Dominican Republic dreams of becoming Caribbean Hollywood
By Ezequiel Abieu López
SANTO DOMINGO — In the opening scenes of the latest Vin Diesel action movie, troops in the Dominican Republic chase the hero through a rainforest and down a twisty mountain road. But in real life, the government is doing all it can to welcome the Hollywood star — or anyone else who wants to produce a film in this Caribbean country.
The filming here of some scenes from “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is a sign of progress in efforts to persuade the film industry to use the Dominican Republic’s lush mountains, white-sand beaches and colonial architecture as a backdrop.
“Now, we are on the map,” said Yvette Marichal, director of a government agency created in 2010 to woo film production companies to the country and to regulate their activities here.
Marichal spoke in a recent interview after returning from the Cannes Film Festival, where her agency had a pavilion promoting the country’s varied landscape along with tax breaks and other incentives to lure companies from other destinations, including other parts of the Caribbean or the U.S.
Besides the Vin Diesel action flick, which grossed more than $300 million at the box office this year, the country’s film credits have grown to include last year’s Netflix production “True Memoirs of an International Assassin,” as well as “47 Meters Down,” which stars Mandy Moore and opens in the U.S. on Friday.
There are small-screen offerings as well, including the Turkish version of the competition series “Survivor,” which moved from the Philippines to the Dominican Republic’s Samana area in the north, as well as the Greek version of the same program, which is moving from Argentina’s Patagonian region, and a Swedish production of “The Bachelor.”
All or part of 45 foreign productions, including full-length movies, documentaries and reality TV shows, were filmed here last year. There were another 20 full-length movies for the domestic market, compared to three in 2010.
In the past, the country played host to some notable films. Parts of “Apocalypse Now” were filmed here as were scenes in “Godfather II” representing Cuba. In the 2006 movie adaptation of “Miami Vice,” the Dominican Republic stood in for Haiti, the other country occupying the island of Hispaniola. Those occasional productions inspired former President Leonel Fernandez, who was looking for ways to diversify the economy and bring jobs to the country of more than 10 million.
“That bit of investment in the Dominican Republic without any type of incentives motivated the president,” said Omar de la Cruz, who served on an advisory board that helped launch a more concerted effort to attract the film industry.
In 2010, the government established tax credits for productions costing at least $500,000 and exemptions on such things as import duties for audiovisual equipment. The movie “A Dark Truth,” starring Andy Garcia, was the first to take advantage of the new law in 2011.
In addition to the incentives and marketing, universities in the Dominican Republic began offering courses to provide the technical skills that production companies could use to find the local production and technical workers they are required to hire under the law. In 2013, the prominent Vicini family opened Lantica Media, which operates what it describes as the Caribbean’s most modern studio and sound stage facilities in a partnership with Britain’s Pinewood Studios.
Among the movies that Lantica Media worked on is “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” which required hiring 300 local people with technical skills, providing valuable experience for them to work in future major productions, said Rafael Nunez, a production director at the company’s location in San Pedro de Macoris on the southern coast. The facilities were also used in “47 Meters Down” and “True Memoirs of an International Assassin.”
Marichal credits some of the success to the country’s varied landscape. “It is incredible how we have almost all ecosystems on this little island,” she said. “The only thing we lack is snow but for that we have studios.”
The benefits are difficult to measure, but Marichal’s office says that film production in 2016 injected nearly $87 million into the economy and created 4,000 direct jobs. Most lucrative for the country are the long-running reality TV series, which bring crews staying six months or more at a time. There is also the benefit of promoting the country, already among the Caribbean’s top tourist destinations.
“It encourages me to see how much the Dominican Republic has achieved in so little time,” Marichal said.