Will Hollywood Embrace Cuba as a Shooting Location?

Ernesto Melara

Obama's decision to re-engage the nation will open the door to pristine locations and cheap labor, but filmmakers eager to shoot there can expect restrictions and red tape

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

When President Obama on Dec. 17 proposed easing 50 years of restrictions on Americans who want to visit and do business in Cuba, the socialist nation stood to join neighbors such as the Virgin Islands, Bahamas and the Dominican Republic as a popular destination for Hollywood productions in search of historic architecture, good weather and pristine locations. But even relaxed restrictions on banking, travel and telecommunications would leave significant obstacles to overcome before the island nation could become Hollywood in the Caribbean.

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Bob Yari, the only American to direct a feature in Cuba in generations — the recently wrapped Papa, a period story about Ernest Hemingway at the time of the Cuban revolution — says filmmakers still must obtain clearances from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which acts for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. "That was very difficult and took a lot of time," says Yari.

And like anyone who wants to shoot in Cuba, Yari had to partner with Canada-based Cuba Film Productions, which serves as a liaison. Says Bruce Donnelly, who last year directed the documentary Alumbrones, about visual artists in Cuba: "[CFP] helped facilitate everything. But we had to make clear what the nature of the film was."

A Cuban Film Commission spokesman who asked to remain anonymous tells THR that despite the shift in policy, filmmakers still will encounter a detailed application process, and content will be a consideration: "All projects and scripts do get screened for content that would be considered extremely morally offensive, subversive or undermine the political or social values of society."

Read more Hemingway Biopic 'Papa' First Hollywood Feature Film Shot in Cuba in 45 Years

Nancy Haecker, a location manager who has made several trips to Cuba, says in addition to getting approval from government bureaucrats, filmmakers shooting in Cuba will find little infrastructure. "They don't have equipment to handle larger productions. Semi trucks of grip equipment, lighting and movie trailers would all have to come from Miami."

Still, there are clear advantages to shooting in Cuba. In addition to plenty of little-seen historic locations (not to mention all those classic American cars that would cost a fortune to rent elsewhere), the exchange rate is roughly equal with the U.S., and prices for food, housing, local transport and labor are extremely low. And perhaps most important: Cuba wants the business.

Says Michael Pacino, an executive producer with CFP: "American productions have always been welcome here in Cuba, to a large degree. However, because of the embargo, getting funds into Cuba on approved projects has been problematic. This shift in policy will definitely help."

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