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.”