The crew that landed on the beaches of Monu-riki to shoot the 2000 Tom Hanks hit Cast Away wasn’t the first to use Fiji’s dramatic landscapes as a film backdrop. The Blue Lagoon, originally shot in 1949, owns that claim to fame. But, the film’s Hollywood sized budget injected enough money into the local economy that the Fijian government took notice and then took action.
By 2002, the Fiji Audio Visual Commission (FAVC) had been formed and existing financial incentives (concessions for investors paying taxes in Fiji) were broadened to help lure productions both big and small. Most significantly, a tax rebate was introduced in 2003 that primarily targets small to mid-sized film and TV productions. In other words, documentaries.
With this latest incentive, producers can get a 15% rebate on local production expenditures provided they amount to 35% of the total budget. There are stipulations that dictate what constitutes a qualifying production expenditure in Fiji (QFPE), but the rules are far from draconian. For example, the labor cost of foreign crews qualify towards the rebate and a clause in the legal mumbo jumbo even helps producers reach the 35% cut off by allowing them to deduct the largest salary among the cast or crew from the total budget. To collect the rebate, producers simply file an income tax return and then wait for a check, which should arrive within 10 weeks.
‘The idea was to attract fully funded productions, not just those looking to raise financing,’ says Wayne Covell, the FAVC’s film commissioner, legal and marketing manager. ‘There’s a history of film in Fiji and the government saw what was happening in Australia and New Zealand.’
Although Fiji modeled its perks after those offered by its neighbors, its objectives are different. ‘Their policy is to attract big budget features, ours is to attract production,’ explains Covell. ‘Productions – be they documentaries, films or television series – use the same skills base. We see those skills as being very valuable.’ As a result, Fiji’s minimum QFPE is FJD$250,000 (US$140,000), and the maximum it will give back is $3.75 million ($2.1 million). Down Under, those figures are in the multi-millions. Says Covell, ‘Fiji’s GDP is about $3 billion. If the rebate was unlimited and we got a big budget production, it would put a lot of strain on the government.’
Mark Burnett’s Eco Challenge and MTV’s Road Rules both filmed in Fiji in 2003. Lori Hall of CSM Communications in L.A. shot the Kelly Slater Invitational there in May (a surf competition to benefit the United Nations Reef Check program), and is currently preparing to shoot three imax docs on the lush islands. One, Dinosaurs 3-D (w/t) is a dino flick that will feature about 18 minutes of CGI. The other two are Wave Hunters: The Science of Surfing (w/t) and The Official State Visit (w/t), which will have Fiji’s president take viewers on a tour of the country. All three are being produced by Survivor alum John Feist and Hall’s L.A.-based prodco Joint Adventure Films (JAF 70mm), in collaboration with Carl Samson of Sky High Entertainment in Quebec City, Canada.
‘There’s a group of professionals there that are used to working with production companies; they have that infrastructure,’ says Hall. She also estimates that the new rebate will save about 30% on the production budgets – a detail that influenced her location choice. But, she admits, it was the terrain that sealed the deal. ‘There are places that have the same look, but everything around you can kill you – there’s leeches that fall out of the trees, there’s poisonous snakeseverywhere…’ says Hall. ‘The beauty of Fiji is it’s amenable to filmmaking.’
That is exactly the message Covell is trying to spread, and with good reason. ‘Our commission did a study… that showed an economic multiplier of 2.6 to 2.8,’ he explains, meaning that each dollar spent on production is accompanied by about $2.60 spent on food, clothing, hotels, services and everything in between. ‘In the next three years, we want to be one of the top five industries in Fiji. In the next five years, we want to be in the top three. Those targets are very ambitious,’ admits Covell, ‘but so far we’re on course to do that.’ Look out sugar and tourism, here comes film.