All the world's a (sound) stage

A record number of locales are wooing Hollywood with cheaper stand-ins for places like the Rockies or even L.A.

Superman is America's storybook hero, which would make his hometown of Smallville just about the most American place on earth. But for "Superman Returns," filmmakers eschewed the wide-open plains of the Midwestern heartland, instead traveling thousands of miles to a tiny Australian town named Tamworth, 250 miles from Sydney. On 500 acres of open land, the crew created Superman's boyhood farm, complete with a new crop of corn.

Hollywood has been doing this kind of filmic sleight of hand since Day 1, when D.W. Griffith shot his "Birth of a Nation" in the city's all-purpose back lot, the urban Griffith Park (not named for the director). These days, as movies have gotten more expensive, the practice has gone global. Producers in search of a French subway for a deodorant commercial found a look-alike substitute in Argentina, while a Miracle Whip ad turned a deserted Romanian gulag into a "wholesome" American prison.

Consequently, an industry devoted to providing alternative locations has blossomed around the globe, says Bill Lindstrom, CEO of the nonprofit Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI). "It's grown enormously in the past 20 years," he says, adding that this year, its 21st Locations Trade Show in Santa Monica, Calif., brought in more than 260 exhibitors from more than 30 countries – a record high.

When it comes to finding the poor-man's version of an alien planet or the sewers of New York City, Harry Tracosas, president of Global Production Network, is one of Hollywood's top go-to guys. There are very few locales he can't "double," or imitate, for less money and hassle than the real thing. With personal contacts everywhere from Croatia to Vietnam to Chile, as well as nearly three decades in the business, Mr. Tracosas says he recalls only a single order he couldn't fill: snow in late spring. "A cereal company needed real snow on a real ski jump in the middle of May," he says. "It was too late for Europe and too early for South America. They had to wait till later."

In the post-"Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" world of computer-generated universes, it may seem hard to believe that a director still has to wait for Mother Nature. But putting actors in real deserts or on real glaciers is often cheaper and faster than building a set or animating them in a computer.

The list of countries hoping to sell producers on their scenery grows every year, says Mr. Lindstrom. New film commissions this year include the Isle of France (in Paris); County Wicklow from Ireland; Thailand; Baton Rouge, La.; and Puerto Rico. Their job is to hawk their locales like street vendors, pitching everything from the Limoneira Company, a privately owned ranch in California (great for westerns!) to entire countries like South Africa (great for everything!).

The AFCI is not encouraging production to leave southern California, adds Lindstrom, addressing Hollywood's concern over so-called "runaway production" (those leaving the state for cheaper destinations). He points out that the biggest single contingent at this year's convention was from the state of California. But, in what is certainly an unintended irony, a recent coup being touted by the South African delegation is the film "Ask the Dust" starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, which was shot in Cape Town. The story setting? Los Angeles circa the 1930s.

Like most other locales trying to draw productions to their doors, South Africa offers significant financial advantages, including an educated, nonunion labor pool working at around half the cost of the US; tax breaks; and rebates. A map of the nation shows a handful of possible doubles, with arrows that say "Canadian Rockies," (mountains), "South of France" (beaches), "Bahamas" (pretty beaches), "Hong Kong Harbour" (port), "London," and "Downtown L.A." (cities).

Still, there are challenges to going abroad, cautions Tracosas. When shooting in emerging countries – as PBS did recently by using the rugged hillsides of Chile to stand in for Italy – roads and bridges, not to mention power supplies, may be spotty. Cultural differences present challenges as well. "Urgency is sometimes a hard concept to communicate in other languages," Tracosas says with a laugh.

Einar Tømasson of the Film in Iceland Agency knows that all too well. He recalls an occasion when his group had arranged to fly an Inuit actor, who lived in Denmark, for a three-day commercial shoot atop a glacier in Iceland.

The day arrived, but the actor did not. After many delays, Mr. Tømasson's team dispatched a chaperon to escort him. "We managed to get the shoot done," says Tømasson, "although it was pretty hairy being up on a glacier with a film crew of 60 people and no star." Afterward, they discovered the real reason for their star's recalcitrance. "He didn't want to leave his wife," says Tømasson, "and, frankly, he couldn't care less about Hollywood."

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