VILNIUS, Lithuania — The kitchen staff in one of this city’s newest chic hotels, housed in a 15th century palace, knew Hollywood had arrived when film crews flown in from California started calling room service to demand smoothies — juiced celery and all.
Yet most Americans can’t find this Baltic nation on a map. The people of Vilnius, the medieval capital of cobblestone streets conquered easily by foot, don’t feel slighted even if they make it a point to understand the health fads of Los Angeles.
But the American film industry — three decades after this sliver of country broke free of the Soviet Union — is bringing about a change here few would have predicted.
“Hollywood has landed in Lithuania,” says Jurate Pazikaite, a former international investment worker who, for the last decade, has had the job of luring America’s streaming companies and film studios to shoot their scripts and spend their dollars. After years of working solo and watching big names pass over her native land, she brags these days about why she is hiring new staffers.
“HBO, Netflix, they are all coming.”
Attracted to places like Vilnius, where Moscow and Paris collide at a fraction of the cost — and tens of millions of dollars in production rebates are quickly granted — Hollywood is setting its sights on lesser-known corners of the globe. Expensive studio lots and permit-heavy American landscapes are being traded for the Baltics, Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, where the dollar goes further, workers cost less, crew hotels are cheap and a history of war and conquest means cityscapes from D.C. and Denmark can be easily conjured.
“It’s a country that kind of feels both East and West,” says screenwriter and producer Craig Mazin, who wrote HBO’s “Chernobyl” and spent months in Lithuania as it was filmed. “You can find places in Lithuania that were used by the KGB and still feel like it. But then you go about town and it’s European and quaint. The potential is large.”
“Stranger Things,” the ‘80s-nostalgia-meets-sci-fi Netflix show that’s arguably the platform’s strongest franchise, filmed roughly a third of its new season in Lithuania. A decommissioned prison in the center of Vilnius stands in for Siberia, where Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is tortured and confined by the Soviet guards before facing a supernatural monster. An Orthodox church 28 miles west of the city is home to a TikTok-memed scene where he hides from his captors and desperately digs his fingers into a jar of peanut butter. In another clip, a Vilnius suburb depicts Alaska.
“I’ve worked for a long time to get the tourists here,” says Martyna Gruzauskaite, who co-founded a free English-language tour company in the capital seven years ago and more recently took a job at Lukiskes, a Czarist-era prison in Vilnius that became a filming site and cultural center after closing three years ago. “But the number of people who come here now just wanting to talk about ‘Stranger Things,’ I’ve never seen that before. Suddenly, all these people know what Vilnius is. It’s unusual.”
Before the Netflix hit, it was actors and crews from “Chernobyl” and another HBO show, “Catherine the Great,” that called Lithuania home as it stood in for Russia and Ukraine. Norwegians and Swedes, no strangers to storied film traditions, are increasingly ditching their expensive cities to shoot in Vilnius, which in the last years has played Oslo and Malmo with “Occupied” (Norway) and “Young Wallander” (Sweden), both on Netflix, setting up in the city.
The Vilnius Actors Studio, modeled after the famed New York center once led by Lee Strasberg, opened in 2017 and now flies in teachers from California — Barry Primus among them — to lead workshops in a nation where a Soviet-era stage culture still reigns but on-screen training and film courses are rare.
“Europe’s little Hollywood?” a recent news headline said, wondering if the recent success in this tiny nation — where refined petroleum is the biggest export and Russia is a constant nemesis — is its future or fleeting luck in a time of rising global inflation.
Hollywood’s venture into the Baltics — neighboring Estonia has ridden a wave since the blockbuster science fiction thriller “Tenet” was shot in the capital city, Tallinn, before the pandemic — isn’t without tension. Money and a sense of equality play a big part. Local workers complain about pay. It’s better than what they’d get from native filmmakers, but far lower than the unionized Americans they sit alongside who stay in Airbnbs and five-star hotels.
Film shoots have also brought griping about street closures that any Californian knows too well. “‘Chernobyl’ is a disaster for Vilnius,” read an article bemoaning the presence of HBO crews. And there are those who wonder whether the sudden boom in American storytelling will hamper indigenous creations, language and folklore. Long under the shadow of the neighboring Poles, Belarusians and Russians, Lithuanians tend to have an independent streak. Some welcome Americans with caution.
“Overall, we like that the big shows are now coming here,” says Donatas Simukauskas, a 42-year-old actor who runs Actors Agency, a Vilnius-based casting company. “But it does make it harder to make Lithuanian productions. They just don’t have the same kind of money. And our industry is small, so how do you compete for staff and actors with Netflix when it comes to your city? How do you make a Lithuanian-language film that is profitable when only your country speaks the language?”
The emergence of Vilnius, with its preserved old town of two- and three-story baroque structures a short ride from brutalist Soviet apartments and modern high-rises that could easily fit in the Manhattan skyline, is part of a global trend. Cities around the world, as well as in struggling states in the U.S., are competing for Hollywood dollars by offering generous tax rebates and footing production bills in hopes of revving up their economies. All for the allure of the money, glamour and IMDb credits that the nonstop content machine of Hollywood provides.
Northern Ireland and Croatia, two regions where violent histories long colored how the world saw them, today credit the epic HBO series for overbooked hotels and newfound notoriety years after scenes of Winterfell (outside Belfast) and King’s Landing (Dubrovnik) stopped airing. A $47-million “Game of Thrones” tour opened this year in Northern Ireland at Belfast’s Linen Mill Studios. In Croatia, the walled old city of Dubrovnik has become a must-visit for backpackers and destination weddings.
Years before, it was New Zealand — no newbie to oenophiles and eco-visitors with its stunning valleys and waterfalls but only more popular after “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” — that took advantage of fan fervor and all that it brings.
Europe is not a new destination for Hollywood. For nearly a century, Pinewood Studios — just west of London — has produced major franchises including James Bond and Batman. South of Berlin, Studio Babelsberg rivals Paramount, Disney, Columbia and Universal in Los Angeles. But since the end of World War II, the U.S. has aggressively marketed its capitalism and culture, most notably its movies, to the world. And now, reminiscent of the early days of Tinseltown, places like the Baltics and Balkans have joined the newest frontiers.
“It used to be for Europe that you had the U.K. for studios and shoots and a few other countries that dominated,” says Scott Roxborough, who has covered the industry for 20 years as a Cologne, Germany-based writer for the Hollywood Reporter. “Now, because of streamers that need continuous content, the demand is growing everywhere with these smaller countries — Estonia, Malta, Lithuania — competing for Hollywood, each trying to outdo the other with bigger tax incentives and other offerings. Even if they don’t get these big blockbusters, there’s so much happening on streaming that they are bound to get something and hope it raises up their own local language industries too.”
American-style big-budget moviemaking in Lithuania, which has a population of 2.7 million, is still in its infancy. The nation’s few cities — Vilnius is the biggest, with a regional population of 700,000 — give way to thick pine forests, rolling hills and a short Baltic coastline. In 2021, $38 million was spent among 11 Lithuanian-language productions and 16 foreign or co-produced films and shows here. Ten years ago, it was mostly smaller Lithuanian films — at a cost of about $6 million — that were made in this country. Compare those numbers to California, where a conservative estimate says $2.6 billion was spent last year just on shoots that qualify for tax breaks.