BUCHAREST, Romania—Along the route to MediaPro Studios, packs of feral dogs wander unpaved streets, children as young as 7 beg for handouts, and some government buildings still bear the bullet scars of the 1989 revolution. But for a growing cadre of Hollywood producers, the drive is becoming as familiar as a trip to the Universal Studios back lot.
Almost everywhere you look, Romania is an impoverished country, where the average gross monthly salary is $339 and horse-drawn carts pass as affordable transportation. Although economists see a struggling nation, movie producers see an opportunity.
And when the film business began offering steady employment with the promise of good money, onetime medical student Ionut Lupulescu was just one of many who signed on.
Lupulescu's summer job as a low-level video assistant on 2003's "Cold Mountain" turned into a full-time career that paid him $11,000 in 2004. Earlier this year the 24-year-old was at work on "Catacombs," a low-budget thriller put together by Los Angeles' Twisted Pictures, which found the economics of the Romanian movie industry equally seductive. By traveling 6,500 miles, producer Greg Hoffman of Twisted Pictures was able to fill two sound stages with tunnels so intricate that even the "Catacombs" construction crew — a few dozen carpenters eager to work for $20 a day — would get lost in them.
Those tunnels are visible testament to a profound and seemingly irreversible shift in the American movie business. The film industry has increasingly become a gypsy caravan with producers scouring the globe in search of countries with sufficient infrastructure to accommodate movie crews yet undeveloped enough to offer Third World wages.
Until just a few years back, Hollywood's flight to distant lands was a modest exodus at most. In 1990, a mere 44 American movies were filmed in foreign lands for economic savings. By the end of the decade, the figure had more than doubled, and now production abroad has become a way of life. In one recent week, 20th Century Fox films were in various stages of production in the Czech Republic, Canada, Hungary, Morocco, the Dominican Republic, France and Britain.
For the big studios, making movies overseas is no different than Nike's stitching shoes in Vietnam.
As long as the finished product looks the same, it doesn't really matter where the goods were manufactured, which is part of Romania's appeal.
The watershed moment in Hollywood's march east came with "Cold Mountain," a Civil War story set in the hills of North Carolina and filmed in Romania. It was the first major mainstream American movie to be shot here.
"Without the savings that Romania offered, 'Cold Mountain' absolutely would not have gotten made," said producer Albert Berger, who estimates that the country's affordable labor trimmed more than $20 million from the film's budget, which Berger says would have exceeded $100 million had the movie been shot entirely in the United States.
Since then, scores of low-budget films along the lines of "Seed of Chucky" have followed, taking advantage of Romania's cut-rate workforce, pristine rural landscapes, Paris-like cityscapes and an almost endless pool of Caucasian extras who blend easily into the background of Hollywood's still very white movie world.
Romania is proving such a great value that Canada, once the top money-saving film destination, is feeling the squeeze. One Canadian producer recently abandoned his home province of British Columbia to shoot the fantasy-horror story "Bloodrayne" in Bucharest.
But moviemakers are already looking beyond Romania. "The Hills Have Eyes" is set in the southwestern United States, but Fox Searchlight is shooting the thriller in Morocco.
Despite fears of terrorism there, the North African nation's varied locations and fledgling production network could soon challenge Romania for bargain-basement moviemaking costs — until China or Turkey comes along.
Although the local economic impact of Hollywood's overseas outsourcing has been blunted by a surge in Los Angeles television production, particularly of reality shows, the effects are unmistakable: American stories such as "Superman Returns" (filmed in Australia), "The Black Dahlia" (filmed mostly in Bulgaria) and "Ask the Dust" (South Africa) are being made far from the country in which they are set and the cities in which they are funded, marketed and distributed.
In the wake of Hollywood's globe trotting, California families have learned to cope with months of separation as one parent packs up for an overseas production and the other takes care of things at home. Others are less fortunate and don't get work at all: Southern California show business unions complain that overseas productions are decimating the industry's rank and file.
Against that backdrop, most states in the U.S. have tried — and occasionally succeeded in — competing.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit, Louisiana used aggressive financial incentives to lure all sorts of productions to the state, from big-budget comedies to cheap slasher flicks. Now virtually every state has a film commission and increasingly lucrative tax incentives.
To combat the erosion of filmmaking in California, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) recently introduced a bill giving up to $100 million a year in tax breaks to producers who remain in California. But its fate is very much up in the air, with some Republican legislators and public interest advocates already lining up to oppose the plan.