Treasure island


Looking through James Bond's eyes at the Bahamas -- Agent 007's locale of choice for six films -- all one can see are miles of blue-glass sea and smooth white beaches made for bedding perfect women in microscopic bikinis.

The Bahamas' idyllic charms, a mere 50 miles from the U.S. mainland, have long been a siren call to Hollywood, luring big moneymakers like 2006's "Casino Royale" and two of the three installments in Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

Lately, though, there's been trouble in paradise. The Bahamas Film Studios, the linchpin of the islands' fledgling film industry, is struggling to recover from its own financial woes as well as a trail of damage and unpaid bills allegedly left behind by the Walt Disney Co. after the 10-month "Pirates" shoot wrapped in February 2006. Both "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End," which were filmed simultaneously, used a $10 million tank, built to the productions' specifications, at the BFS.

The tank was heralded as the first phase of a planned $75 million production studio and movie-based theme park on a decommissioned U.S. Air Force missile base on Grand Bahama Island that would eventually include two soundstages, a state-of-the-art studio, maintenance shops for costumes and props, a film school and a Bahamian cultural village.

But the project, launched by Gold Rock Creek Enterprises, was undercapitalized from the start and hobbled by the deaths of both of its major founding investors in 2004, says Ross Fuller, chairman of parent company Ashby Corp. Fuller had hoped that the deal with Disney would get the facility on its feet, but the studio left the site unusable instead, he says.

Fuller has accused Disney of plundering half a million dollars worth of hydraulic equipment, damaging paved areas and leaving behind $250,000 worth of unpaid bills for electricity, phones and security, and a year ago, Ashby filed suit against Disney in the Bahamas for recovery of unpaid bills. He even obtained a lien against the pirate ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, which is docked at a Disney-owned island in the Bahamas.

"They really left a mess," Fuller says. "They decimated the tank. It put us back over a year. Then they had the brazenness to not give us credit on the movie, which was part of our contract."

A Disney spokesman declined comment, saying the studio hadn't seen the lawsuit.
Bahamas film commissioner Craig Woods calls the dispute a private matter. "I don't see any adverse effect to future filming in the Bahamas, as both parties have been professional about the situation, keeping all communications in-house and above board," he says.

But for most major productions, filming in the Bahamas has been a positive experience. "Casino Royale" executive producer Anthony Waye praises the government for being attentive to the film's special needs. "We had tremendous cooperation all around from the police, customs, the film commission," he says. Before filming began, Wood arranged a meeting at the British Colonial Hilton between the producers and the chief of customs and police commissioners. Later, a police escort was provided for some unusual cast members arriving at the airport -- several cobras and ferrets that needed speedy clearance from the Ministry of Agriculture.

That spirit of cooperation has gone a long way in attracting major productions to the Bahamas. One thing that remains out of the government's control, however, is the weather. The Bahamian film industry is still living with the memory of Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, which whipped up winds as strong as 185 miles an hour -- making headlines as one of the top five costliest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Wilma caused $100 million worth of damage to Grand Bahama Island, a staggering sum that continues to frighten off major studio productions, according to Woods.

"In the last few years, some production companies don't want to shoot where a hurricane could take place," he says. "Insurance companies aren't providing insurance. They're doing it at their own risk. So, it can be three months where a hurricane may not happen, but who's going to roll those dice?"

As it happens, Warner Bros. Pictures' planned 2008 release "Fool's Gold," the first big studio production to film in the Bahamas since "Casino" wrapped in March 2006, logged 10 days there in April to escape bad weather in New Zealand. And smaller films and commercials that are lighter on their feet are continuing to flock to the Bahamas with some regularity.

"Our main business is commercial shoots," Woods says. "They shoot all the time because their window is so short. They can be in and out by the time they track a storm five days away."

Husband-and-wife team, writer-director Stewart Raffill and producer Diane Kirman, spent five weeks in the islands this spring shooting "Sirens of Eleuthera," a low-budget thriller starring James Brolin. Kirman says the couple became smitten with the Bahamas when they filmed "Survival Island," an action-adventure movie starring Billy Zane that was broadcast on Showtime last year, and they're trying to get financing for a third feature-film project that will be set in the islands.

"I'm a fan of the Bahamas, 101%," she says. "There is island time, and you can't be in a rush. You hit here with the pace of L.A. or New York, and you have to adjust. Things happen here at a different pace, but they do happen."

That's thanks in part to the islands' energetic film commission. Mindful of the promotional value of widescreen views of shimmering seas, the 12-person office under the Ministry of Tourism smoothes rough waters for filmmakers faced with customs and permitting hurdles -- not to mention unexpected problems that might occur.

For instance, Kirman says Woods came to the rescue when a gun on the set of "Sirens" misfired. A replacement would have been difficult to find because the Bahamas firearms amnesty has reduced the number of weapons available in the country.
"Craig had one flown in from Nassau for us within an hour," Kirman says. "He's very responsive to filming needs. As much as I say it's island time, if you tell Craig, 'I need it to happen now,' Craig understands, and he makes it happen instantly."

In addition to providing direct assistance to filmmakers, the film commission is trying to nurture the development of a local infrastructure to support foreign productions. The Bahamas introduced a 17% rebate on money spent in the islands, provided that a production hires a minimum of eight locals as apprentice grips, cameramen, wardrobe, hair-and-makeup personnel and the like.

Kirman says the policy already has raised the skill level among the populace. While the duo brought in their own crew for "Survival," the entire prop department for "Sirens" is Bahamian, as are a third of the people working on the production. "We had to hire skilled people, and they're starting to get some good crews here," she says.

A bill that would codify the rebate incentive in law is expected to go before parliament this summer.

Even with the rebate incentive taking off, the Bahamas still needs to overcome its intrinsic limitation as a film location. Yes, the islands offer pristine waters and colonial architecture -- but not much else. Gold Rock Creek Enterprises, which signed a 50-year lease on government land when it was created to shepherd the project five years ago, had drawn up ambitious plans for the BFS, but only the tank was completed.

Fuller, who also is CEO of Nashville-based investment firm Stockton, Fuller & Co., says he's still pursuing the $80 million it will take to complete the project, now estimated to cost $100 million. He says Gold Rock Creek is "poised to take on some new investment" and anticipates leasing the tank to two films that await greenlighting.

He adds that the company is discussing a possible joint venture with a theme-park developer, and Fuller also says he hopes to be able to build a film school that would be the cornerstone of an emerging local industry "to develop an indigenous film industry in the Bahamas, which we believe has a bright future."

Indeed, the first full-length indigenous feature wrapped earlier this year. Bahamas native Maria Govan wrote and co-directed "Rain," a mother-daughter drama with a local and international cast headed by CCH Pounder and Irma P. Hall. The $1 million movie shot for four weeks in Eleuthra and New Providence, Nassau, as well as New York.

"It's exciting that someone is telling the Bahamian story because we've got some wonderful stories," Woods says.

Treasure island: Hollywood's biggest franchises film in the Bahamas
Bahamas bliss: Cove Atlantis attracts star power