the country is attracting international features and high-end TV projects during the pandemic even though there has been a slowdown in international coproduction.
It was telling that when the Screen Brussels Fund announced its late round of investments in February 2021, 13 of the 15 titles it supported were majority financed by Belgian companies.
Several different sources of financing have long been available to international productions coming to the country. The main attraction is Belgian tax shelter funding (which can be worth up to 42% of Belgian spend to incoming projects), but producers can also access finance from local funds such as Screen Brussels and Screen Flanders or Walloon agency Wallimage. Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) supports coproduction with Flanders.
When all this is added up, international productions based in Belgium can access support worth 50%-60% of their budgets.
“International coproduction can get funding from the tax shelter and funding from one, two or — even on big projects — funding from the three regional funds,” says Noël Magis, managing director of the Screen Brussels Fund, citing Thomas Vinterberg’s 2018 title Kursk as an example of a production that accessed funding from every available Belgian source. There are also some city funds that international producers can tap, for example the Antwerp Film Bonus.
It is estimated that more than $1.2bn (€1bn) has been raised since the tax shelter system was reformed in 2015. Activity waned slightly during 2020 when $198m (€163m) was collected, a 17% decrease due to Covid’s economic impact on investors. However, certain local financiers and producers, among them Belga Film Fund (whose credits include Netflix’s Into The Night and nWave’s Bigfoot Family), Scope Invest (Leos Carax’s Cannes opener Annette and Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island) and Umedia remain active.
Production halted during the early part of the pandemic but resumed in summer 2020, and extra financing and insurance guarantee schemes are in place in a bid to keep the sector buoyant.
Wallimage continues to support international projects that have Belgian partners. In early 2021, the fund boarded French features Angèle Rivière directed by Blandine Lenoir and La Tête Dans Les Etoiles from Emmanuel Gillibert. It is also supporting Danish outfit Zentropa’s mini-series Karen, about Out Of Africa author Karen Blixen.
Screen Brussels Fund is backing UK director Alex Helfrecht’s animation/live‑action hybrid A Winter’s Journey, set to star Martina Gedeck, Gaspard Ulliel and John Malkovich for mk2 Films, and also Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Earwig. Romola Garai and Alex Lawther star in the France-UK-Belgium co-production between France’s Petit Film and the UK’s Anti-Worlds.
Carax’s Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, used several Flemish locations including the concert hall in Bruges. Filming also took place in the water tanks at Lites Studios, Vilvoorde, close to Brussels. The second series of Norwegian drama series State Of Happiness is due to shoot at the Lites facility later this year with Flemish co-producer Lunanime.
Meanwhile, several high-end French TV dramas have shot across the border in Belgium. These include France Télévision’s crime series Crossroads, helmed by Belgian director Frank van Mechelen and shot largely on the Flemish coast. Another French series, heart-transplant drama Renaissances, was made by Paris-based Léonis Productions for TF1. It shot in Biarritz and Antwerp, with Belgian director Frank Van Passel and several Belgian cast members.
Finnish TV crime series Transport also shot scenes in Antwerp, in autumn 2020.
Belgium lacks a megastudio like a Babelsberg or a Pinewood but locals insist the country offers the crew and facilities that international visitors need. The new Lites studio, which opened last year in Brussels, has five professional soundstages as well as one of the most advanced waterstages found anywhere in Europe. Over the last 12 months it has attracted significant projects, including Leos Carax’s Annette starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver.
At the time Covid-19 stopped production, Lites was also hosting Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s The Deep House, a French-produced English-language underwater horror movie backed by Umedia, which was due to resume in June. Season two of Norwegian oil drama State Of Happiness is expected to shoot at the facility later this year.
Wallonia-based fund Wall¬image recently invested in Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi drama Vivarium, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, while Screen Flanders has supporter Koen Mortier’s Netflix-backed Second World War documentary Liberation Route. Screen Brussels Fund recently backed Italian director Massimo Donati’s road movie/thriller Carnet d’Epices.
Crew expertise has grown as more and more international production has come to Belgium, and English is generally spoken. International productions tend to bring their own heads of department but Belgium is renowned for its world-class technicians. The most feted names include cinematographers Nicolas Karakatsanis, who has worked extensively in Hollywood, and Ruben Impens, and editors Job ter Burg (Brimstone, Elle) and Ludo Troch, father of director Fien Troch. Companies such as Lites rent out lighting and camera equipment as well as studio space.
With a fairly small and fragmented local market, Belgium’s film sector is largely geared towards international co-productions. It has a robust ecosystem of studios, providers and crew, and boasts a state-of-the-art water stage at Lites. Its VFX studios — among them Benuts and Nozon — are highly regarded.
You can get from one side of Belgium to the other in roughly the time it takes to travel across Los Angeles. The compact country is at the heart of Europe and has excellent local and international transport infrastructure. It is about 30 miles from Brussels to Antwerp.