24 Jan Interview with Leonidas Christopoulos, President and CEO, National Center of Audiovisual Media and Communication (EKOME)
Greece’s film sector has seen a huge transformation in the last five years, with productions now flocking to its shores to shoot major motion pictures and television shows, including Netflix’s recent Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, action thriller Tin Soldier and the recent installment of the Expendables franchise. What have been the key factors that made Greece such an attractive destination as a filming location, aside from its 300 days of sunny weather and beaches? What unique attributes does it provide for filmmakers?
Apart from a plethora of unique locations and an ideal blend of urban and rural landscapes that can double for almost any place on the planet, Greece offers a series of attractive investment incentive schemes and regimes. These have been in place since 2017, however since 2020 we have passed laws about incentive regimes to make them more attractive and easier to enter, both in terms of the amount of money that we give out in support of the projects, but also in terms of the procedures to enter the schemes.
Now we have a very strong cash rebate scheme that gives a 40% rebate on the expenses that occur in Greece. We also accept foreign invoices, which was a huge issue for international productions – the ability to pay off their foreign invoices to pay actors and directors in their productions. These things along with some other incentives which are more domestically oriented have attracted considerable attention.
Another factor is that during the pandemic, when productions faced a major problem of how and when to shoot, Greece remained open to them, offering a safe and organized environment for numerous projects that were planning to go elsewhere, but they preferred to come to Greece instead and had a great experience. This has had a spillover effect in the years since, as production companies realized that Greece was more than just an incentive scheme. We demonstrated that Greece, in that sector at least, is becoming very organized, very investment friendly, and very professional.
We have high-end production companies that are servicing international productions. Within the last few years, a whole ecosystem has been created, a very professional ecosystem, around international productions in Greece. That is something that foreign producers appreciate and that is why they turn towards Greece to invest.
We also have a wide network of film offices here – in 13 regions and two major municipalities – that act like one-stop shops assisting international projects with EKOME, as the central administration, playing a supervising role and assisting productions. There is the potential of Greek rural or urban landscapes to double for any place on Earth, for example we have areas we can use for outer space or Afghanistan, and the city of Thessaloniki has doubled for Miami. It is a great advantage that Greece can double for any place on Earth.
What big productions have come to Greece in the last few years, and what major films and TV series that you have partnered with that you are proud of?
Through the investment incentives we have supported almost every production filmed in Greece, but I would like to mention Rise from Disney, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery with Daniel Craig and Kate Hudson, and The Triangle of Sadness which won the Cannes Film Festival Award in 2022 and was nominated for three Oscars. In addition, The Return starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche which was filmed on the island of Corfu, and Tehran which won an Emmy which is on Apple TV, Amazon’s Jack Ryan and Greek Salad, and a lot of international productions that EKOME has supported. We have another one, Killer Heat which is being filmed in Crete that is based on a book by Jo Nesbø. We also have So Long, Marianne which was shot on the island of Hydra and Karantina with James Franco.
At Content London, a major audiovisual event held recently in the British capital, it was highlighted that two out of three of the international productions that are expected to have a very hot presence in international markets for the next 18 months were shot in Greece: Karantina and So Long, Marianne which is about the life of Leonard Cohen. These two productions have also been supported by EKOME. You get a variety of productions, landscapes, doubling locations and many platforms and production companies, which boost the domestic audiovisual industry.
Last November, Greece celebrated the 64th International Thessaloniki Film Festival. How has this and other national events helped to promote the country’s film sector to the world?
We have an extended domestic festival network like the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Drama Short Film Festival, Olympia Film Festival for Children and Young People, and Animasyros International Animation Festival to name but a few. These festivals contribute to the promotion of the Greek audiovisual industry, and they offer a way for the foreign productions to become acquainted with what we want to do here in Greece.
Since 2019, we have been participating in international film markets like the Cannes Film Festival, the FOCUS Exhibition in London, the American Film Market in Los Angeles, the Animation Film Festival in Annecy, France, among others. Greece is present in all the major international festivals. Our intention is also to support the video game industry as part of the audiovisual industry. We aim to support Greece’s video game community and its participation in major international festivals. We are trying to connect the Greek audiovisual community with the foreign one, although they are much more advanced, and they are doing a great job.
