H'wood wary of production south of border

Mexico City– The spectacular drug-trade violence plaguing Mexico has choked what was once a steady stream of Hollywood production dollars down to a trickle, say state and federal commishes, who are struggling to calm nerves and keep the shop open.

President Felipe Calderon’s four-year militarized campaign targeting cartel leadership has now claimed nearly 35,000 lives — more than 15,000 in 2010 alone — and handed U.S. news outlets a steady supply of sensational reports involving beheadings and corpses hanging from overpasses.

The problem, according to several Mexican commishes, is one of perception not meeting reality — a problem made worse by media sensationalism.

Drugs have “not only given business to the cartels, but to the media who cover the violence around them,” says Mexico City film commissioner Fernando Uriegas. “As long as these stories sell space, they’ll keep running them.”

Government officials have said that nearly 50% of the violence is taking place around narco strongholds like Sinaloa and Michoacan in the nation’s central north and west, or along key border trade routes such as in Chihuahua, Baja California, Tamaulipas and Coahuila states. Even there, state tourism and film commissions are taking steps to assert their ability to assure the safety of productions and take advantage of the federal tax incentive program introduced last year.

Durango, one state that’s done more than any other to promote itself as a prime shooting location, borders cartel ringleader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s stronghold of Sinaloa and Chihuahua state, home to Mexico’s murder capital of Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Durango boasted nine feature film productions in 2009 despite the fact that, according to local reports, there were more than 700 drug-related deaths in the state in 2010.

Long a home to shoots for Westerns, desert-strewn Durango provided locations last year for “Cristiada” — a multimillion-dollar epic shot by “Lord of the Rings” vfx guru Dean Wright. The English-language pic, following a bloody religious conflict in Mexico in the 1920s, is topped by thesps Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria, and according to state film commissioner Sergio Gutierrez, security was a primary concern as shooting began last June.

“When they ask us, we provide a full contingent of security,” says Gutierrez, explaining that for shoots like “Cristiada,” they had local and state police along with federal troops making rings around the set and even offering to fly in stars via helicopter, courtesy of the state government.

The official acknowledges the violence in the region, but contends that their track record proves productions can safely shoot there.

“When (actors and producers) come, they usually come with fear, but after a few weeks of filming, they realize that all this has more to do with the media … that this isn’t how they say it is,” he adds, noting that many of the nine productions that shot in Durango last year asked to reduce security measures as shooting progressed.

He notes that Wright, coming back for reshoots, even went so far as to decline state security. Wright himself commented last August to Variety on the “phenomenal” effort the state made to secure the production, noting how the violence was simply not a factor in the shoot.

Having undergone a massive facelift in the last decade (largely funded by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), Mexico City is eager to bring foreign shoots back up to pre-Calderon levels. Municipal film commissioner Uriegas laments the impact of the negative attention on the country and its sprawling capital, home to more than 20 million people.

Crime statistics for the city show such levels representative of a large urban area; the capital has largely avoided violence related to the drug war.

“Effectively, the bad image that Mexico has gotten from organized crime has had a negative impact, killing about 90% of productions from 2008 to now,” Uriegas says. “What we are left with generally is some commercials and some video magazines for tourism … in terms of international investment.”

He called Mexico City “a kind of paradise” when compared with some of the states. In 2010, “we had more than 6,000 hours of shooting (in the capital) without a single act of violence reported.”

And Mexico City has made strides in recent years to combat corrupt practices, such as paying bribes to police for use of locations, and to promote the location abroad, recently attending Ventana Sur and the American Film Market.

Much of the recent effort is centered around a new law passed in 2009 to centralize the film authorities. Another law that is aimed at adding financial incentives to filming in the capital is in final negotiations, according to Uriegas.

Other states are following suit with laws to promote film production. Last week, the Baja California legislature passed a law to regulate the permit process and establish a state film council to coordinate film shoots statewide. That measure’s passage was motivated by the loss in 2008 of the third installment of the “Narnia” franchise, Baja film commish Gabriel Del Valle tells Variety.

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