Morocco, others hope to woo Hollywood production

While the Middle East has only recently become a source of coin for Hollywood and international producers, the region has long been a location resource for filmmakers.

From desert dunes to bustling urban sprawls and idyllic Mediterranean views, the Middle East offers a rich tapestry of topographical options.

What’s often been lacking, however, are the infrastructure and government-led incentives to lure Hollywood execs to make the long flight.

That may be about to change.

Morocco, indisputably the go-to place for execs looking to lense big-budget fare, now boasts studios thanks to Atlas Studios and sister company CLA Studios Ouarzazate — a joint venture of Dino De Laurentiis, Italy’s Cinecitta and Morocco’s Sanam Holding — as well as highly skilled local crews.

Key to the success of Morocco, which has hosted high-profile fare such as Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” Paul Greengrass’ “Green Zone” and Mike Newell’s “Prince of Persia,” has been backing at the highest level. The country’s King Mohammed is an avid film buff and has supported efforts to boost the local film industry. Morocco offers 20% VAT exemption incentive for foreign productions as well as a number of experienced production companies, such as Dune and Dreamaker, that can service foreign productions.

Morocco has, however, found its position challenged in recent years by countries such as Jordan.

With more diverse geographical locations — the likes of Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum — Jordan, along with Egypt, nabbed Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” in 2008. That decision marks a symbolic coming of age for the country, which benefited from the rise in English-language pics about the Iraq war. Katheryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” all lensed there. Jordan borders Iraq and is now home to thousands of Iraqi refugees.

A key moment for filmmaking ambitions in the country came with the creation of the Royal Film Commission in 2003.

“It has been a bit of a bumpy road at times, but we can know help any film that comes from outside or even from the region to be able to use this country and also help Jordanians gain experience,” says Jordan’s Prince Ali, chairman of the Royal Film Commission.

Egypt, traditionally the center of the Arab film biz, has had a tougher time attracting foreign productions despite having the region’s most prolific industry. That has been due to a lack of incentives, subsidies and an occasionally overbearing bureaucracy.

Execs at Egypt’s Media Production City are working hard to change that.

The massive site, which covers some 2 million square feet, offers soundstages, 15 outdoor shooting areas — including both urban and rural sets — as well as comprehensive post-production facilities.

The Egyptian government is also reputedly stepping up to the plate at last, with officials from the ministries of culture and trade working with local film execs to introduce subsidies on custom charges to foreign production, as well as shooting and work permits.

“At the moment, you would only come to Egypt if you need its locations like the Pyramids,” says Misr Intl. topper and producer Gaby Khoury. “Anything is possible in Egypt as long as you give it the right time.”

It is the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi that could become the region’s most attractive production hubs. Many challenges remain, however. Dubai launched its Studio City complex in 2004 with great fanfare. The site envisaged as a one-stop shop for all of one’s productions needs has, however, been plagued by design issues and delays. It is finally set to open the first of its much-vaunted soundstages later this year. To date, however, Dubai has attracted only one major Hollywood production: Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” in 2005. The political nature of that pic, which starred George Clooney and Matt Damon, scared off Dubai authorities from allowing more hot potato Hollywood fare to lense in the glitzy Gulf metropolis. Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” was denied permission to film in Dubai for fear that its subject matter would lead people to associate the city with terrorism. Dubai’s loss became Morocco’s gain.

The lack thus far of any substantial financial incentives or subsidies has also been a bugbear for film execs, who have complained of the high cost of lensing in Dubai.

Abu Dhabi, which to date boasts Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom” as the only major Hollywood production to lense there, has also shied away from political content. With the launch last year of media production zone Twofour54 — so named after Abu Dhabi’s geographical coordinates — Abu Dhabi execs are now hoping to become a regional and international production center.

“We are going to create the environment by developing training, facilities and incubating ideas that will facilitate the creation of content. It’s going to help put Abu Dhabi on the map and give people in the region something to aspire to,” says Twofour54 chief exec Tony Orsten.

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