Following the launch of EKOME in 2018, Greece’s audiovisual segment has undergone a significant transformation. Can you give our readers an overview of EKOME’s role and responsibilities? What are some of your current goals and strategies?
EKOME has given out almost €103 million since 2019, 65% to foreign and 35% to domestic production companies and we are still going. EKOME has four main pillars. The first is about the financial tools and incentives. We operate the 40% cash rebate scheme and the tax relief of 30%. We also support other financial incentives, such as the state guarantee for bank loans to the audiovisual production companies. We have created this tool to support the audiovisual sector and audiovisual companies that want to take loans out up to €900,000 and it is state guaranteed through the Development Bank of Greece.
The second pillar is the National Digital Depository for Audiovisual Works. We want to create the infrastructure and a digital depository of audiovisual works, being very respectful of intellectual property rights, of course. We want to create a digital ecosystem, so that startups can use metadata for various elements that exist in the audiovisual sector to be able to create new and innovative digital projects in the audiovisual sector.
One of the main goals with this depository is to establish a policy linking new technologies, such as AI and blockchain, with the audiovisual sector or with the creative sector in general. Internationally and globally, there is a trend toward using technologies that sometimes appear as a threat, like AI. So, the link between new technologies and the audiovisual sector poses threats but it also offers opportunities. We want to explore these relations to gain from the opportunities and protect the audiovisual sector from the threats.
We are also working around audiovisual and media literacy and training for professionals of the audiovisual industry. We already offer awareness seminars and workshops in schools regarding media literacy including children with disabilities. We want to create extensive training programs in collaboration with other experts in Greece for professionals of the audiovisual sector.
The fourth pillar is about communication. We want to show to the global audience what we are trying to do. At the moment, communication, the cash rebate and the incentives are very mature because we have been working on them. The other two pillars still need a boost.
Greece has an elaborate strategy regarding digitalization. In March 2023, the Ministry of Interior recognized EKOME for its digital business operating model. However, Greece continues to lag in the EU, in terms of digital economy and society, so there is progress to be made in that regard. What is the level of digitalization in the audiovisual industry? How is the government and EKOME doing to support enhancements?
Digitalization has been boosted due to the pandemic. Yet the audiovisual sector is a bit different. First, we need to be able to familiarize the domestic audiovisual ecosystem with new technologies that are becoming the norm in foreign markets. So, they are already doing that through their own initiatives and pushed by competition which always makes you try to become better and better. They are trying to become export oriented and go to international platforms like Maestro which is a very successful Greek TV series on Netflix. They are already trying to encompass new technologies.
We aim to create new supporting schemes, new ways of familiarizing the audiovisual sector with these new technologies brought in by foreign production companies, conducting seminars and training, but also when feasible, financially assisting the digital transformation of production companies. We have had the digital transformation of the cultural sector, of SMEs, of various sectors of the economy, and so now we want to do this with the audiovisual sector as well, especially since the audiovisual sector is a sector that is strongly linked to technology.
I put a lot of focus on the Digital Depository because when you gather data in a single database, you gather information and you can create a policy based on new technologies, but you need the data, you need a place where you hold everything. Once you hold everything, you can construct financial schemes and policies for training. That is why I focus on the Digital Depository and that data that we can collect so that we can plan and implement the right policies for the digital transformation of the audiovisual sector.
In a way, this sector has been boosted in the past five years and now we need to find the next step to go forward while making it more sustainable. The digital transformation, a new more sustainable cash rebate scheme, and a new governance system are the ways forward.
When it comes to infrastructure as well, what kind of infrastructure does Greece have in terms of studios and materials like production facilities?
There is substantial infrastructure in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major cities, where international productions have been filmed, both in the studios and at specific locations. There is a lot of interest from investors towards the creation of film studios in Greece. We believe in attracting projects not only due to the sun and the sea, but also by investing in infrastructure so that this sector becomes sustainable for the future. We need post-production studios and film studios, so we are investing accordingly. We have several high-end post-production studios. Projects coming to Greece only for the post-production have been increasing lately, partly thanks to the financing of EKOME.
