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Why is Iceland the world's most popular filming destination?

North Góðafoss, Iceland
North Góðafoss, Iceland   -   Copyright  Björn Luðviksson
By Jenna Gottlieb

To many Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, but for an increasing amount of others it is the land of opportunity. Iceland is an in-demand destination, from bubbling hot springs to erupting volcanoes. Not just for tourists but for film productions from around the world eager to capture the island nation’s dramatic landscapes in feature films and television series, and to take advantage of an attractive incentive scheme.

Over the past few years, some of the biggest movies and television shows have been filmed in Iceland, including Thor: The Dark World, Prometheus, Batman BeginsStar Wars: Rogue One, Star Wars: The Force AwakensNo Time To Die and perhaps unsurprisingly, Game of Thrones.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, whose latest film Beast starring Idris Elba, just hit screens, recently opened two film studios in Iceland, RVK Studios, to accommodate the growing demand.

“I had a smaller studio for myself back in the day, and I had this idea to build a village," Kormákur told Euronews Culture. “We spoke to the mayor of Reykjavík to support the idea of transforming this industrial space in Reykjavík and building something new. It was an area that wasn’t used, and I saw the beauty of it."

Björn Luðviksson
Baltasar Kormákur on the set of Beast with Idris ElbaBjörn Luðviksson

RVK Studios is owned by Kormákur, a director, writer and producer who made his first feature film, 101 Reykjavík in 2000. Since then, he has written, directed and produced movies and TV shows in Iceland and Hollywood.

RVK Studios has produced the Hollywood films Two Guns, Contraband, and Everest as well as the Icelandic television series Trapped and Katla.

Why Iceland?

Iceland, with its remote location in the north Atlantic, may seem like an unlikely location to film, but new productions are announced all the time as the beauty of the island draws them in.

“Iceland is an attractive location for me because I live here,“ laughs Kormákur. “But for foreign studios, they come here because we built a great crew here and for the landscape. “

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Dettifoss (Falling Waterfall), location chosen by Ridley Scott for Prometheusguidetoiceland

Indeed, Iceland’s landscape is unrivalled, from wondrous waterfalls to the desert-like highlands. The contrast is breathtaking.

“Iceland’s popularity is due to the magnificent locations we have, the accessibility to big landscape locations," says Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, the CEO and founder of Icelandic production company Truenorth.

Truenorth has worked on productions including The Midnight SkyDune and The Northman.

New Regency
The NorthmanNew Regency

“We can make things happen in harsh environments and keep everyone safe," says Leifur. “We take crews to glaciers, mountains, the highlands."

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Mýrdalssandur, near the town of Vik, used in several Star Wars films including Rogue Oneexploreiceland

Iceland’s versatile landscapes can serve as the backdrop for many countries. For instance, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, landscapes were used as Iceland, Greenland and the Himalayas. “It saves studios a lot of hassle for one country to represent many," says Dagfinnsson.

Attractive tax incentives

Another part of Iceland’s appeal is due to the Icelandic government’s programme to reimburse up to 35% of the costs incurred while producing films and television programmes in Iceland. Production cost payments to employees and contractors are accepted if they are verifiably taxable in Iceland.

All productions for feature films, television shows and documentaries filmed in Iceland are eligible for a 25% refund, no matter the project’s total cost. To receive 35%, a production must fulfil three requirements, according to legislation.

First, production costs incurred during the production of the film or television material shot in Iceland must be a minimum of ISK 350 million (€2.5 million). 

Next, the project must have a minimum of 30 working days in Iceland, either filming days or defined post-production working days. Of the 30 working days, a minimum of 10 filming days in Iceland is always required.

Lastly, the number of staff working directly on the project should be 50 at a minimum and amount to 50 working days. It is required that both salary and payments to employees and contractors be taxed in Iceland.

Warner Bros
Still from DuneWarner Bros

“I would say what helps a lot is the tax incentive the Icelandic government offers," says Dagfinnsson. “It makes a significant difference in the number of productions coming to film in Iceland for the entirety of the film or television series, not just landscape shots. It’s a game changer."

Kormákur agrees: “The government has been supportive, raising the rebate to 35%. The Icelandic Króna is flexible, and there’s hope that the change will make a big difference."

Björn Luðviksson
South Skógafoss, a location used for Thor: The Dark WorldBjörn Luðviksson

RVK Studios and Truenorth have numerous projects in various stages of production.

“We will have three stages by late Fall, and one is already booked out," says Kormákur. “True Detective with Jodie Foster and Sigourney Weaver will shoot here for half a year, and Iceland will be represented as Alaska in the series."

Meanwhile, Truenorth is working on the Netflix action-thriller Heart of Stone, starring Gal Gadot. Earlier this year, a shoot closed streets in downtown Reykjavík over four days, with 600 people in the shooting team and 400 extras. It currently stands as the largest production ever in Reykjavík.

Additional sources • Björn Luðviksson