Mrs. Possible

Hollywood goes Vienna

Marijana Stoisits is one of the reasons why the Hollywood blockbuster Mission:Impossible filmed for ten days in Vienna. And when Tom Cruise walked down the red carpet for the world premiere at the Vienna State Opera – and not in London or New York – it was a sensation. Find out in our interview what else the founder and CEO of the Vienna Film Commission does to internationally promote Vienna as a film location.

Antje Mayer-Salvi: Is Vienna a top film location in international comparison?

Marijana Stoisits: Yes, when we speak about the diversity of the locations; no, if it’s about the number of days spent shooting. London, for example, is a top location simply because of the language. The film branch there has a totally different standing as we do.

But Vienna is one of the top players when it comes to service. We have great people in the film branch, in direction, production, design, costumes, camera, sound, etc. At the final dinner of the American drama film Women in Gold by Simon Curtis, which was fortunately shot in Vienna in 2014, the British head make-up artist admitted to me: “I must honestly say, the know-how of the Vienna crew deeply impressed me.”

"The word seems to have gone around in Hollywood that you can film and work in Vienna very well."

What is the function of the Vienna Film Commission, which you began building up six years ago?

We are an institution of the City of Vienna, and – in a nutshell – we try to facilitate that films are made in Vienna, be it Hollywood, Bollywood, advertising, or student productions. We are responsible for the shooting permits which involve the magistrates, but we also communicate with state institutions, for example when it is about using the Burggarten, the Hofburg Imperial Palace, or the city museums as a film location. And we lobby for filmmakers in the city – in the media and in politics.

And the Vienna Film Commission promotes Vienna as a location abroad?

Exactly. We do that at major international film festivals, film markets, and at international trade events. In 2015 we received 900 requests for shooting permits, more than 100 of which came from abroad. And it’s an upward trend.

Which countries book Vienna?

First and foremost, Germany, naturally, simply because there are so many cooperations with Austria in the film and TV sector.

The C/O Vienna Magazine editorial team tried to guess which Viennese motif is requested the most. Everyone put their money on the Ringstraße. Is that so?

No. Vienna’s parks are at the top of the rankings, followed by the city’s markets. The reason being that we supervise a lot of television films. TV likes to shoot in the green, quite simply because it is peaceful there, you don’t interfere with traffic, and you don’t have to block off the set much. Park-like settings appear in every better film. However, in recent years Vienna’s hospitals have also been popular in the rankings: obviously murder and homicide also work quite well. (laughs) But the Ringstraße is also a coveted film location, especially internationally.

You guide many foreign film teams – increasingly from Hollywood – through Vienna. They come with specific imaginations, I suspect?

Always. And then they are usually very surprised. It is hard to believe, but many, also reputable location scouts, who naturally have traveled around the world a lot, were never in Vienna. That was also the case with the scouting for Mission: Impossible. Neither production manager James Bissell nor location scout Becky Brake had ever been to Vienna before. It wasn’t much different with the big directors’ scout for Mission: Impossible, where, after all, 16 people were flown to Vienna. In the team only one individual had ever visited Vienna – and that was in 1968!

"It is the personal support that counts."

How did the Mission: Impossible team react to Vienna?

They really liked the city a lot. Vienna has a phenomenal reputation especially with international film teams. The location scouts mostly know Vienna from Internet research, for example the motif databank on our website and our showreels. Usually they bring a long list of places they want to check out or we make proposals. We often receive mood images as well, that means examples that visually represent what the directors imagine. Our job is then to find fitting places in Vienna.

So you need to have a talent for seeing things from other people’s perspectives in your job?

It is extremely important to establish a personal relationship. Based on the reaction I quickly notice if it fits or not. Usually I already have alternatives up the sleeve, and I always try to show them more than they need – assuming there’s time for that – in the hope that it might result in a couple more days of shooting. That’s what I understand as good service, a tactic – as we saw with Mission: Impossible – that also works pretty well! The earlier the scouts, producers, or directors gain confidence, the better.

