Fantastic filming opportunities lie south of U.S. borders. Some countries need to solidify their reputation as top-notch locations while others continue to build impressive resumes. Let’s find out which Latin American countries are grabbing the location spotlight these days.
In response to the overwhelming interest of international film productions seeking to film in Panama, the Panamanian Ministry of Commerce and Industry created the Panama Film Commission to promote and facilitate the film industry and give television and movie producers and directors the support and benefits needed to aid new opportunities.
With the enactment of Law No. 36 ─ the Cinematographic and Audiovisual Law ─ Panama can now provide tax incentives, low labor costs, and custom and immigration benefits, along with additional incentives designated for the development of Panama’s film industry. Law No. 36 was enacted not only to promote the growth of Panama’s own film industry, but also as a mechanism to aid and protect foreign film productions while filming within Panamanian borders.
“The Panama Film Law No. 36 was passed to establish regulations and offer special incentives and benefit to those interested in any type of film productions,” says Monica Planas, communications coordinator of the Panama Film Commission. “Special requirements include tax, customs and immigration incentives. Temporary production incentives include immigration visas and labor licenses for temporary foreign employees of the cinematographic industry. [The] temporary import of all equipment is tax-free and there is no payroll tax.”
Additional Panamanian incentives include film and studio facilities incentives, and benefits include tax exemptions on all customs duties for equipment and machinery; special labor and residence permits for investors; and “special economic areas” for the development of the film industry established by Law No. 25 (Law for Export Processing Zones). “This law refers to the establishment and development of Export Processing Zones (EPZ) within the country,” Planas explains. “EPZs are well-defined areas for establishing industrial, commercial and service facilities, for operation in a free-trade system. All or most of the production must be intended for export. A range of incentives has been established to attract companies into the EPZs.
“Companies establishing operations in an EPZ are offered the following benefits: exemption from taxes, duties and other charges related to the importation of machinery, equipment, raw materials, semi-processed goods and other materials, such as packaging, fuel and lubricants used in the manufacturing process; exemption from income tax on profits arising from exports; and exemption from export sales taxes, as well as from taxes on capital and assets of the export industry,” Planas adds. “The EPZ law also includes specific labor and immigration provisions for employees of EPZ firms, which are more favorable than the current Panamanian Labor Code.”
Panama even goes one step further than its Latin counterparts: it has designed Law 41, a unique incentive that makes a tantalizing offer to companies interested in opening permanent film facilities in Panama. According to Planas, Panama has developed the Media Village, which will offer optimum infrastructure for the filming industry. “[It] will be integrated in the Panama Pacific Special Economic Area at the former Howard Air Force Base to be developed by U.K. developer, London & Regional,” she says. “A single onsite government office fast-tracks the process of establishing a business in the area. This ‘one-stop shop’ streamlines [the] coordination of 15 government offices into one location, including all visas and work benefits. This saves considerable time and money for companies.”
Specific tax benefits, as listed in Tax Law 41, include exemption from import duties (with the exception of goods sold within Panama); income-tax exemption for specific business activities; VAT/ITMBS (sales-tax) exemption for specific business activities; dividend-tax exemption for specific business activities; exemptions from withholding tax on interest income (for companies in the area and on payments made to foreign creditors); exemption from license taxes; exemptions from real-estate property taxes; municipal-tax stability guaranteed for 10 years from date of registry; exemption from withholding tax on royalties paid to foreigners for specific business activities; exemption from capital-gains tax on company stock transfer; exemption from stamp tax; and exemption from the Special Interests Compensation Fund (FECI), if the loan is for foreign operations financing.
Moreover, the Law 41 provides for additional labor and immigration benefits. Labor benefits include a 25-percent fix surcharge for overtime, and negotiable weekly rest and vacation days. It also gives companies the option to remain open on Sundays and holidays. Another advantage Panama has anticipated and prepared for are the fluctuations in market conditions or demands that will allow for labor contract terminations. Lastly, the law makes a 15-percent allowance for the foreign workforce, with exemptions made for additional hires that train Panamanians. Immigration benefits include five-year ordinary work visas; three-to-five-year special visas; five-year investor visas, with an investment of $250,000; family visas that extend to spouses, dependants and financially dependant parents; and tax-free import of up to $100,000 on personal items.
