The much-heralded expansion of the Panama Canal reminded the world again of its host country’s unique position as a link between oceans and continents. That geographic exceptionality is also a major selling point for international film shoots looking for a Latin American location.
This tiny country is home to rainforests, jungles, villages and cities, with pristine beaches lining its coasts and many islands. It is possible to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific in an hour; and from Panama City to the Costa Rican border in around eight hours.
Thanks to a 2012 film law, Panama now offers financial incentives for foreign shoots, and Panama Film Commission helps with everything from permits and customs clearance to finding locations, hiring crews and renting equipment. The incentive is not as high as others in the region, such as Colombia’s 40% rebate, but Panama has other attractions: locations, size, safety and use of the US dollar, which allows US productions to skip currency exchanges.
Where Panama is still growing, in infrastructure and specialisation, the increase in demand from international shoots — from 2001’s The Tailor Of Panama to Sony’s Quantum Of Solace, and more recently with Benicio del Toro’s Escobar: Paradise Lost, Robert De Niro-starrer Hands Of Stone, Mark Wahlberg vehicle Contraband and indie horror Indigenous — is having a noticeable effect.
Panama City, home to just under half of the country’s less than 4 million inhabitants, is renowned as a safe place to shoot, even at night. The city inaugurated a new subway nearly two years ago, with further lines now being built.
“Shooting films there is a novelty,” says Indigenous director Alastair Orr, “so you’re able to gain access to pretty much any location you see.” This film-friendly environment can also make casting extras a relatively simple task.
Panama offers a 15% cash rebate for production costs incurred in the country. The full rebate can be escrowed up front with the bond company to cashflow the production, with a $3m minimum and $40m maximum spend and conditional approval based on an audit and certification of expenses by a locally based public accountant. Panama uses the US dollar.
Full details on financial incentives in Panama: Panama Film Commission
Infrastructure and crews
International crews must register with Panama Film Commission and pay $150 per-week-of-filming for services including a one-stop shop for permits, no taxes on bringing in registered equipment and assistance getting through customs by land or air. The number of local technicians and crews are increasing thanks to the growth of demand. There are no unions and English is spoken widely. Because the industry is small, producers recommend booking local crews early, and most international shoots bring in their own heads of department.
“Panamanians are very qualified to handle the majority of the small and mid-sized productions that come to Panama, but where high-end features are concerned, you do need department heads for their experience or ways of working,” says Alberto Serra, general manager of services and rental firm Windmill Productions. The situation is similar for equipment and gear rental, with several regional and international outfits opening up offices in Panama, including Windmill Productions, Congo Films and EFD (Equipment & Film Design).
The variety of locations is Panama’s prime attraction. “You could be in a five-star Hilton or a Trump Tower, but drive 35 minutes and you’re in the middle of a jungle,” says Maria Vergara, promoting investments at Panama Film Commission. “Drive an hour and you’re on beautiful, pristine beaches.”
Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport has direct flights to and from Los Angeles, Miami and points in Europe, and serves as a hub for the rest of Latin America. The city offers an unusual combination of a colonial Old Town just minutes away from a modern downtown crowded with skyscrapers.
Alastair Orr, director, Indigenous
“The pros are that you’re shooting in paradise, and the crews are willing to learn. Shooting films there is a novelty so you can gain access to pretty much any location you see. The downside for me was that the US dollar still makes things expensive, especially on a small film.”
Would he come back?
First person to call
Gabriel Padilla, international project manager
Tel: +507 560 0638
Need to know
- DO make friends with Panama Film Commission. “They are the secret weapon to shooting in Panama. They have all the hook-ups and contacts you would need, and are lovely, helpful people,” says film-maker Alastair Orr.
- DO contract a local fixer and be prepared for humidity: “The weather is very tedious,” says Ben Silverman of Fuego Films, which recreated New York City and New Orleans on Hands Of Stone. “It’s humid, it rains a lot, there’s bad traffic, and sometimes we encountered technical problems as a result.”
- DO take in local culture and the natural beauties, particularly the Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City and the Panama Canal.