Hollywood Studio Executives Flock to Morocco, the Arab World’s Favored Filming Destination

Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance

With tensions spreading across the Arab world, in particular in the Middle East and Southwestern Asia throughout 2016, Morocco proved, more than ever, the go-to destination for foreign filmmakers.

Indeed, Morocco managed to draw a large volume of foreign films and series, including many high-profile U.S. productions in 2016, in spite of the fact that the much-anticipated tax incentive failed to kick in at the start of the year.

Among the biggest productions that chose Morocco were Brad Anderson’s “High Wire Act” with Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm, Alexandre Moors’s “The Yellow Birds” with Jennifer Aniston, Per Fly’s “Backstabbing For Beginners” with Ben Kingsley, Jason Hall’s “Thank You for Your Services” with Amy Schumer, as well as the trailers for “The Mummy” and “Allied,” and episodes of “Prison Break,””The Missing,””Viking” and “Homeland.”

It’s been a hectic year for K Films’ Khadija Alami and Karim Debbagh, two of Morocco’s top exec producers. “All the turmoils in the world ironically brought us many projects,” said Debbagh.

A war drama, “The Yellow Birds,” for instance, was expected to shoot in Jordan but ended up filming in Morocco because Jordan would not allow the flying in of army hardware mockups, per Debbagh. “The production built a village and a military basis in Marrakech,” revealed the producer, who served as line producer on the film which will world premiere at Sundance.

Tarik Saleh’s thriller “The Nile Hilton Incident,” was supposed to shoot in Egypt but the whole crew was kicked out just before the start of the filming by the Egyptian secret services. Another production, “Backstabbing For Beginners,” was supposed to shoot in Iraq and also had to relocate to Marrakech and Casablanca. Same with “Highwire Act” which was due to lense in Liban and relocated to Tangier, explained Debbagh.

Alami, meanwhile, said “Prison Break” (season 5) was supposed to shoot in Yemen, “The Missing” (season 2) in the Middle East and “Homeland” (season 6) in the Gaza Strip.

The economic impact of these shoots in Morocco is highly significant. “Homeland” for example shot for 8 days in the country and spent approximately $1.8 million. And the production also tapped 120 Moroccan crew members, according to Alami.

The volume of foreign productions coming to Morocco is expected to grow in 2017 as a 20% tax break regime is expected to be enacted by the end of the year and should start applying on Jan. 1 to all eligible foreign productions. CCM prexy Sarim Fahri Fissi said the cap of the rebate has not yet been decided on. One of the bonuses of the incentive will be the 10% rebate on above-the-line costs, according to Fahri Fissi.

“The producers of ‘Homeland’ promised they would return to Morocco and shoot here for 100 days if the incentive was passed,” said Alami, who was recently tapped to co-produce Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell (“American Odyssey”)’s espionage thriller “The Nine,” Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa’s first scripted commission for the region.

The series will start lensing next year on location in Morocco. In parallel, Alami is building a studio which will spread over 17 acres and include one soundstage.

But even without the rebate, the country has remained a convenient shooting destination for various reasons: Foreign crews are exempt from paying VAT (20%) and that applies to materials and filming services used; productions can access a diversity of decors (ranging from mountains to the desert and the Atlantic seaside) and finally, local crews are highly skilled, can work long hours and are fairly cheap, which means U.S. productions can staff with locals instead of flying in their entire crews, argued Fahri Fissi.

Aiming to further promote the country and lure even more U.S. shoots, the CCM (the National Film Board) invited for the first time a delegation of top-level U.S. executives, including Gary French, senior VP of production at Touchstone Television Productions, Gary Goodman, executive VP of productions at Lionsgate, and Mark Binke, NBCUniversal’s exec VP of production, during Marrakech International Film Festival.

Treated like royalty, the Hollywood executives got to visit a wide range of locations, from the desert to the iconic Ouarzazate studios and Marrakech city center, assess local ressources and the crew base, depth as well as meeting local line producers.

The delegation was put together with the help of Richard Lance Smotkin, Comcast senior VP of global government affairs, who’s been working for two years with the CCM and government officials to get the tax incentive up and running.

“Without an incentive these guys won’t look at any locations and that why Morocco has been getting a lot of pieces of the pie and it’s missed out on the big pie,” said Smotkin, Comcast’s senior VP of global government affairs.

Smotkin said the incentive program was just passed by the Parliement. “We’re just waiting for the new government to be formed and the new communications minister to be appointed,” said the exec, who also cited the support of the Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

Besides promoting the new tax incentives and the country’s locations, changing perceptions was another goal of the trip. “We know this is not the Middle East, so one of the reasons we put this trip together was to show the executives from American studios what Morocco is and what it can offer; for instance not many people know it’s only a 6 hour flight from New York,” said Smotkin.

“Morocco has a long and successful history of filming, and it seems to be the most moderate and liberate place in the Arab world, we don’t feel that we’re not a 100% safe or welcome here; that’s essential because we have to convince creative people as well as our on-camera people and at this point, we feel very comfortable,” said Goodman.

French argued U.S. producers are increasingly looking to shoot beyond U.S. borders for creative reasons as well.

“We shoot in Israel and the Middle East too, our business is becoming more and more global partly because of tax incentives, and also party because of our desire to show new and diverse locations,” said French.

“The U.S. can substitute for a lot of the world but not all of it. Creatively we have a desire to shoot in these new locations, pointed out French.

Binke concurred. “There’s nothing like being in the authentic locale.”

“We were just having lunch on a rooftop in the Medina and we were saying that the view from the mountains to the roofs to the shops would cost us $5 million to recreate it and here you just have to point the camera — That’s very valuable to filmmakers,” said Binke.

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