The backlots: Tunisia

Comprehensive studios offer everything from shoots to post

Empire Studios includes a large ancient Roman set and free-standing Forum along with shooting and post facilities.

Hollywood may house more soundstages than anywhere, but then there’s the Tarak Ben Ammar studio system in Tunisia.

Comprising three facilities, with the main one, Empire Studios, housing a large ancient Rome set with its own free-standing first century forum, Ben Ammar has built a unique fully integrated shooting and post-production setup conceived and suitable for international productions of all sizes.

Ben Ammar’s two other studios are the de Ben Arous facilities, built in 2007, where Italian helmer Giuseppe Tornatore shot his Sicilian epic “Baaria,” and the Gammarth studios, which is a state-of-the-art post-production center, also destined to become his Nessma TV hub.

“Baaria” producer Giampaolo Letta recently enthused that he “never saw anything like it,” referring to Tornatore’s meticulous reconstruction of his native Sicilian village at de Ben Arous, including its 400-meter main drag, church, cafe and web of secondary streets. “This six-hectare (14 acres) set is three times as big as the Cinecitta set for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York,’ ” Letta says.

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Quinta was also a co-producer on “Baaria,” and participation in what lenses in his Tunisian hubs is a key component of the Ben Ammar studio system. Besides facilities, he offers all the advantages of his fully integrated group (including post-production, effects, distribution and TV outlets) to a project of his liking.

“With our studios and post-production facilities, I can make a movie that would normally cost $60 million for $30 million. It’s still going to look like $60 million on the screen, but we can make it for half that budget,” Ben Ammar says.

The next ambitious Ben Ammar-backed project that will shoot in Tunisia is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1930s-set Arab epic “Black Thirst,” budgeted at more than $50 million, penned by “The Color Purple” scribe Menno Meyjes and centered around Islam and oil.

“Black Thirst” will shoot in part at Empire studios, which has three air-conditioned soundstages and expert craftsmen. For “Thirst,” the studio’s ancient Rome sets are being converted into an Oriental city.

Besides scores of ancient Rome TV minis, produced by Italy’s Lux Vide, in which Ben Ammar holds a stake, Empire was the production hub in 2007 for Doug Lefler-helmed swords and sandals epic “The Last Legion,” toplining Colin Firth, co-produced by Quinta, of course.

Ben Ammar certainly knows what Hollywood directors and producers want. After all, he first became an international player in the 1970s when he persuaded George Lucas to decamp to Tunisia to film parts of his “Star Wars” trilogy there. Steven Spielberg, with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and Roman Polanski, with “Pirates,” soon followed.

“Certainly the arrival of Lucas and Spielberg in Tunisia positioned me,” he says.

But few decades later, besides excellent facilities and exotic locations at a competitive cost, Ben Ammar has a bit more to bring to the table.

“There’s no independent, integrated group like ours that can tell a director or producer that if their picture is going to cost $40 million, for example, we can put in half the budget ($20 million),” he says.

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