Colombia says it's ready to play host


MEXICO CITY -- There was a time when Colombia's high murder and kidnapping rates made it nearly impossible to attract foreign shoots. Yet in recent years, as the government has cracked down on violent crime, the nation has seen a boom in runaway film and TV production.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos understands the security concerns of foreign shingles looking to shoot in Colombia. After all, in 1990 the former newspaper editor was kidnapped and held hostage for eight months by the Medellin cartel, led by the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

"There are a lot of people obviously with apprehension," Santos says. "But the dramatic changes (in crime reduction) have put Colombia on the map with all kinds of investors, and that obviously includes the possibility of TV and filmmaking."

Though some opposition groups have criticized the government's hard-line crime-fighting tactics, the bottom line is that Colombia has become a much safer place over the past five years -- and consequently, a more appealing location for runaway production.

When Santos got word last year that Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera" was initially going to be filmed in Brazil, he immediately contacted producer Scott Steindorff to ask him if he would consider shooting the picture in Colombia, where the original Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel is set.

Steindorff reluctantly accepted after Santos offered "guaranteed security" for the cast and crew.

"They were so scared, but we convinced them," Santos says.

The shoot went so well that Steindorff is looking at possibly doing other films in Colombia.

What's more, "Cholera" generated $15 million for the local economy and created thousands of jobs, according to film financing agency Proimagenes en Movimiento.

Next year, director Antoine Fuqua will begin shooting "Escobar" in Colombia, a J2 Pictures-produced biopic about the late drug lord Escobar. Oliver Stone is executive producing.

Also slated for next year is the Costa Rica-Colombia co-production "Del Amor y Otros Demonios" (Of Love and Other Demons), a drama based on the Garcia Marquez novel of the same name.

At the AFCI Trade Locations Show in Santa Monica next year, Colombia will officially unveil its newly created national film commission as it looks to facilitate foreign production.

"We have the opportunity now to not only export our films but also to sell Colombia as a location," Proimagenes director Claudia Triana de Vargas says.

International television producers also are feeling much more comfortable in Colombia these days.

Fox International Channels, under its newly formed production partnership Fox Telecolombia, plans to produce 500-1,000 hours of scripted content in Colombia during the next three years. It was there where Fox recently produced suspense series "Tiempo Final," its first major production in Latin America. So far, it has drawn exceptionally strong pan-regional ratings.

Another key player, Sony Pictures Television International, sees Colombia as an important market as it boosts production in Latin America. SPTI's current projects in preproduction for Colombian broadcaster RCN include the comedy series "Aqui No Hay Quien Viva" and the game show "Power of 10."

Brendan Fitzgerald, SPTI's senior vp international production for Latin America, believes the perception that Colombian cities are too dangerous is greatly exaggerated.

"There is street crime, but I personally feel very safe in Colombia and would rank it near the very top when considering availability of writing, acting and directing talent, set design and construction, and overall organization and value for the money," he says.

SPTI also co-produced the Colombian telenovela "Zorro: La Espada y la Rosa," which bowed on U.S. Spanish-language network Telemundo earlier this year.

Telemundo has seen significant growth in Colombia since it began producing there six years ago. Patricio Wills, president of Miami-based Telemundo Television Studios, expects the company to churn out about 400 hours of content at its studio facilities in Colombia next year.

In September, Colombia will issue a broadcast license for a third national network. The auction for the new private channel has drawn interest from top international players, including Mexican media giant Televisa, Spain's Grupo Prisa and publishing company Planeta. Also in the mix is Telemundo's Colombian production partner RTI.

Santos acknowledges that U.S. State Department travel warnings have hurt runaway production opportunities in Colombia. Yet he says new doors open every time a foreign producer walks away with a positive experience. "The reality is quite different now than what is was five years ago," he says.