Morocco to tap into H’w’d’s epic plans

'Alexander,' 'Tripoli' among movies planned

PARIS — Hollywood’s plans to splurge megabucks on a plethora of big-budget epics have set pulses racing thousands of miles away in North Africa. From Casablanca to the sandy beaches of Hammamet, the message is the same: Movie moguls, come spend those greenbacks here.

In Morocco, even the monarch, King Mohammed VI, is getting in on the act as the country positions itself as the location for epic filmmaking. Tunisia also is readying itself for business.

Morocco has, of course, been a steady favorite with filmmakers for decades: Orson Welles’ 1952 Palme d’Or winning “Othello” was filmed in the ancient city and rock-star hangout of Essaoura; Hitchcock shot “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in Marrakesh; the snow-capped Atlas Mountains were locations for “Lawrence of Arabia.” (“Casablanca,” though, never came near the place — outdoor scenes were shot in Utah.)

And thanks to a spate of big-budget pics like “Spy Games,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra,” earnings from the film industry have recently jumped — with $200 million pouring into the country in 2000, according to an official source.

Dino De Laurentiis has started building what is destined to be Morocco’s biggest film studio, with backing from Baz Luhrmann and Universal, for the $150 million epic “Alexander the Great.” (A similarly budgeted Oliver Stone pic about Alexander and backed by Intermedia also will likely shoot in Morocco, and talks are ongoing for a Moroccan location for Ridley Scott’s megabudget “Tripoli” for Fox starring Russell Crowe.)

With Hollywood studios poised to greenlight a whole series of toga films, the Moroccan economy stands to benefit even more. It could use the boost: Despite the glamour of tourist hot spots, Morocco remains a poor country with an exploding urban population, where GDP per capita is a mere $3,500.

This week sees the unspooling of the second Marrakesh Film Festival, an event whose very raison d’etre is all about raising Morocco’s profile in the movie industry. Last year’s inaugural event almost passed without notice, due to Sept. 11. But this year, a veritable who’s who of the international film biz — including helmers Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and thesp Matt Dillon — are taking the Marrakesh Express. Cinephile King Mohammed VI has “been very closely involved” in preparations for the fest, and in a ceremony at one of his royal palaces, he will decorate Scorsese with Morocco’s highest honor.

“The festival is part of our strategy to raise Morocco’s visibility,” Andre Azoulay, influential advisor to the king, tells Variety. “The film industry is a substantial and significant lever to the country’s economy, and we want it to play an even bigger part.”

The fest’s prexy, ubiquitous Unifrance chief Daniel Toscan du Plantier, has seen to it that an A list of Gallic talent will also put in an appearance, from actresses, Jury prexy Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve to filmmakers Patrice Chereau and Luc Besson.

“The fact that an Arab sovereign wants to install cinema in his country is a major statement that deserves support,” opined Toscan du Plantier, “and besides, Marrakesh is lovely in the fall.”

While Morocco has a big head start, neighboring Tunisia also is hoping to cash in on Hollywood’s toga trip. Paris-based filmmaker and media powerbroker Tarak Ben Ammar almost single-handedly built Tunisia’s film industry in the ’70s. With a keen eye for a business opportunity, Ben Ammar has returned to his native land, recently investing in an ambitious $20 million studio facility which replicates ancient Rome.

“We’re geared for any epic,” Ben Ammar promises, “and as the Hollywood studios will be watching the bottom line on these projects, we can help them make huge savings.”

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