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Oscar Contenders Saying Goodbye Hollywood, Hello Europe, Canada

None of this year's five nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award was shot within 2,000 miles of the show-business capital.

March 10, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Of the five films competing for the upcoming Best Picture Oscar, only one features scenes shot in Hollywood.

Not the Hollywood with a big white sign on the hill. The one in Florida.

In "The Hours," the segments in which Julianne Moore played a psychologically trapped housewife in Los Angeles circa 1951 were actually shot on the palm-lined streets of Broward County, north of Miami.

In fact, not a single frame of the five nominees was shot within 2,000 miles of the show-business capital. For that matter, not a full film's worth of scenes among them was shot in the United States.

On the whole, feature film production in Los Angeles has been picking up compared with unusually low levels earlier, when studios were burning off stockpiled projects that were shot in anticipation of labor strikes that never materialized. Figures from the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., which administers film permits in Los Angeles, show that shooting days outside of sound stages, a rough measure of activity, have been running nearly double the pace of a year earlier.

But high costs and other considerations mean more of the industry's top-quality pictures are being filmed elsewhere -- a reality underscored by the dearth of locally shot movies garnering an Oscar nod. Indeed, the last Best Picture nominee to have been filmed in Los Angeles was "Erin Brockovich," a 2000 release. And only two films among last year's honorees, "In the Bedroom" and the Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind," were shot in the United States.

"While these are high-quality films and Screen Actors Guild members appear in them, we certainly would like to see more of these being filmed on American soil," Pamm Fair, SAG's deputy national executive director, said of this year's nominees.

Paramount Pictures, which co-produced "The Hours" with Miramax Films, says it substituted Florida for Los Angeles for artistic reasons: The Sunshine State resembles Southern California of the early 1950s better than the real thing does.

Meanwhile, voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are expressing a clear preference for foreign-flavored fare such as "The English Patient," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Chocolat" over the kind of films Hollywood churns out, many of which target teenagers to reap the biggest possible box-office openings. The result is that foreign crews are increasingly responsible for high-profile, Oscar-nominated films.

Money often is also a huge factor in film flight -- and entertainment unions and motion picture officials see the lack of prestigious Oscar movies shot in Los Angeles and the nation as a stinging reminder of competition from abroad.

"The Academy and film-going public are embracing international cinema, which is good for cultural diversity," said Bryan Unger, Western executive director of the Directors Guild of America. But, he added, "It doesn't bode well that more and more of these pictures are shot outside of this country."

Among this year's nominees, "Chicago" bypassed the Windy City for Toronto, except for two days spent by a small crew getting shots of such landmarks as the "El" train and the Chicago Theater. Canada's cheap currency and government tax breaks helped keep the musical's elaborate production within a $45-million budget.

"We needed to prove a musical could be made at a cost, and not be perceived as the mega-expensive projects they are usually seen as," producer Neil Meron said.

The Canadian crews, Meron pointed out, were surrounded by scores of American actors, dancers and senior production workers.

Yet Illinois legislators are citing "Chicago's" runaway status in proposing a package of film production incentives. "It's not so much about bragging rights as about having 'Chicago' made in Chicago," said that city's film commissioner, Richard Moskal. "It's more to do with jobs."

Another nominee, "Gangs of New York," was shot in Italy instead of the Big Apple, except for some modern skyline scenes. By shooting in Rome, director Martin Scorsese found both the room and budget to build a square-mile-sized replica of 19th century New York.

"Cost is always an element," said Colin Vaines, executive vice president of European production for Miramax, which produced the epic.

Yet Vaines said money wasn't the overriding concern in the decision to build old New York abroad: The foreign location allowed Scorsese to work with revered Italian production designer Dante Ferretti on Ferretti's home turf, and fulfilled the director's yearning to shoot where his idol, the late Italian director Federico Fellini, once worked.

New Line Cinema's decision to locate Middle Earth in the New Zealand countryside for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" was helped along by a number of things. New Zealand is director Peter Jackson's home country. It also possesses the requisite pristine landscapes and special-effects experts.

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