When Africa is Ohio: lessons in Hollywood geography

To attract movie producers, North Carolina pretends to be Boston, andAustralia shoots for the moon.

Producer William Balch needs to go to the moon and he needs to do it now. He's making a movie, "Camp Comfort," about a lunar penal colony in AD 2160.

Instead of talking NASA down on its rates (or figuring how to get civilians on a shuttle), he came to Locations 99, a beauty parade of the most spectacular, unusual, and downright dirty spots on earth auditioning to be the backdrop for somebody's next movie.

Here, film commissions from more than 300 cities, states, and countries gather every year for the trade show to show off their skylines and countrysides while thousands of producers and location scouts hustle round admiring and considering such important questions as: Do I really need London, Boston, or a Bavarian forest for my film?

If the answer is yes, then Canada, North Carolina, and Australia, respectively, are your tickets there. In fact, to hear the Canadian film commissioner tell it, Quebec can stand in for just about any European city, for far less money and with much more local, trained technical support on hand.

The frenzy to lure Hollywood from its regular back lots is escalating as cities try to get a bite of the $30 billion entertainment pie. For producers, location shoots offer the perfect shot at cheaper rates. "We all wander through this place with questions in our heads like, can I really double Charlotte for New York?" laughs producer Lee Gluckman, who has come to every show for 14 years searching for spots that will appeal both to his creative vision and his pocketbook.

Frank Capra Jr. runs the largest studio outside of L.A. in Wilmington, N.C. He says the region is a shoo-in for any city in the Northeast and he rattles off a list of "New England" movies that were shot in his backyard: "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Billy Bathgate," "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

According to this namesake of a film legend, there are compelling reasons for films to shoot outside Los Angeles and the first three are cost, cost, and cost. "We have a huge base of technical staff in the area," Mr. Capra points out, saying that this pool of talent allows a film with a modest budget to trim costs by leaving L.A. without having to import an entire film crew.

If Germany is what you must have, look no farther than - Australia. While the 17-hour flight may sound far more costly than the 10 hours between Germany and L.A., there are other issues to consider. These include cheaper labor costs, a larger pool of local grips and gaffers, tasty tax incentives, payment deferrals, fast tracks on permits, more enthusiastic official support.

Bruce Ready from the South Australian Film Commission points out that the region's Barossa Valley, chock full of vintage buildings and streets, has played Germany in many films and TV shows, even hosting the ongoing series, "Aaron's Way."

An amble through the smaller booths reveals that size may be in inverse proportion to dreams. Take for instance, Ohio. Plastered all over its colorful booth are pictures of the Swiss countryside, old German towns ... giraffes. Indeed, "The Wilds," a five-year-old state-supported development of African wildlife in southwestern Ohio, offers Kenyan vistas at Cleveland prices.

If the vistas and technical perks don't do it, well, Wyoming has hauled in a grizzly to make its case. Teton Totem, puttering away in his cage, was there as a taste of the sort of trained wildlife the state can offer a film.

Locales with what their PR people call "new opportunities" must be creative in their presentations. Take the Philippines, with the former US military base at Subic Bay. Today, it is an industrial park, as gritty and sterile as any in the US. The country's film commission is eager to offer the bay as a "cheap alternative to filming in Singapore."

The show even offers politically correct answers to pointed questions. Over at the Mexican booth, where mountainous Shangri-Las shimmer on their walls, a country-proud agent doesn't miss a beat when asked, "What about the stories of corrupt police?" Not to worry, we are told. All that is changing, and besides, the police are there to protect the tourists.

As for producer Balch, he found the spot for his futuristic prison flick: Coober Pedy, a desert town in Australia, appears to have won the bid. And why not? If Canada can be France, then Coober Pedy can be the moon. Dreams are what movies are for, after all.

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