SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Halfway through Godfather II, a tense scene unfolds in which Michael Corleone watches from the back seat of a taxi as a rebel blows himself up on a street in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
By the time the scene was shot in the early 70s, Fidel Castro had already taken over the island; filming in Havana was impossible. Standing in for Havana: Santo Domingo.
In the more than four decades since, the Dominican Republic has played small parts in U.S. films, serving as the backdrop for scenes in Jurassic Park, The Good Shepherd and Miami Vice. But it never became the destination for filmmaking envisioned by the late Charles Bluhdorn, whose Paramount Studios produced the Godfather series.
That might be changing. The country, which last year appointed its first national film commission, is offering film companies major breaks in an attempt to lure productions. Makers of films, commercials and television shows who spend more than $500,000 can receive a tax credit worth as much as 25 percent of what they spent to film in the country. They are also exonerated from several taxes.
The country is heavily promoting itself in trade publications, such as the Cannes Film Festival producers guide, and touting the variety of its locations: from fine Caribbean beaches to mountains to colonial cities.
In trying to become a film mecca, however, the Dominican Republic faces stiff competition from within the United States and abroad. Since Canada became the first country to offer incentives two decades ago, 41 U.S. states — Florida among them — and dozens of international locations have offered their own packages, ranging from tax breaks and rebates to subsidies.
“The market keeps expanding, seeing more and more countries getting into the marketplace by offering incentives or credits,” said Benson Berro, a Los Angeles-based partner with consultancy KPMG LLP, which produces an annual taxation guide for the film and television industries.
In the Caribbean alone, locales including Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands offer some sort of financial incentives.
Millions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs are at stake. Puerto Rico said in the first year after introducing its incentive program, it attracted 30 productions that invested a total of $80 million. Even small-budget films spend upwards of $1 million, hiring locals, renting out locations and hotel rooms and keeping busy production services like caterers and dressing rooms.
“The incentives and credits provide a significant portion of the financing for motion picture or television production,” Berro, who advises California studios, said.
The Dominican Republic believes a $70 million film studio under construction, which will be managed by Pinewood Studios, the maker of the Harry Potter films, will set it apart. One portion of the studio, the world’s second-largest water tank, which can be used for underwater filming, opened this month.
“We think the studio makes the Dominican Republic a preferred destination in the Caribbean and region,” Ellis Pérez, the film commissioner, told the Miami Herald.
An average of four or five films per year would shoot in the country in the decade before it started offering incentives in 2011.
“Last year, we granted permission to 23 films … including four from outside the country,” he said. “In just the first three months of this year, we’ve granted 16 including two from outside the country.”
A Dark Truth, a thriller starring Andy Garcia, was the first film to qualify under the program: Producers received a credit worth $300,000 of the $1.2 million they spent filming here.
Ellis said two more major Hollywood productions are likely to film in the country over the next couple years, but he declined to name the films because the negotiations are ongoing.
“The tax incentive that states and countries offer play a big role in determining where a film will get made,” said Caleb Duffy, a California-based location manager who has helped scout locations for films such as Traffic, The Artist and Into the Wild.
“I am starting prep on a film that submitted for the California incentive, and we did not get picked in the lottery, so, although it is a story that is about California, it will be filming in New Mexico and Puerto Rico with only two of the 12 weeks here in L.A.,” Duffy said.
Tax incentives have become standard for countries across the globe. But Caribbean countries are competing for a limited pool of films that are seeking a tropical setting.
The producers of Home Again, which will be screened Saturday morning at this year’s American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach, chose to shoot the majority of their film in Trinidad and Tobago even though they were making a feature-length film about Jamaicans deported to their home country.
“We went to Jamaica and interviewed more than 40 deportees. And I was born in Jamaica. It seemed natural to film there,” said Jennifer Holness, the film’s co-writer and lead producer in a telephone interview from her Toronto office.
But over the next four years and numerous negotiations with government officials, Holness was facing a budget shortfall because she had not been offered a dime to film in Jamaica.
She turned to Trinidad, where the government is trying to cultivate a film industry. Under the country’s incentives, she received a $320,000 cash rebate on the $1.2 million she spent to film there.
Although the film crews had less experience than Jamaican crews, the country was more than willing to accommodate requests.
“It was challenging. Home Again was the biggest film ever shot in Trinidad. But the willingness to help [from the local cast and crew] more than offset the challenges,” Holness said. “The fact that I’m able to make a film and help people of color to learn the business and grow professionally is tremendously gratifying.”
Jamaica Film Commissioner Kim Marie Spence said while her nation’s history with the international film industry dates back to 1914, Jamaica isn’t in a position to offer rebate incentives due to the impact of the global recession and its own financial hard-times that recently forced it to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.
“The offering of cash rebates has not been an option for Jamaica. Trinidad is an oil and gas-exporter and is in a very different economic situation,” said Spence. “Nevertheless, Jamaica continues to host a number of film projects — including marquee television productions, such as America’s Next Top Model — due to the quality of its crew and locations.”
In addition, she said, Jamaica remains a cost-effective country to film and since January, has benefited from more than 30 international film projects.
The example of Home Again underscores how filmmakers can easily switch between locations and still create the look they want for a film.
“A lot of times the [decision is] between the states and a foreign jurisdiction,” Berro said. Instead of choosing between Caribbean countries, “it really may be between Puerto Rico and Florida. … They can make the film look the way they want it to look.”
That makes the size and ease of using the incentive package all the more important. Companies often sell the credit to local brokers and receive cash, film industry professionals said, meaning even foreign exchange rates are considered.
Despite the proliferation of countries offering tax incentives, Hollywood has favored Puerto Rico in recent years. Hits such as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Fast Five were filmed there, leading trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter last year to publish an article, “Why Hollywood Loves Puerto Rico.”
The film industry is so important to the government that after the Dominican Republic announced its incentives in early 2011, it made substantial changes to its own program. The film commission now offers a 40 percent tax credit on some productions to a maximum of $350 million a year (instead of $15 million a year previously).
The destination has advantages, such as the fact that it’s a U.S. territory, uses the dollar and has an abundance of English speakers.
“In some ways, it’s difficult to compete with them. ... The Dominican Republic has developed, but we’re often a stand-in for Cuba,” said Pérez, who was an extra in Godfather II. “The key to our next step is that the Dominican Republic has to start selling itself as its own destination.”
Miami Herald Caribbean Correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.