Culture & Ideas Screen and Stage

Belgium: Hollywood on the North Sea

12 October 2012
De Standaard Brussels

On the set of "The White Queen", Bruges Town Hall, October 2012.

On the set of "The White Queen", Bruges Town Hall, October 2012.

With its well-preserved natural landscapes, tax breaks and competent technician, Belgium over the last few years has become the location of choice for European film makers.

She is wearing a long, beige dress, and lights a cigarette. The Countess of York takes a short break. She has been filming since early this morning and the days are long, here in Bruges town hall. “I am the mother of three beautiful boys,” she explains. “What do I have to do? Oh, I do nothing other than come up with dangerous conspiracies.” She grins and leaves again, back to the set.

“It’s an important day” – this is how press attaché Deborah Goodman explains the great amount of food (that smells off) on the table. “We are celebrating Christmas. The Duke of Warwick has just returned, after killing Elizabeth's father. Yes, you could say that the atmosphere is rather tense."

This is “The White Queen”, a ten-part television series commissioned by the BBC and intended for global distribution. With a budget of 22 million euro for ten episodes, this is the real deal. But the reason why the set is open to the press today lies elsewhere: the series, which will take 125 days to shoot, is being recorded in its entirety in Flanders.

Today the Gothic Hall is the Royal Court of Westminster Palace. The Heilige Geeststraat is a medieval London street. The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk is Westminster Chapel. The Heilige Bloedkapel is the Tower of London.

Cherry on the cake

There will also be filming in Rumbeke, in Damme, even at Ursel airport – 23 locations for the first three episodes alone. The rest of the set will be constructed in the next few weeks in the nearby Philips factory. Is Flanders slowly turning into Hollywood on the North Sea?

Yesterday was a busy day for filming in Flanders. In Ostend the British-Belgian co-production Third Wave was shot. In Beringen, Stijn Coninx was busy filming the Flemish-Italian film Marina. Series are scheduled in Antwerp, Beringen, Ghent and Lanaken. This is not even particularly exceptional, as Flanders and Wallonia have become an attractive country for filming. Filmmakers will find a wealth of locations, skilled technical personnel and best of all the financial lure of a tax haven.

“The White Queen” is undoubtedly the cherry on the cake of the past few years. “They spent a long time trying to choose between Ireland and Flanders," says Eurydice Gysel of Czar TV. “It is the tax shelter system which ultimately brought them here. But the existence of many authentic locations and lots of freedom to film are also great advantages. This is quality television: they are working with authentic settings and with a lot of outside filming, which is more expensive. British film crews can no longer find the exteriors they want in London. Bruges has a lot of locations with a 15th century appearance, which is what they need.

Optimism in financial circles

In order to be eligible for the tax shelter, a fiscal system which gives a tax exemption of 150 percent for the amount that is invested in an audio-visual production, a foreign company must have a Belgian partner. I'm told that “Wales is setting up a similar system” and “Britain wants to bring its BBC series back home.” But Flanders is alert. In the near future “Screen Flanders” will start up, a fiscal answer to the Wallimage investment fund, which provides repayable advances to producers. With this, Flanders hopes to reverse the lure of Wallonia for, among other things, post-production.

“Parade's End and The White Queen are two productions which are going to do us a lot of good”, says Katrien Maes. “We have a lot of know-how here and the producers find our technical teams very flexible and multi-usable. In addition, we have a huge number of locations in a very small space. The fact that it is such a small world is a great advantage.”

There is also optimism in financial circles. David Claikens of BNP Paribas Fortis Filmfonds explains: “We are the only ones working with a ‘blind fund’, a system in which our clients invest without knowing what production is involved. This means the money is immediately available. For over a year the system has been known abroad and we are seeing demand increase.”

Thanks to its prestige and commercial promise, “The White Queen” has been given far and away the highest tax shelter amount ever granted. How much? “I can't say, but it is almost the maximum possible.” That's no small change: at least 10 million euro.

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom