Written by James Peak on Oct 1, 2009. Posted in Interviews

A year in Belize

Nigel Miguel, Belize’s dynamo of a Film Commissioner, is on a mission: to make Belize into the film capital of the Caribbean. And with terrain made famous by The Dogs of War, Heart of Darkness and The Mission at his disposal, this is no wild statement.

Belize is tucked into the Caribbean between the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the eastern border of Guatemala. It has huge topographical diversity, including the longest living barrier reef in the world, and a wide range of architectural styles from traditional Mayan Indian to colonial Spanish. The country now also has Nigel Miguel, and he is turning all of Belize’s natural advantages into an industry, just as he has done for himself in his life so far.

After a brilliant college basketball career at UCLA, Miguel went pro and was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 1985. He played with the likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan before an inoperable heel injury sidelined him early.

Nigel explains: “I always had a great passion for filmmaking. I had a following from basketball and people knew who I was, and then I was cast in the movie called Colors. The director Dennis Hopper is a huge basketball fan and he took me under his wing, showed me around, I got a chance to meet Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Damon Wayans, Don Cheadle, and develop relationships with these guys. That movie laid the groundwork for what I am doing now.”

Nigel followed up his success with a Hollywood career stretching 25 years, and featuring performances in American History X and Elizabethtown. He also co-starred in 1989’s The Air Up There. When off camera, Nigel has his own production company and has filmed over 200 commercials, and four features for the African and US markets. So when the National Institute of Culture and History (NICCH) of Belize needed to fill the shoes of legendary late Commissioner Emory King, they called Nigel, who could leverage his bulging contacts book and film business know-how to build a national industry that will punch far above it’s weight:

“What the country has done in giving me the job was to pass the torch to a new breed of Film Commissioner, someone who has industry connections and someone in the business of filmmaking. The current Prime Minister, Dean Barrow and The UDP government is very supportive of my efforts, as is the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Manual Heredia and The President of NICH, Diane Haylock who oversees our day to day operations. I feel in the next six to 12 months we will start to see the fruits of all our labour.”

A large part of this labour has been the development of incentives to encourage foreign productions. For films with a Belize budget of less than USD2 million the Government will negotiate a benefit package. But if the shoot budget is USD2 million or more, there’s a range of formal benefits available. Recces and scouting parties of up to three people, who subsequently shoot in Belize, get all costs of the scout trip back. Importation of all equipment and materials is tax-free, and there is no income tax on the salaries of all foreign employees. Work permits and social security benefits are not necessary, and permits are free except at the reef or Mayan ruins where some charges may apply to some productions.

Nigel is also hard at work on the film industry infrastructure:

“Our human resource is a big strength for us, both for casting and crew. Belize’s cultural diversity provides excellent, cost-effective casting opportunities. And crew-wise there is a small group of film industry folk that now make Belize their home, flying back and forth to do projects. We run training workshops throughout the year that train our local crew to the highest level. Suzette Zayden, who is the Film Commissioners Facilitator, runs most of these workshops. We are also investing to support companies that will help the industry grow. And I am working with international companies to establish outlets in the country. I have recruited a few alreadyand it's growing all the time.”

Nigel understands that foreign co-productions are the way forward. He will be encouraging the domestic players to look far afield to get their voices heard:

“The other major change is that Belize and Belizean filmmakers under my supervision will be pushing their films abroad a lot more and we plan to shoot at least one film project per year for international distribution. Our office is in the process of upgrading our equipment through private and personal investment. We’ve decided a post production facility, a sound studio, and all the rest of the associated equipment is worth the investment and we’re intending on creating a ‘go-to’ destination for post production, which will make big co-productions happen.”

Nigel is already seeing some success:

“We are currently in talks for a distribution deal with a US Cable Network for Belizean content, and this deal will allow us to promote Belizean Lifestyle & Culture to a whole new audience, weekly. Producers will ultimately pick Belize because here you can have a little bit of everything. Belize is film friendly and wants to attract production from all over the world. The interest has already been good.”

Belize is only two hours from Miami or Houston, with direct daily flights. The huge variety of locations within reach of each other is a massive plus for any prospective projects, so it’s worthwhile considering this under-used, up and coming location.

You can contact Nigel Miguel on (501) 822 3302 or here.

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