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Morocco fends off alternative locations

Studios in Spain, the Gulf challenge dominance

Driven by cheap costs, stunning terrain and highly skilled crews, Morocco long has been a preferred Hollywood location for big-budget drama. Following Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” this year alone has seen the kingdom host Paul Greengrass’ “The Green Zone” for Universal and Mike Newell’s “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” the new Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney franchise based on the videogame.

But Morocco is facing increasing competition from alternative locations. With regional government backing, competitive prices and a recently completed water tank, Ciudad de la Luz studios in Spain has grown in strength, recently enticing Francis Ford Coppola to the Alicante facility for “Tetro.”

An even stiffer challenge to Morocco’s hold on the sand, sets and sun package is ambitious, cash-rich Studio City in Dubai, which bowed in November 2007, backed by Tecom investments. That studio aims to offer a comprehensive film production package, with everything from film schools to 65,000 square feet of studio soundstage planned.

Though repeated delays have pushed back the completion date, Studio City and neighboring Abu Dhabi’s lucrative Film Financing Circle mean the U.A.E. offers the promise of a one-stop finance and production center in the desert, an oasis for producers at a time when Wall Street money has dried up.

But despite all this, Amine Tazi, general manager at CLA Studios Ouarzazate, a joint venture of Dino De Laurentiis, Italy’s Cincecitta and Morocco’s Sanam Holding, doesn’t seem especially worried.

“2007-2008 was a very good year,” Tazi says, “and I expect this year to be, too.”

Together with sister facility Atlas, CLA handles some 20 film and television productions a year. Germany’s Constantin is filming “Pope Joan” there, starring John Goodman, the latest in a long line of Teuton productions to head for Morocco, and “Prince” (at Dune Films) and “Body” both shot there. “Green Zone” is lensing at Zak Prods.

Tazi, who expects tough competition from Studio City, points to the advantages Morocco continues to offer, such as its skills base, varied locations and convenience — just two hours from Paris and eight from New York on regular flights.

Sarim Fassi-Fihri, CEO of Cinedina, which has been producing since the 1980s, says Morocco compares favorably with Dubai and Ciudad de la Luz. “We are still the cheapest of the three, with the biggest choice of locations and the know-how that (the others) just don’t have.”

Moreover, “Body of Lies,” about a CIA agent sent to Jordan to stymie a terrorist attack, was a political potato too hot for Dubai to handle, allowing Morocco to step in, and raising questions about how well a marriage of convenience between Hollywood and oil money might work out.

Confirming there are no plans to add to Morocco’s 20% VAT exemption incentive for foreign productions, Nour-Eddine Sail, head of government film body CCM, stresses Moroccan skilled labor has been trained over the years by Hollywood specifically for big-budget fare. Sail underlines the Moroccan government’s film-friendly attitude and the fact that local production has risen to 20 features a year, boosting the industry network and skills base.

UCLA-educated Fouad Challa, CEO of production house Dreamaker, highlights the increasing number of Moroccan execs trained in the U.S. and Europe who understand what Hollywood wants. Challa, who is working to close a Hollywood production deal, says Dreamaker has “a young, ambitious team,” and boasts representation in the U.S. and India.

Kanzeman CEO Denise O’Dell has worked in Morocco on many occasions over the years, most recently with Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven.” Concurring with Sail, who notes that “Morocco has really come of age as a production center,” she highlights King Mohammed VI’s backing of the film biz and the consequent willingness of the military to cooperate with production — a useful competitive edge for producers who need well-armed extras to double as Mideast combatants, a subject and area that continue to fascinate filmmakers.

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