Greece hopes to woo back US moviemakers

Dimitris Avramopoulos wants a role in Hollywood. On a trip to Los Angeles this year, the Greek Tourism Minister kept the plot simple: We help you make movies, you help make Greece a hot vacation spot. «We need to show the world we’re open for business,» Avramopoulos said. «There has never been an organized effort to bring movies here. That has to change.» Greece is a member of the expensive eurozone and has a bloated bureaucracy that’s not always easy to work with. But the government hopes tax breaks for film projects and picture-perfect settings will help lure Hollywood productions. The cinematic jury’s still out, but officials here were buoyed by a modest movie project on a Greek island this summer. «It’s beautiful, people are warm,» said Andre Djaoui, producer of «O Jerusalem,» a 15-million-euro ($17.8 million) movie about the Arab-Israeli conflict, being shot on Rhodes. Avramopoulos called the venture a «very encouraging sign.» The movie stars British actor Ian Holm as Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion and was filmed in Rhodes because the medieval-walled holiday island in the eastern Aegean «looks like Jerusalem,» Djaoui said. Tourism – one of Greece’s main money earners – generates 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Tourism Ministry. And this year, Greece is spending a record 60 million euros ($71 million) in a bid to boost tourist arrivals by 7 percent from last year. Attracting Hollywood is part of that drive. But Greece’s main challenge has been to regularly lure film crews here, rather than hosting the occasional big hit, like the scene in the 2003 sequel to the «Lara Croft Tomb Raider» action movie in which Angelina Jolie jet-skied off Santorini. Three years earlier, «Captain Corelli’s Mandolin» starred Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage on Cephalonia. Moviegoers also got a quick glimpse of Matt Damon on Myconos, the lively holiday island, in the closing scene of «The Bourne Identity» in 2002. Avramopoulos is looking for a return to Greece’s late-1950s and 1960s cinematic heyday, started off by the 1957 «Boy on a Dolphin,» starring Sophia Loren as a spirited Greek sponge diver who discovers ancient treasures. That movie was followed by the 1961 «The Guns of Navarone,» shot on Rhodes, «Zorba the Greek,» filmed on Crete in 1964, and «Topkapi,» shot in 1964 on the mainland in Kavala, northern Greece. Aristidis Kalogeropoulos, the head of Greece’s National Tourism Organization, said a dedicated film commission, empowered to bypass bureaucracy, will be created later this year. He added that the state would offer tax breaks, help from the armed forces and other perks to attract productions here. «Many other countries offer incentives. We must do the same,» Kalogeropoulos said. Nico Mastorakis, a veteran film and TV producer, who has worked in the United States, is advising the government. «Greece needs to end this silence of 10 or so years that existed between the film community in Hollywood and this country, and all the problems that really isolated Greece,» Mastorakis said. He cited poor coordination between Greek agencies responsible for granting filming permission as the main obstacle, along with equipment problems and the lack of financial incentives for shooting in Greece. The big studios passed on Greece as an option when making ancient epics «Troy» in Malta and Mexico and «Alexander» in Morocco, both released last year. That, say Greek tourism officials, shouldn’t happen again under the new package of tax incentives and organizational changes, which the Tourism Ministry hopes will become law this year. «We have wonderful locations and great lighting which fascinates most of the lighting directors that I’ve known,» Mastorakis said. «We need to re-ignite our love affair with Hollywood.»

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