Filmmaker plans lavish studio

Fisher hopes to land slice of runaway prod'n market

MEXICO CITY — Local production is moribund, foreign shoots are few and far between. But Francesca Fisher isn’t letting grim reality stop her from building her dream studio.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is helming the most-ambitious of several projects to build large studios in rural Mexican locations in hopes of landing a healthy slice of the runaway production market, which has for the most part dodged Mexico.

Her theory is that Mexico can provide a wide range of outdoor locations and huge soundstages, all for prices far below those in Hollywood and indeed those in the U.S.’ neighbor to the north.

“Mexico is 20% below Canada, and Canada is 20 to 30% below the U.S., in production costs,” says Fisher, who has lived in the colonial highlands town San Miguel de Allende for the past two decades.

Her project, Film Colony SMA (for the name of the town), is much more than just a studio. In addition to six soundstages totaling 80,000 square feet plus 50,000 square feet of production support facilities, she plans on having a technical film school, an outdoor mall and a huge back lot that includes an artificial jungle cut through by a manmade river and patrolled by boats bearing tourists., as well as a residential area.

The project bears a price tag of $48 million, half of which has been raised, says Fisher. She won’t reveal the source of the money, but says it comes from private investors in the U.S., Mexico and France.

She’s bought the 250 acre lot; hired an architect (Southern California-based Bastien and Associates) and a studio manager (Film Studio Group) to run the project; and plans to begin construction by early next year. The goal, she says, is to open by 2007.

“There is so much history, cultural awareness and artistic sensitivity here to draw from,” says Stephen Placido, director of design for Bastien and Associates.

“It gives Mexico an opportunity to compete with other countries and create a larger crew base,” says Michael Glick, a senior V.P. of production at MGM who is helping advise Fisher on the project.

Meanwhile, a few hours drive south, in Morelos state, producer Jose Ludlow has also been planning his own studio, also with various soundstages, a big back lot and a theme park aspect. There he could provide a wide range of locations and lower costs.

Unlike Fisher, however, he’s not convinced the time is right, and has put his project on hold. The problem, he says, is that foreign production is not likely to flock to Mexico just to save a few pesos.

“Sure, it’s cheaper to film in Mexico,” he says, “but nobody is going to risk coming to a new studio here without seeing that others went first.”

In addition, he says, U.S. producers are suspicious of Mexican crews, not to mention the country’s bureaucracy. And Mexican film production is at a historic low, while TV is unlikely to stray far from Mexico City to shoot.

For his part, Ludlow says he won’t build the studio until he’s raised enough money to produce a few of his own films there, which he’d then use to lure foreign productions.

Other film studio projects in Guadalajara and Veracruz are still on the drawing board, leaving Fisher in the lead to compete with the few actually operating film studios in Mexico, primarily Studios Churubusco Azteca in Mexico City and Fox Studios Baja in Rosarita.

Without substantial government support, however, it could be difficult for any of these projects to develop ongoing revenue streams.

“I’m sure a lot of people would rather come to San Miguel than Mexico City,” Fisher says. “This is going to be a destination complex.”

(Pat Saperstein in Hollywood contributed to this story.)

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