From Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Gladiator (2000) and Captain Phillips (2013), Ouarzazate, Morocco has long been a go-to locale for Hollywood films requiring epic visual environments for their stories (just reading a list of past movies that were filmed there goes back all the way to 1897!).
In recent years, however, the Ouarzazate studio industry has significantly diminished—primarily as a result of the 2010 revolution in neighboring Tunisia. As the Arab Spring expanded over the next few years, so did insurance costs for on-location filming in the region. Hollywood studios, already hit by the slowing global economy, began to look elsewhere for similar surroundings with less risk and outlay, such as Spain and Israel.
This direction has affected not only the locals used to working as extras (usually on the side of their primary jobs in farming and wood/metal work) on sets, but also the random studios built for previous projects that now stand in virtual ruins. The Tifoutout Studio, pictured above, is a prime example of a typical abandoned Ouarzazate movie set. Now owned by a local tribe, it is still used by filmmakers who simply fix the parts of the set they need. The companies then pay the tribesmen 500-600 euros, most of which gets channeled towards building a mosque or fixing irrigation.
As the international economy gradually revives and Hollywood studios continue with their quest for striking blockbusters, we can probably expect to see more film projects reconsider Morocco. Ouarzazate locals are optimistic, noting that more films have been shot there last year than during the height of the Arab Spring. But the critical question for the Ouarzazate studio system’s future remains largely in the hands of the few big budget projects that will refuel this industry, rather than the prevalent yet smaller, state-funded films. With an illustrious backdrop like Ouarzazate, I certainly hope more movies look to Morocco for sets as well as inspiration.