In terms of film studios, there are a few major ones and there has been a great interest in investing in this sector. For the first time, the Greek development law that was passed has a special regime for financing film studios. It is called Regime 360 which finances and supports the development of studios. This has never been the case in Greece before. We now have a lot of financial tools supporting the audiovisual sector.
The US is a big source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Greece, and with the recent investment upgrade, we can only expect more US investors to come to the country. How significant is US participation is in Greece’s current audiovisual industry, and what is EKOME doing to market Greece as a destination within the US?
We aim to further promote Greece’s attractive and investment-friendly environment. We participated in the American Film Market in October 2023 in Santa Monica. We had a national stand in collaboration with Enterprise Greece, the country’s official investment promotion agency. We presented information about Greek investment incentives and about the legal framework for co-production given that it is always a very critical issue. Greek audiovisual professionals had the opportunity to meet at the National Pavilion for networking purposes and there was also a targeted presentation of major international and domestic audiovisual projects filmed in Greece, and those present were also informed about the comparative advantages of Greece as an ideal destination for creating audiovisual works. That was a first step forward.
We are always working in close cooperation with the US Embassy given the recent boom of the Greek audiovisual sector and the interest that many American companies have in filming in Greece. We try to face issues as they emerge because the Greek state was never very familiarized with what an audiovisual project involves precisely, and what the particularities of an audiovisual project are in terms of financial support. We also offer a learning process to other agencies of the Greek state to become familiar with what an audiovisual project is.
When US production companies come to the country, they expect a certain level of flexibility. They also have a result-oriented approach, they want things to move quickly. We are very much interested in having a predictability of what we do. Greece, on the one hand, is a more legalistic state, as a continental European state. Sometimes you have different situations where you are trying to solve problems as they appear and we are trying to be very effective with that, so we have explained the legal framework to anyone coming from the US and to the US Embassy as well, because it is very critical for them to know what to expect.
We will intensify our promotion to the US because we aim to attract more productions and we want them to see Greece as California. Just as Hollywood is the West Coast, we want Greece to become the East Coast for audiovisual productions in Europe. We are trying to intensify discussions with the US as they are very much interested in shooting in Europe, and in Greece.
You recently stepped up as President and CEO of EKOME in July after holding a position as Secretary General of Digital Governance and Supervisor of EKOME to focus on the organization. Previously you have led a long and successful career in the public sector, including being an advisor to the President. Tell me a little bit about your personal priorities as President and CEO of EKOME? What long-term vision do you have for the organization?
I see EKOME becoming the main organization for implementing policies and for the creative industry in general, not just the audiovisual industry but also the creative industry. For the first time Greece has a very concrete plan for the creative industry. In the past, there used to be a lot of financial instruments and a lot of interventions regarding some issues, regarding the audio-visual industry, the film industry, the creative industry.
The government has been focusing on the creative industry as a whole sector of the economy, which can offer up to a 3% increase in the GDP. That is what economic studies show. The creative industry can improve GDP considerably. We need to formulate a very concrete policy for the creative and audiovisual industry and EKOME should be the arm’s length organization for the government to implement these policies in general.
EKOME should go to the next phase by becoming the new government structure for the creative industries in Greece. It would take all the experience it has from the past 5-6 years, including mending problems and fixing the bureaucratic issues that it has, creating new predictable and sustainable financial tools, and going into the digitalization process for the audiovisual sector which is very important for us. EKOME would also support policies regarding piracy in the audiovisual sector which is a crucial issue. It shall become the main governmental body for implementing a very concrete policy for the creative and audiovisual sector. That is my main goal, my main ambition, and my main vision.
What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?
We are maturing. The whole industry is maturing, and we are ready to welcome more investments and more projects. We want Greece to become an audiovisual hub by investing not only on great locations but, also, on creating infrastructure, and enhancing the legal framework for sustainable investment. We are already investing in infrastructure and talent. Visit Greece to discover the endless possibilities it presents as an amazing natural studio and source of inspiration that could benefit every audiovisual project.