MARRAKECH, Morocco -- The local industry started developing at a faster pace in the early 2000s with the creation of the Advance on Receipts, a selective financing mechanism modeled on a French program allowing producers to collect public funds, and the bow of three major film schools: Marrakech's Superior School of Visual Arts, ISMAC in Rabat and Ouarzazate film institute, where students got trained to work on local and international films. The launch of Tangier's National Film Awards and Marrakech Film Festival also provided emerging filmmakers with a stepping stone and helped build the industry.
Despite the lack of tax incentives, foreign shoots still hit Moroccan shores.
"Producers often chose Morocco over Middle Eastern countries like Dubai because it's safer, more open -- there's no censorship or limit on what you can say or do -- and it's cheaper," says Karim Debbagh at Kasbah Films, a production outfit with offices in Germany and Morocco. "In Dubai, it's near impossible for smaller or medium-size productions to get a shooting permit if the script deals with the country's political or social context or if it involves a love story between a European and an Arab."
Among the high-profile shoots set for 2014 is Tom Tykwer's "A Hologram for the King," an adaptation of Dave Eggers' novel starring Tom Hanks as a struggling American businessman who travels to Dubai to get a fresh start. The Lotus Entertainment-repped project will lense in Casablanca, Rabat and in the desert. Debbagh will exec produce.
Debbagh has produced movies including thesp-turned-helmer Sean Gullette's "Traitors," a Tangier-set thriller playing at Marrakech Film Festival.
The enthusiasm of locals is another big plus for filmmakers, says Gullette. "In Morocco, people are extraordinarily sweet, generous and accommodating and the spirit of hospitality is very fortuitous for film productions," he says. "If you go shooting on someone's block in New York, they throw hot water at the window at you. If you shoot in in front of somebody's house in Morocco, they come out see what you're doing, if you need to run extension cord into their living room. That also means for extra casting."
Recent shoots include the following:
* Viggo Mortensen starrer "Loin des hommes," based on French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus' "Exile and the Kingdom." Produced by Once World Films and helmed by David Oelhoffem, pic takes place in a small Algerian village in the late '50s amid Algeria's war of independence from France.
* Hugo Blick's seven-part BBC series "The Honorable Woman," a thriller set in the Middle East. Maggie Gyllenhaal toplines as a woman on a perilous journey to promote a truce between Israel and the Palestinians.
* Season three of "Game of Thrones"
"Morocco's reputed for its exceptional light, the extreme diversity of its landscapes (cities, desert, mountains, snow) and architecture, its well-trained crews and its infrastructures (hotels, studios and roads)," explains one of the country's most successful helmer-producers, Nabil Ayouch, whose latest film, "Horses of God," reps Morocco in the foreign-language Oscar race.
Casablanca has passed for Baghdad or Kabul (along with other war-riddled cities) in many movies.
Noureddine Sail, a cinephile who heads up Morocco's Film Institute (CCM) and is VP of the Marrakech Film Festival, is a leading force behind the movie biz's expansion.
"Our technicians have been trained in Spain, France, Belgium and the U.S.," says Sail.
More than 60% of foreign productions shoot in the area between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, Sail adds.
Ouarzazate, a picturesque city located in the south of the country boasting one of the world's biggest studios, Atlas Film Studios, has hosted shoots from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Romancing the Stone," "Kingdom of Heaven" and, most recently, the third season of "Game of Thrones."
Morocco has, however, suffered from the economic downturn. Foreign productions brought approximately 120 million Euros ($162 million) in 2008 and then fell to $67 million in 2009 and $40 million in 2010. In 2012, 25 foreign shoots came, and this year, the figure is slightly down, with about 20 productions that brought in an estimated $35 million.
The establishment of a tax incentive is the next step.
"What we need to truly become a filming hub for overseas production and compete with countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland or even Canada is to create a tax rebate plan," says Sail. "We're working on it, but it will take time to make lawmakers understand that's it not about fiscal dumping but rather about being competitive."
Ayouch says the country also needs more high-skilled technicians, as well as actors who speak English.
On the upside, foreign producers don't pay value-added taxes, they can obtain shooting permits in record time in Morocco, and labor costs are extremely low. As Sail points out with a smile, "Ridley Scott has been here four or five times, and his producers definitely know how to count."
Scorsese is another ardent promoter of the country's assets.
The raft of foreign shoots heading to Morocco has not only benefited the country in economic terms, it's helped the local industry flourish by training below- and above-the-line crews to work on top-level productions.
"To build a strong domestic film and TV industry, we have to learn from others," says Faical Laraichi, prexy of pubcaster SNRT.
Concurs Sail, "This opens up new doors, gives us new ideas, creates jobs and training, co-production opportunities and above all transfers expertise."
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