Morocco’s widescreen desert

OUARZAZATE, Morocco — Chances are you’ve unwittingly seen this region’s wild vistas in any number of movies. Among other locales, the desert was billed as Iraq in “Body of Lies,” dressed up as Jerusalem in “Kingdom of Heaven” and transformed into ancient Egypt in “The Mummy Returns.”

An array of ready-built sets, cheap labor and stunning landscapes has helped turn this sleepy provincial capital into a Third World Hollywood.

Production remnants abound, from concrete castles and plaster villages, to an American gas station falling to pieces beside a two-lane road. Featured in the horror film “The Hills Have Eyes,” its English sign offers non-existent beer to the Muslim drivers passing by.

But veterans of the country’s film trade say they wish more of their studios were in use this year. The global downturn has caused several big films to cancel or push back start dates, delaying cash upon which a growing population of technicians, actors and extras have come to depend.

“It’s a very very important industry for Ouarzazate,” said Aimad Qaddi, 28, an aspiring actor and sometime extra who pays the bills by giving tours of movie sets at Atlas Studios outside town. “People have nothing to do here. Just the cinema.”

Filmmakers come for the scenery and generous tax incentives offered by the Moroccan government. Locals move here hoping to make it in the movies.

Mustapha Rachidi, 42, came from Fez 20 years ago and has had better fortune than many. He’s painted sets and labored as an extra in a few dozen flicks, from “Kingdom of Heaven” to the “Legionaire.” You might even recognize him: Rachidi played the father of the Moroccan boy who shot the female star, Cate Blanchette, in the 2006 film “Babel.” Since that film wrapped, Rachidi said jobs that good have been hard to find.

“There isn’t much work, all this year and last year there hasn’t been,” he said. “I hope it’ll be better next year.”

Moroccan studio managers say this year is a lean one. Atlas and CLA Studios, whose sets have graced dozens of foreign movies, has seen a $300,000 drop in revenues this year — down 40 percent from 2008 — general manager Amine Tazi said.

“We’re hoping we can do better,” he said. “The projects are just postponed, they’re not shut down.”

But less money for studios can have a ripple effect elsewhere. “The movie industry touches a lot of other areas besides the studios,” Tazi said. “It touches handcrafts, construction, other costumes and things are used … I mean it’s not just one thing.”

Officials with the Moroccan Film Center, the branch of government that regulates the movie business, said Morocco is weathering the downturn successfully even as they acknowledge its effect.

“We feel it, clearly, because the crisis has hit quite hard,” said Nour Eddine Sail, the Film Center’s director, who said this year saw the cancellation of several major films slated for production here.

Last year, Sail said foreign productions brought more than $100 million into Morocco — thanks largely to the mega-budget Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle “Prince of Persia,” set to debut in 2010.

In normal years, Sail said foreign productions spend between $50 million and $70 million in Morocco. This year’s revenues have been on the low side, he said, but they aren’t expected to dip below $50 million.

Executive Amine Tazi says he has faith his studios will be able to attract more productions next year. “We have great locations that aren’t expensive. We have a great crew that is not expensive,” he said. “Because everything comes back to money.”