Film productions will not be hard-pressed to find diverse film locations throughout Panama’s 30,000-plus square miles of terrain. “Panama is popular for its Caribbean beaches, islands, rainforests and old quarters,” Planas says of the industry’s current demand. “We are currently handling a marketing plan that exposes a wide range of other scenarios available in Panama. Panama is attractive because of its convenience, accessibility and diversity. Locations are all closely accessible in short time by land or air. [It’s] convenient because you can be sure to find hotels, shops, markets, etc. to fulfill every crew’s needs, and diverse because a wide range of scenarios are found in Panama, from volcanic settings, jungles, rainforests, pristine beaches, islands, deserts and a cosmopolitan skyline.
“Because we are fairly new but have experienced an important peak in the industry, our costs are very competitive to those countries offering incentives,” adds Planas. “Panama is much like the U.S. As the North American bases [have been] established in Panama for more than 100 years, we use the U.S. dollar; most Panamanians speak English as a second language; our economic and political stability sets us apart from all Latin American countries; we are the known as the ‘Hub of the Americas’ because we hold the region’s most modern flight-connectivity platform; we are home to the world’s second-largest free zone; and we hold the region’s largest and most complete banking center with an estimated presence of 93 international banks. We have year-round tropical climate, no hurricanes or natural disasters, our strategic location makes us accessible from any part of the world and we have a world-class telecommunications platform.”
At first glance, filming in Panama may seem a bit laborsome due to the complexities of the county’s specific requirements, regulations and laws, but Panama’s film industry has shown to be a truly “user friendly” industry. “The Panama Film Commission offers unconditional and personalized assistance to all foreign production before, during and after the filming process,” Planas says.
In order to receive Panama’s filming benefits and incentives, production companies must first register with the Panama Film Commission. Panama makes this task easy by providing aid to foreign productions –– filmmakers can access production needs before even setting one foot on Panamanian soil! All of Panama’s registration and filming requirements and a copy of Panama’s Production Guide Book can easily be found at the Panama Film Commission website.
According to the National Chamber of the Cinematographic Film Industry, Mexico ranks 13th worldwide in box office revenue, having brought in a whopping $342 million in 2008 alone. The country continues moving toward the forefront on the world stage.
Mexico has much to offer foreign filmmakers looking to utilize the country’s natural beauty and homegrown talent. According to Carla Raygoza of the Mexican Film Commission, Mexico’s diverse landscape has attracted filmmakers worldwide and productions of all kinds, “from major Hollywood studio productions to independent films [of] different genres, such as comedy, drama, action/adventure, thrillers, children’s themes, sci-fi, different settings and periods ─ like doubling for Cuba in the 1950s, Colombia in the 1980s, Iraq in the 1990s, Israel in present day, Spain in present day, fictitious futuristic cities and, of course, Mexico often plays as itself, mostly in present day,” says Raygoza. “What sets apart Mexico from the rest of Latin America is the fact that our country [has a] talented and experienced crew ─ both above and below the line ─ [that is] one of the best in the world.”
According to Raygoza, Mexico has two film studios and one under construction, several individual sound stages, equipment rental companies with state-of-the-art equipment, a film stock supplier, postproduction facilities, a growing but strong animation community and VFX companies.
Filmmakers are encouraged to explore Mexico’s diverse landscape, which accommodates beach shoots, mountains, deserts and jungles. According to Raygoza, the country’s varied architecture includes modern, colonial and “typically Mexican” structures.
Among Mexico’s film production incentives is a 15-percent federal-tax incentive for productions that shoot throughout most of Mexico, with a slightly reduced 10-percent federal-tax incentive for Mexican border towns. Both incentives operate as a 100-percent rebate on Value Added Taxes paid to the Mexican government.
Raygoza credits the United States for impacting the Mexican film industry on two levels. “The first being the direct economic impact [of] films such as Titanic, Troy and Apocalypto have had in situ. Those productions and others similar in budget have helped develop the local economies of the communities where they have worked,” she explains. In particular, Raygoza cites the best example: “The small northern town of Rosarito in Baja, California [is] where a studio complex was built for shooting Titanic, and it stayed for future productions.”
Raygoza adds that the most important impact the U.S. has made has been training Mexican crews. “The training and skills they acquired on all the U.S. films shot in Mexico have helped boost Mexico’s own cinema, [and they’re now] directors, producers, directors of photography, gaffers, production designers, etc.,” she notes. “Mexico’s film industry has reached a high level of quality; training has definitely played a role.”