Which locations in Vienna were on their list?

Their script changed very often. The first time we looked at a lot of places: the Vienna River tunnel under Karlsplatz, the Nußdorf sluice, the Hofburg, the Museum of Natural History, the Ferris wheel in Prater Park, the Albertina, different subway stations, and much more.

And where was Mission: Impossible filmed in the end?

In the State Opera and the immediate surroundings, and in the Schottenring subway station on an escalator that leads into this concrete architecture and on the U4 subway platform.

That was more the modern side of Vienna!

Since longer it isn’t just the Imperial architecture that’s attractive! The new WU Campus is very, very popular with foreign teams. There is a photo from a location tour for Mission: Impossible where the director Christopher McQuarrie is laying on the ground taking a picture of the Zaha Hadid building at an angle from below. The WU Campus as a possible location was discussed for a long time, but it didn’t turn out in the end.

Was bringing Mission: Impossible to Vienna your biggest success so far? Brag a little!

Yes, it was fantastic and a great stroke of luck! Paramount contacted the Viennese production manager Gerhard Rupp, who has realized many international projects in the past 25 years. In turn, he contacted me and the knot was tied. The chemistry between all of us simply worked. You can send hundreds of emails back and forth, and they can endlessly look at locations in the Internet. But it is the personal support that counts.

When I look at your Facebook wall and see who you are working with, all the things you are involved in, I see that you must be pretty busy networking...

As the CEO of the Vienna Film Commission I have to personally “sell” Vienna in the end. That implies extremely much time and energy, but the success is the reward and great confirmation.

How did you feel when the magic “call from Hollywood” came?

My team and I cheered. After the first confirmation, however, it was postponed and postponed – we jittered and hoped but never gave up. We kept asking and continued to send images of new possible locations. In March 2014 – like I do every year – I flew to a location fair in Los Angeles. The embassy held a reception where I could make my welcoming address and announce the good news that the Austrian Ministry of Science, Research and Economy would financially support film shooting in Vienna in the future. That was the decisive moment! Among the guests was someone from Paramount.

"And then one thing led to another. Five months later it was Action! in Vienna."

Do cities pay to have big blockbusters filmed there?

Yes, very many. In general, locations are chosen based on the advantages of the incentives offered. Believe me, without the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF) there wouldn’t be so many international productions at Babelsberg Studio. Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino definitely wouldn’t have been shot there or The Monuments Man by George Clooney or Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson. It’s all about money!

How much did Mission Impossible get from Austria?

Nothing from the City of Vienna, outside of the free service of the Vienna Film Commission and the declaration to support the filming. FISA, the Film Industry Support Austria fund of the Ministry of Science, Research and Economy provided 750,000 euros, which had to be spent here on site. The production invested almost four million here in Vienna.

750,000 decided it for them? With the dimensions of the usual production costs in Hollywood, isn’t that just peanuts?

It is hard to believe but it is true. It is often about the gesture, and every little bit helps.

Isn’t Budapest direct competition for Vienna? They can offer pretty cheap rent and wages, along with the Imperial backdrop as well!

Sure, especially with the Hungarian tax incentives and the two major studio complexes. Originally Women in Gold was only supposed to be filmed for three days in Vienna, the rest in Budapest. But I could offer them our funding program, and then it became 21 days in Vienna.

Then the premiere of Mission: Impossible even took place in Vienna, the world premiere no less! How glamorous!

Yes, that was truly glamorous, otherwise my job is everything but that. Typically such premieres take place in London or New York.Naturally, the Vienna Film Commission didn’t directly initiate the premiere. But you can say, if the Hollywood team wasn’t so pleased then they wouldn’t have come back. That was a great distinction for the Film Commission. They loved Vienna! The service was a perfect fit, and the city authorities were unbelievably cooperative.

"Paramount flew in 70 of the top international film journalists to Vienna for a couple of days."

One hardly noticed the premiere of Mission: Impossible in Vienna, which likely also had to do with the holidays. But blocking the Ringstraße triggered a wave of complaints!

