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Africa’s new Hollywood

Marketplace Staff Jul 4, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: Alright, so you’ve made it through the ads, and now it’s time to settle in for your favorite summer blockbuster. “Superman Returns,” maybe? Or “Pirates of the Caribbean Deadman’s Chest”? Ever wonder where they’re actually shot? Here in Los Angeles you can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a movie set, but there’s another town full of swashbuckling stars. Ridley Scott made “Gladiator” there. It’s where Oliver Stone shot “Alexander.” Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Russell Crowe can’t get enough of the place. The Moroccan Sahara is turning into Africa’s Hollywood. We gave John Laurenson the tough duty of getting the scoop for us.

JOHN LAURENSON: It’s a beautiful, clear day in Ouarzazate, and from where I’m standing in one of this town’s ever-growing number of film studios, you can see clean across the desert past a medieval fortress built by Ridley Scott to the Atlas Mountains covered in snow.

The noise you can hear is the final touches being put on an avenue of ancient Egyptian sphinxes where shooting’s about to start for a movie called “Prisoner of the Sun.””Sort of ‘Indiana Jones’ meets ‘Tomb Raider’ meets ‘The Mummy,'” said the producer.

For Hassan Wahid, who’s just an onlooker this morning, it makes no difference what movie comes through as long as there’s work there for him. He’s an extra. In fact, so many producers put their sets here that this is virtually a city of extras. He’s one of 90,000 locals who make a living, albeit a meager one, from the movies.

HASSAN WAHID [interpreter]: I’ve been in a lot of films. “The Bible,””Asterix & Cleopatra,””Sahara,””Gladiator,” . . . It’s a real thrill when you get to work alongside Penelope Cruz or Russell Crowe. But the pay’s not great. $20 a day. It’s not much when you consider that we often work from 3 in the morning till midnight.

Playing in so many historical dramas can make you quite an expert. The extras — who have performed in so many movies about ancient times in the Middle East — once held up production to lecture a director about exactly how a stoning was properly done in ancient Israel. And it’s not just free tips on period detail, shooting here instead of Hollywood can cut costs in half. Producers say they save with low-cost extras, set-builders and technicians, cheap hotels, food and transport — not to mention recycling sets.

GEOFF AUSTIN: For our 50p budget we’re being able to make a multi-million dollar picture.

Geoff Austin is the producer of Prisoner of the Sun:

AUSTIN: This country has a wonderful heritage of films and thankfully they’ve left a lot of their sets behind, which us on smaller budgets have been able to utilize, plus the incredible backgrounds . . . I mean there’s lunar landscapes, you could be on Mars, you could be anywhere you wish to create a set for.

Most of the time, though, it’s the Middle East. Or rather, as in Ridley Scott’s latest epic, “Kingdom of Heaven,” the Holy Land. For really big productions like this one, there are also special favors from Morocco’s king.

He sends Hollywood productions battalions of his soldiers to move gear and play as extras, military hardware of all shapes and sizes, even thoroughbreds from the royal stables. In return, the country is seenand admired around the world. And makes a good bit of money. The Moroccan Film Board says foreign shoots should bring in some $140 million in 2006.

A young team of Moroccan film technicians-in-the-making move into action as the clapper-board snaps at Ouarzazate’s brand new, Italian-sponsored film school. Its director says he wants his students to do the jobs that, at the moment, people are being flown in from Europe and America to do.

THAMI HAJJAJ [interpreter]: The idea behind this school is to produce Moroccan technicians(photographic directors, soundmen, camera operators, etc.) who can work on the foreign productions that areshot here. They can also bring their skills to Morocco’s own film industry which is also thriving.

Some 30 movies — half foreign, half Moroccan — are now being shot in this country each year. Moroccan officials have approached studio execs about making Ouarzazate a kind Hollywood East. That prospect hasn’t been greenlighted yet, but like any starlet in waiting, this town figures its just a matter of time before it gets its big break.

In Ouarzazate, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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