Morocco strong, but not the same

Hollywood reaches out to other locations

Morocco has long established itself as the go-to place for Hollywood and other international productions looking for a secure, affordable location to shoot in the Arab world and Middle East.

While Hollywood, particularly, has shown new-found interest in the region with a series of pics dealing with the wars on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, 2007 has proven a mixed year for Moroccan studios eager for high-profile projects to lens there.

Jordan, for example, has lured the lion’s share of Iraq-set projects with Brian DePalma’s “Redacted,” Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” and Kathyrn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” all shooting there rather than in Morocco.

The Persian Gulf emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have also stepped up their efforts to attract foreign projects to the Middle East with a series of generous financial incentives.

Ironically, however, it was Dubai’s decision to pass on Ridley Scott’s politically controversial “Body of Lies,” about a CIA agent who’s sent to Amman to work with Jordan’s intelligence chief to thwart a rumored attack against America, that has seen Moroccan film execs land their highest-profile project of the year.

Pic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, has completed its shoot in capital city Rabat, and is now well into a nine-week shoot in Ouarzazate’s CLA Studios, a joint venture between Morocco’s Sanam Holding, Dino De Laurentiis and Italy’s Cinecitta. “It has been an average year,” says Sanam Holding’s general manager Ismail Farih. “I have no idea why. You’ll have to ask producers.”

“Shooting has been down this year,” says Zara Ouladbada of Dune Films, which serviced “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Stop-Loss.” “It’s partly because of the political situation in the region and because of the U.S. dollar. It’s always down compared to the euro and this has affected production in Morocco.”

It’s not been all bad news, however, for filming in the country. TV skein “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” headed by French shingle GMT and also involving Italian pubcaster RAI and Germany’s Tele Muenchen shot at the CLA Studios, while the Steve Martin-penned “Traitor,” starring Don Cheadle and Guy Pierce, lensed in the country as well.

The BBC brought a clutch of period pieces to Morocco this year, with their bigscreen remake of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” and TV skein “The Passion.”

Teuton pic “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” about the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction’s 1970s terror campaign, is set to lense for 10 days in Morocco starting Nov. 21, while Teuton TV skein “Mogadishu,” a fact-based terrorist drama about the 1977 hijacking of a Lufthansa flight, is also coming to the country at the same time. “We were looking for a place that could double as Jordan and Iraq, and Morocco offered us both the facilities, infrastructure and varied locations that we needed,” says Christine Rothe, line producer on “Baader-Meinhof” and a seasoned traveler to Morocco. “We looked at other places like Tunisia but it didn’t have the right coloring and Israel was way too dangerous.”

Biggest of all, arguably, is the imminent arrival of Paul Greengrass’ Iraq drama “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” starring Matt Damon. Pic is set to lens in Morocco once it has completed its shoot in Spain, which begins in January. That production is being serviced by Zak Aloui’s Zak Prods., which also repped Scott’s “Body of Lies” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the previous Greengrass-Damon collaboration.

“I can’t speak for other companies but we’ve had a good year,” says Aloui. “A lot of it has to do with the scripts. Morocco is film friendly and with U.S. policy in the Middle East and Iraq, the region is the hot topic.”

A big factor in Morocco’s favor is the willingness by authorities to allow filmmakers to tackle hot-potato subject matter at a time when potential rivals such as Dubai are shying away from political fare. “Everything is permitted here, at a very good prices and there are no restrictions at all,” says Farih, before adding jokingly, “except for XXX movies.”