Written by James Peak on Jun 1, 2010. Posted in On Location

Filming on location in Cuba

The isolationist political regime of the last 50 years has made Cuba, the largest island of the Antilles, a timewarp of retro styling. As advertisers and filmmakers are finding, it’s also a cheap and efficient place to get your picture in the can.

When production company Sonny, through advertising agency Mother, needed to recreate the architecture, topography and reliably bright, clear sunshine of the French Riviera in the 60s for dynamic Stella Artois campaign Runaway Piano, they looked no further than Havana, Cuba.

Cuba has a tropical climate and a dry season that runs through the European winter from November to April, when the average temperature runs at 70 degrees. There are 330 days of sunshine per year, which makes the island popular with high-end advertisers who need reliable sun. Nivea, Garnier, Ambre Soliare and Lynx have all filmed campaigns in the last few years on the splendid array of tropical beaches. But the faded glory of colonial Havana can be spruced up in any number of ways.

Mike Barker of Shoot Cuba, who worked with Sonny, London, on the Stella Artois campaign, is clear about what he can do on the ground using Cuban infrastructure and resources: “It was tough ignoring all of our beautiful American classic cars from the 1950s and replacing them with European classics sourced from the island. Also challenging was reinforcing the shoot’s moving pianos so they could hurtle smoothly down the ‘French Riviera’ streets, but we did it.”

So, 60s French Riviera aside, what else can Cuba double for? Mike explains: “We can do history from the 16th Century until the first half of the 20th Century. We can stand in for many cities like New York, Paris and Rome. We can also recreate Latin American cities.”

One of the best-connected production companies in Cuba is Bay Vista Productions, who have worked on over 50 foreign commercials, music videos and corporates in the last five years. Antoine Sabarros comments:

“Cuba has a long-established film industry dating from the 1920s, with a core infrastructure of experienced and professional crews and a large studio complex.”

According to Bay Vista Productions, Cuba now has the very latest camera, lighting and grip equipment thanks to a co-operation agreement with a German-owned rental company, Sunset Vision, which has recently established a subsidiary in Havana.

Bay Vista also points to good access to actors and says casting facilities are excellent:

“Cuba has a highly developed artistic world, with an impressive state-run infrastructure dedicated to the arts. As well as actors from the domestic film and television industries there exists an abundance of talents through the different theatrical and dance organisations, as well as numerous first-class musicians.”

Asked whether these are busy times for film, TV and commercial production in the region, Michael Pacino, Executive Producer at Cuba Film Productions, responds: “Filming in Cuba continues at a steady pace, although the economy and tourism in Cuba is down, as it is in most parts of the world.” He adds that while fluctuations in international currency markets have caused problems for the wider film industry recently, Cuba’s competitive labour market and fees have meant the Cuban film industry as a whole has benefited from this volatile financial state of affairs.

Michael suggests that the health of the commercial industry owes much to pricing factors and also emphasises the inherent cultural advantages. He goes on to explain: “There are other countries that may offer more varieties of backdrops than Cuba does, but none can match nor mimic the unique cultural and historic landscape of Cuba. Therefore, for the appropriate project or the appropriate type of product, productions seeking "authenticity" or "the real deal" generally opt to shoot in Cuba.”

As far as financial incentives are concerned, Michael points out that Cuba’s major financial advantage lies again in its competitive rates and fees. He observes: “Cuba's standard labour rates and location fees fall way below world market pricing, which equates to an intrinsic filming incentive equal to or greater than any tax incentive programme offered globally. Dollars for dollar, tax incentive or not, filming in Cuba is less expensive than in any industrial society in the world.”

There is some consensus that, as long as a socialist economy exists in Cuba, foreign filming costs will be offset through the infrastructure set in place on the island:

“Other countries offer incentives through tax treaties, corporate tax incentive programmes, etc. Cuba offers incentives through their pricing structure of labour and location costs,” asserts Michael.

He cites the example of a Steadicam operator who, with gear, may cost over USD1,000 daily in other regions around the world. “A Steadicam operator with gear in Cuba, however, will not cost over USD500. That's a 50% saving. The same is true across the board when filming in Cuba.”

Given that Cuba is a socialist state, there are no unions for actors and extras, and canny producers can find they save a fortune on production day rates. Cuba supports a diverse yet integrated population of 11 million, from Africa, Europe, and Asia. As a low-cost location which also boasts a diversity of people and scenery, this is not a region which can be ignored. As Antoine at Bay Vista asserts:

“Cuba has a unique atmosphere with many new different types of locations on offer. All this combined with favourable rates means that Cuba can provide unbeatable production value for your budget."

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