Move over Hollywood, tourist island Cyprus is ready to roll

Lights, camera action: Cyprus has introduced a government initiative giving filmmakers cash rebates, tax breaks and other benefits. (AFP pic)

NICOSIA: Watch out Hollywood and Bollywood, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus that has built a reputation as a tourist magnet thanks to its pristine beaches wants a piece of the action: enter “Olivewood” and Nicolas Cage.

The American actor is starring in a multimillion dollar sci-fi martial arts movie being filmed in its entirety on the island thanks to a government initiative giving filmmakers cash rebates, tax breaks and other benefits.

Cage’s action packer “Jiu Jitsu” is, along with adventure flick “S.O.S: Survive or Sacrifice” featuring US actor William Baldwin, the first foreign film to take advantage of the incentive plan dubbed “Olivewood”.

The scheme was launched by the government, which tasked Invest Cyprus to implement it in cooperation with the tourism and finance ministries, in a bid to attract foreign investment to the European Union member.

“Cyprus is considered by a lot of people as a studio, a physical, natural (film) studio,” says Invest Cyprus chairman Michalis Michael.

The island offers deep blue seas and is endowed with white sandy beaches, rolling hills planted with olive trees, archaeological sites and traditional mountain resorts – plus year-long sunny skies.

Academy Award winner Cage, who got the 1996 Oscar for best actor in “Leaving Las Vegas”, told reporters in Cyprus that the island “has been a good spirit for me”.

He spoke of “the luxury” of visiting Mount Olympus, the highest point in Cyprus, and feasting on a “traditional Greek lunch with a clay pot cooked lamb, it was absolutely divine, the yoghurt was great”.

‘Lack of infrastructure’

Last year, Cyprus hosted its first ever promotional film conference, attended by dozens of delegates from the foreign film industry.

Authorities also unveiled “Olivewood”, offering foreign and Cypriot producers tax credits and cash rebates of up to 35% of money spent on filming in the island, as well as tax discounts on equipment and infrastructure.

A dedicated website, Film in Cyprus, was also set up by the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency to showcase the island.

“Jiu Jitsu” producer Dimitri Logothetis and Martins Rozitis, who heads the production company for “S.O.S: Survive or Sacrifice”, were won over, but both agree that the “lack of infrastructure” remains a problem.

“Definitely we suffer from a lack of equipment and studios,” Rozitis told AFP, on the set of his movie at the Moni fishing shelter, near the southern port of Limassol.

“But still there are very good enthusiastic people here and companies who are starting to provide rentals of studio, cars, equipment,” he added.

Logothetis, a Greek-American who also directs “Jiu Jitsu”, said he had to bring in the equipment needed to shoot the movie.

“They (Cyprus) don’t have the infrastructure yet but we brought that in. We create our own studio wherever we show up,” he said, on the set of the movie in the village of Mammari near the capital, Nicosia.

The village is located near the green line that has divided Cyprus along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in response to a coup sponsored by the military junta then ruling Greece.

‘Difficult to pull off in Hollywood’

Logothetis has high hopes for Cyprus developing into a low-cost destination for filmmakers, like Bulgaria and Romania.

“You know Bulgaria had nothing, and it’s got a huge studio now, Romania had nothing and now it’s got a huge studio and a lot of infrastructures,” he said.

The filmmaker said Hollywood had become too costly for filmmakers with limited budgets, so he had canvassed several European countries that offer financial benefits before settling on Cyprus.

And he is already thinking of filming a second movie next year in Cyprus.

“The government’s already approved a movie that I’ve got called ‘Men of War’, which was written by Gary Scott Thompson who wrote the ‘Fast and Furious’ (franchise)… So I’m thinking about bringing that in February.”

“It’d be very difficult to pull off an action film like this in Hollywood, it just wouldn’t be enough money,” Logothetis said of “Jiu Jitsu”, which has a budget of €24 million (US$27 million).

‘Film school needed’

Invest Cyprus has an annual budget of €25 million and hopes it will be enough to attract €70 million worth of investments from foreign film production houses, as well as create dozens of jobs on the island.

Around 65% of the team working on “Jiu Jitsu” are Cypriots.

But experts and industry folk agree that a lot more has to be done to build a solid film industry on the island.

“We need a film school … A studio will help big productions but also small productions to put the cost down,” said Longinos Panagi, who sits on the board of the Cyprus guild of directors.

Cyprus filmmaker Marios Piperides, who won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best International Narrative Feature in 2018 for his debut movie “Smuggling Hendrix”, is more upbeat.

He hopes that “Olivewood” will help stimulate the industry, encourage more filmmakers to take the plunge and push more Cypriots to go to the movies.