Jordan hopes to become major filming destination
Amman - Who can forget the magnificent setting and views in Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole and Egyptian-born Omar Sharif? This movie, widely hailed as one of the greatest films, was shot in Aqaba, a Jordanian coastal city on the north-eastern tip of the Red Sea, and its surrounding desert landscape.
Those too young to remember that masterpiece can recall the Transformer Bumblebee zipping through the streets of Amman or witness a character in the The Martian, Ridley Scott’s upcoming film, traversing Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, 60 kilometres east of Aqaba.
During filming of The Martian, Scott, an Academy Award-nominee who was knighted in 2003 for his contribution to the British film industry, said he felt totally at ease in Jordan.
He described the Jordanian crew working with him as “fast thinkers and fast workers” and said Wadi Rum deserves to be named the eighth wonder of the world. “I think it is perfect here and I’m very happy,” he said during the shooting of his movie. Other well-known movies –Red Planet by Anthony Hoffman, The Last Days on Mars by Ruairi Robinson and Mission to Mars by Brian De Palma – have used the same terrain as a stand-in for Mars.
Jordan has had a long history as a movie-friendly destination, starting in 1957 with Struggle in Jerash, but the local film industry has felt the brunt of regional tension, the worldwide economic slowdown and tough competition.
The government has tried to offset these pressures by offering financial incentives to lure filmmakers, according to the Royal Film Commission of Jordan (RFC). Incentives include value-added tax and customs exemptions as well as those on income tax for foreign crew members.
“Instability in the region has affected the industry, as insurance companies have been reluctant to issue completion guarantees for films shot in the kingdom,” RFC General Manager George David, who has been on the job since 2005, said.
“We lost several projects in the last six months but we have also had major projects such as Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, Karbala by Krzysztof Lukaszewicz and Curse of Mesopotamia by Lauand Omar.”
The Martian, which stars Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, is expected to be released September 30th in the United Kingdom and October 2nd in the United States.
“We are working with the government to authorise bigger incentives because competition from regional powerhouse like Morocco, the UAE, Malta, Spain, South Africa, Tunisia and Lebanon is cutting away at the country’s potential,” David said.
“The return on investment is large and we need to find a way to attract more crews.”
The kingdom’s tourism sector, ravaged by regional upheavals, and its economy, straining under a record debt of $30 billion, are helped by the money the film industry generates, either directly or indirectly, according to David.
“The film industry has created more than 8,000 jobs in the past seven years and, from 2007 until today, almost $140 million was spent in Jordan,” he said. “This makes it, without doubt, one of the most important industries that is beneficial to many different sectors: hotels, restaurants, car rental companies, travel agencies and on and on, trickling down the line.
“When a movie is shot in Jordan, around $140,000 a day is spent while production is going on. And it doesn’t end there.”
The tourism industry is just one of the sectors that benefits. “You have millions of people seeing various locations in the kingdom through the big screen and on their TV screens or even on their mobiles and it encourages the viewer to come and visit the country,” David explained. He said the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and India are among the top countries that have chosen Jordan as a film destination.
Six films have been shot since the beginning of 2015 and two others are scheduled to be shot between September and November in Jordan, David noted. USA Today recently ranked the rose-red famed city of Petra as the world’s second best cinematic destination, preceded only by Scotland.
The Nabataean city is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Describing Petra’s filming location as one “difficult to replicate” despite all the available modern technology, Sharif Majali, RFC’s production services manager, said the city’s unique architecture is its most distinctive feature. In 1989, Steven Spielberg filmed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, starring Harrison Ford, and in 2009 Michael Bay shot scenes for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at the city carved in stone.
“Wherever you point your camera, the result is art on the screen,” Majali said. Besides the landscape that can change from desert to beach within a 30-minute drive, Jordan has biblical and archaeological sites as well as safety and stability unmatched in a turbulent region, he noted. Films can benefit from the commission’s services at no cost, Majali explained.
RFC coordinates all government-related inquiries, from handling customs to allow equipment in with no customs fees, to arranging for police presence, to dealing with the army and security apparatus, if the film requires it. “We also offer free filming in public locations,” he added.
Majali said Jordan has enough skilled crew members for the country to meet the needs of three productions at the same time.
“We need to continue promoting the kingdom as a safe haven with highly professional and competent production crews,” he said.