After swatting back the COVID-19 scourge to some extent, Puerto Rico opened its ports in June 2020. With the year-long curfew lifted in May this year, it’s been business as usual on this Caribbean island of roughly 3,500 square miles.

The capital of San Juan held its first live audience concert on June 26, 2021 with salsa icon Gilberto Santa Rosa playing to thousands at the Puerto Rico Convention Center for the first time since the pandemic closed it down. According to ASM Global regional manager Jorge Perez, 15 other concerts have been announced, with 10 already sold out.

International acts are also coming in as most U.S. mainland venues remain closed. Plunging cases and a relatively high vaccination rate (up to 70%) has brought some semblance of normality and a growing number of location shoots to the U.S. territory, albeit with health and safety protocols still in place.

Just ask Bruce Willis who’s been filming on the island at least six times since 2019 and the makers of Corona beer who shot five commercials back-to-back last year. “Mel Gibson was on location in Puerto Rico three times in the past two years,” says film commissioner Rosi Acosta, who is spearheading the revitalization of the film org since she took over in January.

“Wedding Crashers 2,” starring Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Isla Fisher and Rachel McAdams, will prep in September while “The Plane,” with Gerard Butler, begins pre-production in a few weeks.

“Our vision at the Puerto Rico Film Commission is to continue to provide incentives that support a film-friendly entrepreneurial environment, for not only local, but also off-shore productions,” she says.

Manuel Cidre Miranda, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development & commerce, concurs. “We work continuously towards improving our offer, proving we have a competitive jurisdiction, especially now that the demand for content is at an all-time high.”

As a former unit production manager, Acosta is very familiar with the island’s many perks and challenges. Her long list of credits includes Nick Hamm’s “Driven,” John Travolta starrer “Speed Kills” and Ving Rhames vehicle “Animal,” all shot in Puerto Rico.

Since last year, Willis starred in three films shot on the island, including “Midnight in the Switchgrass,” the directorial debut of “The Irishman” producer Randall Emmett; Mike Burns’ “Out of Death”; and “Killing Field,” from helmer James Cullen Bressack.

Gibson was in Puerto Rico in 2020 for “Panama,” from director Mark Neveldine. This year, Robert De Niro and John Malkovich were on the island for action thriller “Wash Me in the River,” the second directorial outing by Emmett, which the Avenue releases in the U.S. next spring.

Puerto Rico’s long-running tax incentive program includes a 40% production tax credit to resident companies and individuals and a 20% tax credit on all payments to qualified non-resident individuals. Preferential tax exemptions ranging from 4% to 100% led to more savings. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, American producers do not have to contend with visas, commercial barriers or different currency and banking systems, Acosta points out.

Conversely, the incentives are a boon for local producers who may have to work with SAG and other U.S. unions, which drive up costs.

“Without these perks, it would virtually be impossible to shoot here, it would be too expensive for us,” said Puerto Rican producer-distributor Cynthia Weisner whose comedy “El Cuartito” was made possible through a panoply of credits that covered the bulk of her budget.

“These incentives are our lifeblood,” concurs producer Carlos Nido (“Subete a mi moto”) who has been producing a kind of Latino “High School Musical” series, “Gina Yei,” for Disney Plus at an empty performing arts venue in Humacao, converting the entire building into a performing arts high school, replete with lockers, a gym and work rooms.

The annual cap on credits to Puerto Rico resident companies and individuals is now at $38 million per fiscal year, down from the previous $50 million cap, but efforts are underway to raise it back to the original number.

“The relevance of Puerto Rico as a filming destination is validated every day as we are hosting major productions which are providing an immediate economic impact to our economy, even in challenging times due to the pandemic,” says Cidre Miranda.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins and ends in July, Puerto Rico’s economy saw an influx of $173 million from the production spend on the island, up from the previous fiscal year’s $141 million.