You must have been on vacation then; the papers and TV were full of reports the whole week! The Ring gets closed for all sorts of things. The premiere took place during the summer holidays, on July 23, and just the short piece between Schwarzenbergplatz and the Opera was closed. Recently I had a location tour for a major Bollywood production – the complete Ring was closed for a bike race. In our case, the Vienna Economic Chamber filed a complaint, but the Minister of Economy stated in a press release that he was extremely pleased and warmly welcomed the premiere in Vienna.

Typical Vienna? As long as there’s no fuss and nothing changes!

Paramount flew in 70 of the top international film journalists to Vienna for a couple of days. That was pretty awesome. But my highlight was that the director personally thanked me on the premiere stage – beside the King of Morocco and Vice Chancellor Mitterlehner (laughs).

Are there more requests coming from Hollywood & co. because of Mission: Impossible?

Such big projects don’t come along all so often – we were lucky. I am regularly in Los Angeles, and the word seems to have gone around in Hollywood that you can film and work in Vienna very well. Word of mouth is far better than any campaign.

So things obviously work on an informal basis in the supposedly vast film industry?

Yes, it is surprisingly straightforward. The production managers know one another and are in contact. At the premiere of Women in Gold at the Berlinale in early 2015 the leading actress Helen Mirren came on stage, and the first thing she said into the microphone was: “First of all, I wanna thank the city of Vienna.” That was great.

What did you pay her for that?

That’s priceless. (laughs)

Can you do your job as a mediator so well because you are a woman? Eric Pleskow, the famous film producer and president of the Viennale, recently said that the successor of the longstanding director Hans Hurch should be a woman because – in words to this effect – she could do the job better than a man.

I think a man could also do my job, but a woman can definitely do it. Yes, and sometimes really better, too. (laughs)

The film branch, after all, is dominated by men. Why is that?

Women don’t have enough confidence. They have to learn to take things for granted like men do. And like 50% of everything! There are just as many women as men who are graduating from the film academy. But more men sign contracts with the production companies. They’re obviously trusted more. It’s the same in all the other fields. That the film industry is not compatible with family is no argument; there’s anyway a lot of women working on the film set, just in less influential positions – in make-up and costumes, for instance.

Do you have a vision?

I would like to offer large international productions an own Viennese fund, naturally with conditions. A budget that supports foreign productions but it has to be spent here in the city. That would create the opportunity for Vienna to participate far stronger in the international film world and, to top it off, it would support the local film branch.

The Vienna Film Fund is one of the biggest of its kind in terms of budget!

Yes, and therewith it also has a large share in the success story of Austrian film. I would like to have a budget that’s an economic location promotion for the film industry independent of artistic quality criteria.

What actually goes on at a location fair in L.A. or Cannes?

Unglamorous. Like how a fair goes. I stand at my booth, behind me there are photos of Vienna and our showreels loop on the monitors. Then the production managers and location scouts come along and say: “Oh Vienna, what a gorgeous city! What incentives do you have?” (laughs) I talk until my mouth is dry, and my feet hurt in the evening.

Thank you for the interview.

Marijana Stoisits was born 1960 in Güssing, Austria. She studied ethnology, art history, and cultural management in Vienna, Hamburg, and Berlin. Her doctorate dealt with the subject of ethnology and film. From 1982 to 1991 Stoisits was a freelancer at the NDR – Northern German Broadcasting Company. In 1992 she was an assistant in the Electronic Media Executive Office of Bertelsmann AG in Hamburg for several months before changing to Spiegel TV, also in Hamburg.

She was the chief editor there between 1993 and 1997 and moderated numerous programs produced in this time. In 1998 Stoisits returned to Vienna and was active as a moderator, PR consultant, and freelance journalist for print and TV until 2004.

From 2004 to 2008 she was the chief editor and office manager of the Vienna branch of Spiegel TV. Since February 2009 Stoisits has been the CEO of the Vienna Film Commission.