Hands up who understood Tenet. Anyone? Anyone? Even by Christopher Nolan’s head-scratching standards, the twisting, time-bending plot-lines, non sequitur dialog and wonky physics — all that talk of reverse entropy, inversion and temporal pincer movements — left many viewers of the 2020 sci-fi blockbuster puzzled and perplexed. But at least one of Nolan’s directorial decisions is easy to explain: the choice to shoot Tenet in Estonia.
Major chunks of Tenet — from the massive action set piece in the “Kyiv Opera House” that opens the film, to the tour of the “Oslo Freeport” where John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s characters stake out their daring art heist, to that wildly elaborate car chase with the reverse-driving vehicles, VFX-free explosions and Washington hanging off a ladder on a moving fire truck — were actually filmed in the summer of 2019 in and around the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
“We have very diverse landscapes and settings, you can find Soviet-era, Russian looking buildings, you can find Scandinavia, you can find beautiful natural settings,” says Jevgeni Supin, project manager for the TV Beats Forum, one of the industry sections at Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival. “Plus, because we’re such a small country, logistics are simple. Basically a one-hour drive and you’re in completely different surroundings. And there’s a very high level of professionalism here, from our creative people, to the tech crews all the way up to the commerce department.”
For Tenet, by far the biggest film to ever shoot in Estonia, the country’s film institute, together with various government departments, went above and beyond to accommodate Nolan. For that opening scene, in which a packed concert hall is under attack by time-traveling commandos, the city of Tallinn handed over the Linnahall concert hall to play the Ukrainian National Opera House.
The Soviet-era amphitheater, built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, had been closed since 2010. Nolan’s crew rebuilt and repaired large sections of the structure (only to blow up much of it up again for the climax of the opening scene). And the crowd of concertgoers? Some 3,000 local Estonian extras. To let Nolan go full Nolan with the car chase, Tallinn shut down some 4 miles and six lanes of tarmac on the Pärnu highway and Laagna Road, busy freeways that connect the city’s two main urban centers. Nolan has said the effort was equivalent to the city of Los Angeles agreeing to block the 405 freeway. Tallinn did it for three weeks. But what really sealed the deal for Estonia was its tax credit.
The country’s rebate scheme, introduced in 2016, provides up to 30 percent cash rebate on local expenses, with the full amount applied if a production uses local crews and/or sets the film in Estonia. Nolan did both — the car chase scene is deliberately labeled “Tallinn, Estonia” — and even threw in a few extra lines of dialog in the local language, likely making it the first time anyone outside the country will have heard Estonian spoken in a multiplex.
Those local touches might help explain why Tenet, when it was released in Estonia last year, smashed box office records, taking in $1.2 million, with 266,000 people — or about a fifth of the country’s total population — buying a ticket.
But for the local film industry, Tenet has also acted as a $200 million Imax-sized billboard promoting Estonia to producers worldwide. And it’s working.
Recent features to shoot in Estonia include the American horror feature Kill the Child from World’s Fair Pictures, directed by Cru Ennis and Lee Roy Kunz and starring Alexander Siddig, Thomas Kretschmann and Maria Vera Ratti; the British period thriller Burial, directed by Ben Parker (The Chamber) and starring Harriet Walter (Killing Eve), Charlotte Vega (Wrong Turn), and Harry Potter alum Tom Felton; and Erna Goes to War, a Danish drama directed by Henrik Ruben Genz (Word of God) and starring Trine Dyrholm (In a Better World).
Erna Goes to War, in which Dyrholm plays a woman who goes to war dressed as a man to protect her intellectually disabled son Kalle (Sylvester Byder) after he is called up to fight, shot in and around Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, allowing the project to take advantage of the Tartu Film Fund, which provides an additional 10-20 percent tax rebate on top of Estonia’s 30 percent cash-back scheme. While the fund is capped at $177,000 (€150,000) annually, it can be a significant top-up for independent and lower-budget co-productions. A similar discretionary cash rebate and co-financing fund exists for shooting in the rural Viru region in Estonia’s north-east, which is capped at $59,000 (€50,000) annually but can be used to apply to all above- and below-the-line expenses, except any producer’s fee in excess of seven percent of the total eligible expenditure.
The rebates and tax benefits are on par with the best in Europe and, combined with Estonia’s high-tech infrastructure — it was an Estonian start-up that invented Skype after all — together with the legal security that comes with being a member of the European Union — makes for an enticing package.
But this Baltic nation is not looking to become merely a service provider for big-budget blockbusters. Estonia’s system of tax and production incentives is part of a broader strategy to grow and nurture local talent, to build up a home-grown industry after the scorched earth left in the post-Soviet era.
“For a little background: after Estonia declared its independence in 1991, the budget line for the support of the national film production (and film events) in the budget of the Ministry of Culture was something like 50 euros,” says Marge Liiske, head of the Industry@Tallinn & Baltic Event at the Tallinn International Film Festival. “All the films during the Soviet time were made with money that came from Moscow. So you can easily imagine how difficult it was to start everything from scratch, building up the support systems, institutions and independent production companies.”
Estonia had a long film history to draw on — people were making movies in the region before World War I — but it took a concentrated effort by government, business, and local talent to restart the local film and TV industry in the 1990s. State financing specifically targeted local-language features, the government signed co-production deals with the likes of China, France, Russian and Israel, and cooperation agreements with Canada and South Korea, to encourage Estonian filmmakers to look beyond their borders for financing and inspiration. Investment in education — including in Tallinn’s Baltic Film and Arts School (BFM) — was a long-game play to train the audiovisual workforce of tomorrow. It’s paid off.
Tenet might have been been the number one film in Estonia last year, but local-language movies — like period drama Where the Heart Is, which sold nearly as many tickets in Estonia last year as Nolan’s blockbuster — now account for close to a third of the box office. Estonia spent the three decades since independence building up an film and TV industry from scratch. With Tenet, it should be clear to everyone that they’ve arrived.
Imepilt Studios Prepares to Go Global
For an independent animation outfit in one of the tiniest countries in the world, Imepilt Studios is thinking big. The Tallinn-based production company (the name — pronounced EyeMe-Pilt—loosely translates as “miracle pictures”) is still working on its debut feature, the family-friendly 3D animation Danger Island, but already Imepilt founder Almondi Esco is talking about “multi-film franchises,” “spin-off series,” “immersive experiences” and the goal of building “global IP out of Estonia.”
Taking inspiration from Estonia’s booming tech start-up scene, Imepilt has tapped private equity investment to bankroll an ambitious plan to build a stand-alone production studio that will develop and produce original content for a global audience.
Almondi’s business model for Imepilt involves betting on original stories and characters created by the studio — his corporate buzz term for them is “content bundles” — which can then be spun off and adapted Disney-like, on different platforms, from feature films to mobile games to theme park rides.
Danger Island, the first “content bundle,” is a father-daughter drama with an environmental twist being developed by Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, screenwriters on Disney’s Mulan (2020) and by John Bellina (TV’s iZombie). Kaleidoscope will be shopping Danger Island to international distributors at Cannes’ Marche du Film this week and expects to close several major territory deals ahead of the film’s planned release at the end of this year. Then the world can see just how big Imepilt can get.