Risk factors force H'w'd to look for safe shooting havens

If the war in Iraq becomes a grueling, weeks-long slog, there may be a consolation prize for local film crews: a reduction in runaway production.

As the coalition forces march on Baghdad, studios forge ahead with nearly a dozen big-budget pics in such far-flung international settings as Prague (“Van Helsing”), Thailand (“Around the World in 80 Days”) and Australia (“Peter Pan”).

But execs are growing uneasy about travel; the cost of risk insurance is rising; and film crews, fearing the spread of anti-American sentiment overseas, as well as the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome have begun scouting locales closer to home.

Ouarzazate, an ancient garrison town in the Moroccan desert, used to be a magnet for Hollywood film crews. Lured by the cheap labor and the quality of the light and landscape, studios last year scouted such megabudget epics there as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy,” Ridley Scott’s “Tripoli” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Alexander the Great.”

That was before cruise missiles began falling in Baghdad and Muslim extremists began calling for an army of martyrs to repulse the U.S.- and British-led attack.

Now “Tripoli” has been postponed, in part due to insurance problems; “Troy” is shooting in London and Mexico; and “Alexander” is in limbo, pending the planned summer start of another “Alexander” epic directed by Oliver Stone.

The film community of the predominantly Muslim country, a few hours’ flight from Iraq, is going to take a hit, says Hicham Benkirane, a consultant to the Moroccan Cinematographic Center. “Nobody’s planning on going there while the war is happening.”

That doesn’t mean that studios will stop shooting overseas. With production costs mounting rapidly (negative costs rose nearly 25% last year, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America) studios are facing heightened pressure to shoot in locations where tax incentives and cheap labor amount to millions in savings.

Studios continue to mount productions in established locations like Canada, Australia and Eastern Europe. After all, these regions are no less secure than American cities, which were put on a code orange terror alert before the invasion of Iraq.

“I feel safer shooting in Sydney than in downtown L.A.,” said one producer on his way to visit the set of an Aussie pic in the first week of the war.

But the invasion of Iraq, which threatens to create further turmoil throughout the Mideast, is leading many producers to give the region a wide berth.

Mace Neufeld, who is prepping “Mazar e Sharif,” a film about U.S. special ops soldiers fighting with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, says he’s scouting locations in the American Southwest. “I’ve done so many locations that I would love to shoot something close to home here. With ‘Mazar,’ even though we have the cooperation of the Afghan ambassador to (the) U.S., we’ll probably end up shooting in Arizona or Mojave because of this kind of danger. We don’t want to put our people in harm’s way.”

Alternate routes

Though it’s too soon to see an increase in traffic on studio backlots, local production outfits and film crews are poised to capitalize on producers’ nervousness about foreign locales.

Stargate Digital, a production shop with offices in Vancouver; Canada; and Pasadena, and Van Nuys, Calif., provides a virtual backlot — a mobile set with a 150-foot green screen — for TV and feature clients including “CSI,” “ER” and USA Network’s “Helen of Troy” miniseries.

“After 9/11, none of the ‘ER’ actors wanted to fly to Chicago,” says Stargate CEO Sam Nicholson. “So we digitized pieces of Chicago and texture-wrapped them into 3-D environments.”

Stargate also built virtual mountains, Kabul cityscapes, and cars and helicopters for USA Networks’ “Traffic” mini set in Afghanistan.

“The logistics in a high-security environment are very difficult,” says Nicholson, who extols the virtues of digital productions shot in a controlled environment on U.S. soundstages.

“In the virtual world,” Nicholson says, “magic hour lasts forever.”

Elm Street

Universal Studios, which owns the biggest backlot in Hollywood — 29 locations on 415 acres — hasn’t seen an increase in business. But the studio continues to updates its facilities, and recently created a new location, “Elm Street,” a leafy suburban enclave lined with Craftsman houses that was used as a set for “The Hulk” and Wes Craven’s “Cursed.”

Elm Street, which resembles an affluent Pasadena neighborhood, won’t double for a foreign locale. But it affords filmmakers a high measure of creative control and potential savings, says U senior VP of production services Dave Beanes.

A location like Pasadena, he says, “has such strong restrictions on what the filmmaker can do. They can’t be in before 7 a.m. and they have to be gone by 7 p.m. No effects like gunfire or explosions without consent from the police department. There are location fees and permits.”

Fees and permits may come cheap on Moroccan soundstages. But these days, shooting in potential hot spots like North Africa comes with other costs that no studio is prepared to meet.

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