Morocco is turning into a major int'l filming location

MARRAKECH — Morocco has become a location double for the Arab world and the Middle East, a could-be Egypt, a convincing Iraq. Studio pics and standout international shoots there are climbing.

The stats tell a story. Over 2001-03, only one high-profile production filmed a year; but numbers picked up in 2004 with three, and 2005 also saw three big Hollywood shoots.

This year, New Line’s “The Nativity Story” shot at Ouarzazate’s CLA Studios, a joint venture between Morocco’s Sanam Holding, Dino De Laurentiis and Italy’s Cinecitta. MGM’s “Home of the Brave” also filmed in the country.

On Oct. 20, Universal wrapped its Morocco shoot of Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum,” line produced by Zak Prods., which also managed the production of MGM’s “Home of the Brave”; Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War,” also from U, rolled through November with the production managed by Dune Films and the Atlas Mountains standing in for Afghanistan. Kimberly Peirce’s untitled Iraq War drama, a Paramount Pictures project also handled by Dune, shot in Morocco in the fall. Nabil Ayouch’s $12 million “Whatever Lola Wants,” produced by Jake Eberts for Pathe, lenses through mid-December at Casablanca’s Cinedina studios.

Morocco certainly has a lot going for it.

The geopolitical cycle has yielded many stories about the Arab region, and Morocco offers Hollywood a stable

location-shooting environment. Eberts’ commitment in producing “Lola” — where a New York postal worker travels from New York to Cairo, taking belly-dancing lessons from a legendary Egyptian dancer — may not be untypical.

Before “Lola,” he says, he’d helped make an Imax film about the Hajj in Mecca. He took an Arabic-dubbed “Gandhi” to the Middle East in 2005. “When Pathe brought the project (‘Lola’) to me, I got very enthusiastic,” he tells Variety. “I think it’s very important to try to get the West to understand the East better.”

Then there’s the new spins on history in the form of high-end historical docudramas, which often turn on ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Bible, the Crusades. All need sun, many need sand, and Morocco has both. Dune Films has serviced a string of recent BBC docus, the latest being “Richard the Lionheart.”

In providing cheap, easy and uncensored shooting facilities, Morocco has few Arab-world peers. “Syriana” also shot in Dubai. Tarak Ben Ammar Empire Studios boasts a Rome set south of Tunis. But strong Arab competition hasn’t emerged. Producers blanch at some alternatives.

“An Iraq story can’t shoot in Iraq. Algeria is bad. Egypt has a governmental censor on set, signing off on dailies,” says one.

Indeed, Iraq War-themed “Home of the Brave,” from helmer Irwin Winkler, used Morocco as a sub for the war-torn country. “Even though it was a fairly ambitious shoot — we had a big war sequence and not much money to do it — the crews there worked well,” says producer Rob Cowan. “Brave” used local service producer Zak Aloui’s Zak Prods. “We went through everything very carefully with Zak Aloui, and he helped identify areas that could be a problem.”

In Morocco, says Cinedina general manager Sarim Fassi-Fihri, a Moroccan production company reads foreign-shoots screenplays. “But I’ve never ever known any problems with any script,” he says.

Nobody argues about Morocco’s low costs. A CLA Studios soundstage costs just $2,500 a week, says Ismail Farih, general manager of Sanan Holding, the Moroccan shareholder of CLA Studios.

Nine weeks shooting in Casablanca will cost only slightly more than nine days filming in New York, largely due to union and SAG rules, says “Lola” line producer Frantz Richard.

“If you shoot in Mauritania, say, you bring all your crew. In Morocco you bring only department heads — gaffers, first ADs and second ADs — then crew up with all other technicians from Morocco,” he adds.

“We used 80%, if not more, of local people,” says Cowan.

Key sparks — gaffers‘ assistants — and key grips cost $700 a week. Extras cost at least $21 a day — some shoots pay higher. Four-star hotels aren’t so cheap: $75 a day and upwards.

Cinedina is planning a fourth, 2,000-square-meter soundstage, says Fassi-Fihri. Partly boosted by escalating Moroccan TV production, equipment rentals and studio occupancy are up 76% from 2005, he adds.

“2006 has been a strong year for American productions. There’ll be a lot more shoots in 2007,” predicts Nour-eddine Sail, director of Morocco’s CCM film institute.

In order to maintain traction, however, Morocco has to combat obstacles. First is competition from Spain. Alicante’s Ciudad de la Luz studios are offering multi-million-dollar price knockdowns, compensating for productions bringing in large crews, for want of a local talent base.

Indeed, “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” shot in Morocco; “Asterix at the Olympic Games” wrapped October in Alicante.

Foreign producers sometimes fret about Moroccan crews’ lack of initiative. “Our biggest challenge is training technicians so they really know film,” says Fassi-Fihri.

Cowan notes that the main reason to go to Morocco is the varied locations, but tax incentives, “like anywhere else,” wouldn’t hurt, “although rates there are cheap.” He also noted that it’s “a little tricky because it’s a kingdom” and it has the attendant bureaucracy since “the king signs off on everything.”

And studios need to maintain their competitive edge. Some solutions are ingenious.

CLA bought the fortress set from “Kingdom of Heaven,” and “The Nativity Story” shot there. Said Alj’s Sanam now plans a built-to-last ancient Rome set opposite the studios, opening in the spring. It will take in four temples, rising up to 17 meters, and two basilisks, plus Nero’s house, affording a view-from-the-Senate perspective.

Morocco’s government is aiming to boost not only tourism but also nights spent in Morocco. Twinned with a Museum of Cinema, the Rome set could merit a one-day visit. “Tourists could cover fixed costs, shoots provide recoupment,” says Farih.

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