Havana inches closer to Hollywood
Obama’s historic decision in April to begin a new era of diplomatic relations with Cuba 54 years after JFK slammed the door on the communist nation has been welcomed by industry insiders.
Six months down the line and the question on everyone’s lips is still “Will Hollywood embrace Cuba as a filming destination?”
Earlier this year, Bob Yari finished filming his Hemingway biopic Papa - the first Hollywood feature to be shot in Cuba since the 1960 embargo. Set against the turbulent Cuba of the 1950s it made full use of the little-seen historic architecture the island has to offer.
Another first was Discovery Channel’s Cuba Chrome, the first American TV show filmed entirely in Cuba, about the nation’s obsession with classic American cars.
However, both productions were exceptions with filming well underway before Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro announced relations were restored between the two countries.
“Americans have always been welcomed with open arms on the island,” says Michael Pacino, who runs Cuba Film Productions, a Havana-based production services company which serves as a liaison on most foreign productions. “Now, however, projects that ordinarily had a difficult time being authorised to film in Cuba, will find many of those hurdles removed.”
The change in policy will make things easier for US filmmakers wishing to make full use of Cuba’s pristine locations, good weather and highly-educated workforce. An increase in more documentaries is certain and Conan O’Brien’s recent jaunt to Cuba on his late-night TBS show is likely to be the first of many American TV episodes shot on the island.
Commercial production is expected to increase too, with US commercials joining the likes of Stella Artois, Nivea, Garnier and Lynx. However, the red tape and bureaucracy that still persist mean a major Hollywood feature might still be a distant prospect.
And even when that day arrives, the changes may not be as considerable as people think. “Unless, say, the island builds a Universal Studios backlot or the entire Cuban population becomes more bi-lingual, I don’t think things are going to change astronomically,” notes Pacino. “Cuba is just an island, so you can only expect so much from it.
“What can help the industry itself is for the general economy to see an upswing. That can only happen by the complete lifting of the US' embargo against Cuba.”
For now, 'el bloqueo', as it is referred to, lives on. After utilising the powers of executive action to ease travel restrictions, Obama can’t repeal the legislation enforcing the embargo without action by congress.
So, restrictions on banking and travel may thaw, but the embargo is still in place and with it significant obstacles in the form of permissions and licences.
Still, many see the move as a tentative first step towards bringing Cuba, and Cuban talent, back into the fold. The shift in policy will unquestionably see an increase in US productions using Cuba as a location, but more importantly, for Cuban filmmakers, it will increase access to cutting-edge technologies, from production equipment to crowd-sourcing on the internet. It will also encourage greater cultural exchange and cross-pollination between American filmmakers and their Cuban counterparts.
“When you bring a studio film to a small part of the world, it brings out everyone’s A-game,” Pacino states. “We want our industry to elevate itself to the level of the great film meccas around the world. That usually only comes from pushing the envelope, from working on bigger and better productions.”
Six months on, it still remains to be seen to what degree Hollywood will truly embrace President Obama’s new policy towards Cuba. Cuba is willing and ready for business. Hollywood seems keen, if cautiously so. The next six months will be pivotal.
To find out more about filming in Cuba, check out our Production Guide on the country here.