“Love in the Time of Cholera put Colombia back on the international film industry map,” says Felipe Aljure of Shoot Colombia. The country is now preparing to welcome productions for the upcoming films Broken Kingdom and Cartagena. In addition to features, big-name companies, such as Fox, Sony and Disney, have also set up operations in Colombia, along with the Fox TV series “Mental,” which is set in L.A. but is shot in Bogotá. And, according to Aljure, many of the soap operas marketed to the Latin market are also shot in Colombia.
According to the Colombian Film Commission, Colombia currently offers a 42-percent film incentive only for local films. Furthermore, certain Colombian co-producers working in association with foreign producers shall be eligible for incentives included in Colombian film legislation. Additional details may be obtained from the Columbian Film Commission.
Aljure notes that legislation has been written and is currently making its way through Congress that allows incentives for foreign productions. “Filming in Colombia is still up to 20-percent cheaper than any country in our region, plus the fact that six months ago, one dollar just bought 1.7 [Columbian pesos] and now that same dollar buys 2.35,” he explains. Aljure also mentions that RNC Production Services ─ Latin America’s leading broadcaster ─ will soon be building a state-of-the-art film facility in Colombia.
“Our climate doesn't have any seasons, so it is there 365 days a year since we are just above the equator line [sic]; [and] we are not hit by hurricanes, although we have massive shores to the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean,” Aljure notes. The country also offers the Caribbean, the Capital and the coffee zone –– you’ll find deserts, mountains, snow, seas, islands, the Andes, jungles, modern cities and historical architecture, all within a 400-kilometer drive to international airports and accommodations. All this makes filming in Colombia a unique experience unlike any other Latin American country.
Brazil conjures images of scantily dressed women and the festive sights and sounds of Carnival, but the country wants the world to get to know its serious side too. “Brazil is a continental country with an extraordinary diversity of unique locations that is yet to be fully explored,” says Cristina Becker of the Rio de Janeiro Film Commission. “Our local film community is very sophisticated and knowledgeable. Brazil’s multicultural background ─ one of the most ethnically diverse in the world ─ is an asset offering friendly, flexible and creative people. [Filmmakers] are attracted not only by beautiful landscapes, unique beaches and the tropical environment, but also by the potential of the Brazilian market.”
The increase in film productions flocking to Brazil is credited to the country’s natural beauty, its dedication to the film industry and its continuing drive to implement more and more attractive filming incentives. “Providing incentives to attract additional investment is always one of the main goals of the Brazilian government,” says Becker. “State governments, when offered the opportunity to house major companies, can provide specific incentives in order to stimulate the local industry.”
Brazil currently has the Audiovisual Law in place, which is a tax incentive that, according to Becker, allows two ways to invest in a film. “Through Article 1, any company based in Brazil can invest part of its tax liability in local film productions. Article 3 focuses on foreign distributors, who can use part of their owed taxes toward local productions,” explains Becker. Foreign producers cannot apply directly for funding through the two systems, but they can be co-producers of pictures already tapping the incentives. To apply, producers must present a project to the National Cinema Agency (Ancine) with a package that includes the script, a budget and other specifics.
“The State Government recognizes film among its priority sectors. To this end, the Secretary of Culture has developed an ambitious program ─ Rio Audiovisual ─ that offers a range of initiatives designed to stimulate the local industry by implementing new incentive funds with high impact among national producers,” Becker adds. “The program includes direct resources in the next two years, ranging from capacity building, investment programs, innovative finance options and tax incentives.”
Among other things, Brazil offers a strong local crew base and infrastructure. “The Brazilian film community is very sophisticated and most of its key professionals are based in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, although it is possible to identify qualified professionals in other cities, which reflects the range of films that are being shot recently in the country,” says Becker. “Recent productions include The Incredible Hulk, The Expendables [in] Rio de Janeiro and Blindness [in] São Paulo, which hired around 250 local people each, ranging from art, costume, DP and other directors to chief operators, actors, stunts and support crew. Brazil’s crew base offers a high level of tolerance, loyalty and flexibility.”
Columbian Film Commission
Mexican Film Commission
Panama Film Commission
Rio de Janeiro Film Commission